Marte Gerhardsen is not off to the best start as the new director of education for the City and County of Oslo. The Labour Party-led city government is hiring the granddaughter of the late Labour boss and postwar prime minister Einar Gerhardsen, and that’s led to charges of political favouritism.
Gerhardsen herself had also asked that her name be withheld as a candidate for the post, raising suspicions over secrecy. It wasn’t until newspaper Dagsavisen revealed she was the city government’s top choice that her candidacy became known, prompting another leading contender to withdraw.
Critics note that Gerhardsen, age 46, has no professional background in the field of education. She has spent the past several months leading a division of the state health directorate, in charge of analysis and social function. Before that she headed the Labour Party-financed think tank Agenda since its founding in 2014.
After graduating from the London School of Economics, she started her career in Norway’s foreign ministry before becoming secretary general of the foreign aid organization CARE Norge. After two years at CARE, she became a division director of Norway’s largest bank, DNB, led by former Labour Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg’s best man and Labour Party politician Rune Bjerke, until taking over Agenda, when its former leader and Labour Party politician Geir Lippestad joined Oslo’s city government.
Gerhardsen is also the daughter of career Labour politicians Rune Gerhardsen, a longtime city council member, and Tove Strand, who served as a minister in two of Gro Harlem Brundtland’s Labour Party governments. Her sister Mina has also served as a state secretary in the Stoltenberg government, working in the Office of the Prime Minister, and last month was named secretary general of Norway’s national association for public health.
Her politially connected family and lack of leadership in the field of education set off immediate claims that she only got the job because of her Labour Party background and high-level connections. No so, retorts the head of Oslo’s Labour-led government Raymond Johansen, who claims he was “shocked” that Eirik Lae Solberg of the Conservative Party called Gerhardsen’s hiring “a pure party appointment” that hearkens back to “an earlier time when party favourtism flourished.” Solberg told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) this week that he otherwise could not understand how Johansen’s city government could have hired someone “who has no professional educator’s background or leadership in the field.”
Johansen called Solberg’s characterization unfair and not worthy of someone running to take over his job in the upcoming fall election. “Marte Gerhardsen has a long career behind her of leadership positions in various areas of society,” Johansen said. “She’s been through a thorough recruiting and evaluation process … and I accept their recommendation.”
Solberg isn’t convinced, especially after the longtime director of the national agency for quality in education (NOKUT), Terje Mørland, withdrew his candidacy when he realized Gerhardsen was favoured. “I wish her good luck win an important job,” he told DN.
Nor is Elin Ørjasæter, a former headhunter, editor of the labour journal Arbeidsnytt and assistant professor at Kristiania College in Oslo. She claimed the city has hired a director of education who “doesn’t have the CV for the job.”
Gerhardsen will be in charge of one of Norway’s largest public agencies with 15,000 employees and 90,000 students in the Oslo public schools. The director of the liberal think tank Civita, Kristin Clemet, also has qualms: “I hope someone asks her what’s the meaning of a good education.”
Objections to ‘motives we don’t have’
By mid-week, the criticism had grown so loud that the city’s political leader of education, Inga Marte Thorkildsen of the Socialist Left party (SV), had enough. She lashed out at all those criticizing Gerhardsen, who has mostly remained mum. Thorkildsen claimed that all the teachers’ and administrators’ unions had accepted Gerhardsen’s appointment and looked forward to cooperating with her.
“It’s fine to raise control questions, but don’t lay motives on us that we don’t have,” Thorkildsen told Dagsavisen on Thursday. “When political opponents and Ørjaseæter are so bombastic and think I’m the one who has found someone best suited for the city’s project, that’s going too far.”
Thorkildsen firmly denies that Labour “set this up to get one of their people centrally placed” in the capital’s education system. Gerhardsen will replace the highly controversial Astrid Søgnen who also had been a Labour politician but was appointed by a Conservatives-led city government. Johansen forced her resignation last year amidst internal uproar in the education department and a conflict between Søgnen and Thorkildsen.
Now Gerhardsen will report to Thorkildsen, who needs to reassert stability and her own authority. “Marte comes to us with a health perspective that’s spot on given new teaching plans that focus on public health and mastering life’s challenges,” Thorkildsen told Dagsavisen. That may come in handy indeed.