When the University of Oslo’s new rector, Svein Stølen, welcomed students at the start of the new academic year last week, among the advice he offered them was a suggestion to “be nice” to one another. That pretty much sums up the approach Stølen is taking after being named to lead Norway’s largest institution of higher learning with nearly 30,000 students and 7,000 employees.
“For me, that’s just natural, and being nice applies during your whole life,” Stølen told newspaper Dagsavisen after Stølen officially greeted, for the first time, those who assembled for opening ceremonies at the University of Oslo (UiO). “I think you come a lot farther as a person if you’re nice. That’s what society needs to develop correctly. It’s an important value for UiO, and that everyone is equal regardless of their background.”
The 57-year-old professor of inorganic chemistry was chosen to lead UiO over a field of other highly acclaimed academic colleagues, some of them better known to the public at large. Stølen, originally from Fredrikstad, was thrilled he “won the election,” and says he wants to be a rector who’s not only nice and inclusive. He also wants to promote UiO’s important role in Oslo, within Norway and make its base of knowledge and expertise more publicly available. “That’s more important than ever, in a world that’s challenged by alternative facts and fake news,” he told newspaper Aftenposten. “We can be a counterweight to oversimplification … knowledge is the foundation of our liberal democracy.”
Fan of Japan
Stølen, who headed UiO’s Department of Chemistry and its Centre for Materials Science and Nanotechnology, told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) during his recent string of media interviews that he wants UiO to be a “gravitational force” in Oslo “but also for the rest of the world.” And he’s clear that “the most important thing we produce is our students. They’re who’ll shape Norway’s future.”
Stølen is married, the father of three grown children himself and lives in the Røa district of Oslo. He’s active in track and field sports and one of his sons is a promising sprinter. He says he’s especially fond of Russian classical music and Japan, where he spent two years doing research in Nagoya and often travels.
He began his studies of physics, mathematics and chemistry at UiO himself. After receiving his PhD he had his first post-doctoral stay in Japan and also studied the country’s language and culture. “I became independent there,” he told UiO’s news service Titan.uio.no. “I had to find out about things myself, and that was healthy.”
‘See the world…’
After another 14 days in Japan just before launching into his new job, Stølen said he was more than ready for the school year to start: to working with people and “making conditions the best possible for all our professionals and everyone around them.” His enthusiasm for his new job, after years of research and teaching, is strong, and he’s also keen to keep students from dropping out of their studies along the way.
“The students we educate shall succeed, and therefore we need to offer a secure and good milieu,” he told DN. “Secure students learn better. The first-year students are central to our success. Too many drop out. It can be tough to be a new student in a new city.”
He also urged students in his welcoming remarks to be curious, ambitious and to travel, noting that UiO has “agreements with good universities in nearly all parts of the world. See the world, see something else than what you’ve seen before. New perspectives and new acquaintances will change you, forever.”
But then he wants the students come back to Oslo and get their degrees. “The world needs you,” he concluded.