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Wednesday, February 21, 2024

New minister takes over in a storm

Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre appointed a new government minister on Tuesday who arguably should have been put in charge of research and higher education when Støre first formed his new government back in 2021. That could have spared Støre and his government partner, the Center Party, shame and embarrassment, especially since Støre faces even more of both in a new controversy over his ailing health minister Ingvild Kjerkol.

Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre (right) posed outside the Royal Palace in Oslo Tuesday with his new government minister in charge of research and higher education, Oddmund Hoel. PHOTO: Statsministerens kontor/Ingrid Brandal Myklebust

It’s been another rough couple of days for Støre, who was trying to help rebuild Norwegian defense forces in Northern Norway just before the weekend when he got word that another member of his troubled government had to resign: The Center Party’s Sandra Borch, who took over as higher education minister just last August, was charged with plagiarism involving her own master’s degree thesis and opted to immediately step down. She in turn had replaced another Center Party colleague, Ola Borten Moe, when he had to quit after being caught in conflicts of interest.

Now Norway is finally getting a researcher, professor and author who’d served as state secretary for both Borch and Moe as the country’s new minister in charge of higher education and research. Oddmund Løkensgard Hoel is taking over for Borch with all the credentials both she and Moe lacked. He’s a professor of history with a doctorate from one of Norway’s most prestigious universities, NTNU in Trondheim. He also holds degrees in Nordic languages and literature from the University of Oslo, has served as editor at the academic publishing firm Det Norske Samlaget and hasn’t been a career politician although he got involved in the Center Party at the local level in 2003.

As state secretary in the education ministry, he’s highly familiar with current issues and has what Støre called “solid background” in many arenas. Støre said he was “well-liked” but made a point of stressing that Hoel is also “respected.” That will be a huge advantage as he works with a variety of important issues in the academic arena, including calls for national standards for theses. When Borch handed him flowers before leaving her office that will now be his, she also called him “the right man in the right place.” Then she left without answering any questions tied to her own resignation on Friday.

Hoel could also tell reporters that he’s “quite certain” he isn’t guilty of any plagiarism himself, and he’s not expected to cause more problems for Støre like Moe, Borch and Støre’s own Labour Party colleague Ingvild Kjerkol have, along with several other ministers who’ve had to leave Støre’s government under a cloud. As Støre solved the Borch problem he still faces controversy swirling around other plagiarism charges against Health Minister Kjerkol.

Ingvild Kjerkol has been a career politician for Støre’s Labour Party and became his health minister in 2021, just a few weeks after delivering her now-disputed master’s degree thesis. PHOTO: Arbeiderpartiet

She continued to deny any guilt this week, after newspaper VG, state broadcaster NRK and other media reported suspicious similarities between text in her master’s degree thesis in 2021 and earlier theses. A long string of professors at various universities around Norway claim “there’s no doubt” she copied text from others’ work and inserted it into her own. Another academic critic emerged on Tuesday, when Professor Gisle Selnes at the University of Bergen accused Kjerkol of “lying” about her thesis preparations: “Her explanation doesn’t hang together,” Selnes told newspaper Dagsavisen. “Kjerkol was lying during a live broadcast (on NRK Saturday evening). It’s hard and brutal to say that, but it’s what she did.”

Støre, however, has opted against calling for Kjerkol’s resignation pending a review of her work by the university that granted her degree, Nord in Levanger. That’s put pressure on Nord, which complained that Støre has put them in a difficult position. Støre claims Kjerkol, like all students, has a right to such a review and to defend herself.

He admitted at a press conference on Tuesday that he gladly would have avoided more serious personnel problems within his government, which has suffered alarming scandals and turnover in its first two years. He also said he understands that university students all over Norway are concerned about the turmoil and that it can affect public confidence his government. Kjerkol, however, has been allowed to keep her ministerial post until a new academic evaluation of her master’s degree work is concluded, a process that can take several weeks.

NewsinEnglish.no/Nina Berglund

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