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Monday, July 15, 2024

Ministers in trouble ‘get off easy’

Two of Norway’s government ministers who’ve recently been replaced have avoided punishment and even been rewarded with an ambassador post. Former Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt was confirmed on Friday as Norway’s new ambassador to the US, while the former minister in charge of higher education, Sandra Borch, was found guilty of plagiarizing her own master’s thesis but faces no legal charges.

Labour Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre has had to replace nearly half his cabinet after various government ministers ran into trouble over conflicts of interest or other offenses. Sandra Borch (front row, second from left) quickly resigned in January when questions of plagiarism arose around her master’s thesis, while Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt (standing behind Borch) landed in conflicts of interest over her husband’s stock trading. Støre replaced her last fall, but then cleared the way for her to become Norway’s ambassador to the USA. Støre’s government as of October 2023 is shown here during ceremonies tied to the opening of the current session of Parliament. Standing to the right of the photo are various ambassadors to Norway, including former US Ambassador Marc Nathanson. He left Oslo last month and the US Embassy in Oslo is currently led by a career diplomat and Chargé d’Affaires, Sharon Hudson-Dean. PHOTO: Stortinget/Hans Kristian Thorbjørnsen

I’ve never heard of a student who’s been treated so easily as Sandra Borch in this case of cheating,” Magnus Stray Vyrje told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). Vyrje is the lawyer for another student whom Borch herself had taken to court for alleged plagiarism to stress the importance of battling it while she was politically in charge of higher education in Norway.

Vyrje’s comments came after news broke Thursday that Borch’s master’s thesis, delivered and accepted in 2014, has been annulled by the University of Tromsø because she’d copied and pasted roughly 20 percent of its content from other sources without attribution. Borch also was stripped of her title as jurist (lawyer), but no legal charges have been filed against her and she’ll be allowed to write another master’s thesis if she wants to try again to attain a master’s degree.

“Getting your master’s thesis annulled is no legal punishment,” Vyrje told NRK. His own client, who’d included text from one of her own earlier reports in her thesis and was charged with plagiarizing herself, had been banned from all universities and colleges in Norway for a year but was later acquitted by an appeals court that also ruled the ban invalid. Borch’s ministry for higher education then took the case to the Supreme Court, with Borch herself claiming as late as January 12 this year that “we’re appealing (the student’s acquittal) in order to clarify important legal questions.”

Sandra Borch of the Center Party, when she was first appointed as agriculture minister in the new Labour-Center government in 2021. She was moved last year to the ministry in charge of research and higher education to replace party colleague Ola Borten Moe when he resigned after getting caught in a conflict of interest. PHOTO: Arbeiderpartiet

When Borch was shown just a week later to also have copied and pasted text into her own master’s thesis without attributing it to others, she quickly resigned her ministerial post and refused to answer questions. She denied any intentional plagiarism, blaming her offenses purely on slurv (carelessness). Last week she granted a live interview to NRK and denied she’d willingly cheated on her master’s degree. In a press release Friday from her Center Party’s delegation in Parliament, she admitted only to negligence.

A review of her work by the University of Tromsø found, however, that she had indeed “fusket” (cheated) and that her master’s degree would be annulert (rendered void and be withdrawn). She was not banned for two semesters as is standard, though, “since it’s nearly 10 years since her exam.” She’d already received a poor grade for her thesis (D) and now has no master’s degree but is free to pursue one again.

“I have made mistakes and been careless and am of course taking the consequences for that,” the 35-year-old Borch stated in her party’s press release. She accepted that her master’s thesis had been rendered null and void and said she will not appeal the university’s decision.

“I am motivated to write a new master’s thesis and will try to find time for that,” wrote Borch, who continues to hold a seat in Parliament and on its justice committee. “Beyond that I view this case as closed for my part, and I will now focus on working with important political issues on the justice committee and as a Member of Parliament representing Troms.”

She believes she has “taken responsibility” for her mistakes by resigning as minister, the latest political resignation tied to scandal in Norway. Center Party leader Trygve Slagsvold Vedum, who also serves as Norway’s finance minister, told TV2 on Thursday that he thinks Borch’s problem was between her and the university, “and Sandra answered well for that.” Prime Minister Støre also said plagiarism cases are “an issue between the educational institution and those involved.” He’s still waiting for a similar assessment from Nord University of another case of alleged plagiarism by his health minister, Ingvild Kjerkol  that may affect her position as well.

Questions of preferential treatment and credibility
Vyrje, the lawyer for the student who’s been punished much harder than Borch, remains critical of Borch’s case. Even such negligence would normally trigger expulsion for at least one semester, he told NRK, and that’s what Borch’s former ministry still wants the Supreme Court to confirm. “Borch nonetheless is not expelled, and can deliver a new master’s thesis as soon as she’s finished,” Vyrje said. “I think that’s surprising. When all other students caught cheating have to wait six to 12 months before they can present a new thesis, I’m surprised Borch is getting off completely free from punishment. Borch should be banned, at least for a short period.”

Other students, meanwhile, have been following the case closely. Many think it’s “sad” for the university and worry that Borch’s case can send signals that aren’t necessarily good. “I think it’s good that (her thesis) was annulled,” student Jacob Gregersen told NRK. “I don’t think anyone should get around the system, even if you’ve been a minister or politician. There’s been a lot of talk about this at the libraries and outside school.” Other students, including Marte Øines Strøm, were also surprised that Borch wasn’t banned for a semester or two: “I think that should apply to her, too.”

Borch’s replacement as higher education minister, Oddmund Hoel of the Center Party, is already working on new legislation that would sharpen punishment for academic cheating by law. “We need to make sure that confidence in papers from Norwegian universities and colleges doesn’t crumble,” Hoel told newspaper Klassekampen. Students may soon be subject to expulsion for up to two years in serious cases of cheating or “improper” academic conduct.

In November, former Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt was among those called in to answer questions from the Parliament’s disciplinary committee, which has probed conflicts of interest around top politicians in the past year. She lost her cabinet post and was recently scolded by the committee but has since bounced back and will soon be heading to Washington DC as Norway’s new ambassador to the US. PHOTO: Stortinget/Peter Mydske

Meanwhile, in another case involving the fate of Støre’s ministers in trouble, his former foreign minister Anniken Huitfeldt of the Labour Party was, as expected, officially appointed Norway’s new ambassador to the US on Friday, just months after she’d landed in conflicts of interest regarding her husband’s stock trading. That damaged her impartiality, especially when he’s invested in state-owned companies and several that do business with the government.

Huitfeldt refused to resign her post, claiming only that she should have asked more questions at home and made certain her spouse understood potential conflicts. Several weeks later, though, Støre replaced her as foreign minister and Labour’s Espen Barth Eide took over the important post.

Huitfeldt, along with several other ministers who landed in trouble, were all grilled in Parliament and her pending appointment surprised many. Career diplomats at the foreign ministry were reportedly unhappy that such a top ambassadorial post went to a politician, perhaps as a consolation prize of sorts after being replaced as foreign minister. Huitfeldt kept mum about it herself, refusing to comment also as opposition politicians criticized the choice.

“In the space of a just a few months, Anniken Huitfeldt has gone from having lost the confidence of the prime minister (because he felt compelled to replace her) to winning one of the prestigious jobs in the Norwegian foreign service,” said Progress Party leader Sylvi Listhaug on Friday. She thinks the appointment of Huitfeldt as US ambassador can further harm confidence in Norwegian politicians: “It’s clear that Labour is behind this, since party background is more important than qualifications.”

Ingrid Fiskaa of the Socialist Left Party (SV) unusually agreed with the conservative Listhaug, complaining that “important positions are being dealt out to powerful people” within the government parties. Others complained that professional diplomacy was being set aside in favour of politics, and worried that a recently scolded politician may lack credibility in Washington.

Anniken Huitfeldt has already met with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken several times, both in Norway and abroad, like here in Washington in October 2022. PHOTO: Utenriksdepartementet/Ragnhild H Simenstad

Eide retorted that Huitfeldt has lots of experience in foreign policy after two years as foreign minister and eight years as leader the Parliament’s foreign relations and defense committee. “She’s been as the top of Norwegian foreign policy,” Eide said, and both he and Støre think that will be respected in Washington.

“The government’s role is to find the best candidates and sometimes they come from the inside,” he added. “We believe that in today’s situation, Huitfeldt is the right person for the job.” Since she’s been a foreign minister, he hopes, Huitfeldt may gain access that traditional diplomats might not.

The Conservatives’ former prime minister Erna Solberg, who’s landed in lots of trouble herself over the past few months, said that in the end, it’s up to the government in power to appoint ambassadors it feels are best qualified. “I wish Anniken Huitfeldt good luck in a new role,” Solberg said.

NewsinEnglish.no/Nina Berglund

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