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OsloMet’s Rector Curt Rice wants to shake up academia

OsloMet’s Rector Curt Rice wants to shake up academia

| Text and photo: Berit Kvam

Oslo has a new university, the third largest in Norway. OsloMet – Oslo Metropolitan University, will educate the future labour force across a range of professions. If Rector gets his way, gender equality will permeate everything. Digitalisation will be a top priority and programmes will be developed at the intersection of research, teaching and practice.

The choice of name OsloMet – Oslo Metropolitan University, in Norwegian OsloMet – storbyuniversitetet, is challenging both traditions and spellings, and has created a bit of a stir. The spelling was so foreign to some, that it was considered necessary to instruct all staff in where the capital letters should go and how long the hyphen should be.

“I am a foreigner,” says Curt Rice, and argues that this gives him the freedom to think beyond cultural norms, be a straight talker and act outside of the established pattern. 

“I think it can give me a bit more space, but you can also be punished for breaking cultural norms as a foreigner. That’s just the way it is,” he says.

The debate about the name went too far, he feels. When the government had approved the name, a state body like the Language Council of Norway should accept the decision. On the other side:

“The debate has helped cement the new name, OsloMet – Oslo Metropolitan University, in an incredibly short amount of time. Normally you would have used millions of kroner on this. And by all means, a debate about such things is great,” he thinks. But sometimes the debate has turned into a ‘don’t you come here and tell us what to do’ argument – which is sometimes the Norwegian way of confronting foreign ideas. 

Still, Curt Rice does not mind putting his head above the parapet. The controversy surrounding the name is but one example. Another is language and recruitment. Do OsloMet staff have to speak Norwegian?

A citizen in a digitalised society

Or the debate about Examen Philosophicum – a preparatory course in the theory of science and philosophy, including an introduction in ethical theories. While Ex.phil. is obligatory for students at most Norwegian universities, OsloMet is seeking a different generic approach, and wants to establish Tech.phil.

“Tech.phil. looks at questions such as what it means to be a citizen in a digitalised society. I think it is very exciting to figure out how to develop a common knowledge base. As a newly established university, we are not obliged to be doing the same things as everybody else,” says Curt Rice.

He wants to stimulate debate. That is the role of the university in a democratic society, and it is necessary in times of rapid change:

“I want to create a debate about different forms of education, about digitalisation, our relationship to the labour market, about further and continuing education. For me, as Rector, it is far more important to initiate debate than being the one making decisions. This means you get confronted sometimes, and that is unproblematic.”

You probably have a team of people who support you when you face criticism?

“‘It’s lonely at the top’, I’ll tell you.”

He throws in words and sayings from his mother tongue, but mainly talks in a Northern-Norway dialect.

Curt Rice speaking

American by birth

Curt Rice grew up in Rochester, Minnesota, the home of the Mayo Clinic with 4,500 doctors and researchers, plus 3,500 full-time researchers. It is ranked as the best hospital in the USA.

The Mayo Clinic dominates local society to such an extent, that when Curt was a little boy he believed it was impossible to become anything but a doctor. That was no fun for someone who hated hospitals. So rather than going to medical school, he got a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and later a PhD in linguistics. He has now been living in Europe for so long that he calls himself a foreigner.

He moved to Norway in 1993, and has held various teaching and leadership positions at universities and university colleges. In 2015 he became Rector at the Oslo and Akershus University College, HiOA, which has now become OsloMet, Norway’s newest and third largest university. He has been wearing a permanent smile since the decision was taken on 12 January, and the Minister of Education and Research himself came directly from the King-in-Council to congratulate.

“I am proud, I really am. I have 2,000 employees who did a fantastic job and succeeded in converting the college into a university. That feels fantastic.”

Gender balance to improve quality

Curt Rice has proven to be a staunch defender of gender equality. He has twice been appointed chair of the Committee for Gender Balance and Diversity in Research 2018-2021.

“I believe that doing more for gender equality is one of the tools I can use to improve the quality of my own institution.”

He goes on with a mix of enthusiasm and impatience:

“We know so much about the importance of gender balance in the workplace. People are happier in workplaces with a better gender balance, and we know that happiness is linked to productivity. Hence, if I want to increase productivity, one of my tools is a better gender balance.

“Furthermore, we know that gender balance within groups improves the group’s ability to solve problems. If you measure the cognitive capacity of a group, diversity increases it.

“Different perspectives are valuable, and one way of getting different perspectives is to include people with different backgrounds. This could be men and women, people with different ethnic backgrounds, anything. By making sure you get diversity in groups, you achieve more. We also know it makes social economic sense to secure high labour market participation. It improves children’s lives, and it definitely improves women’s lives – the two are of course linked.

“At the same time we see certain structures in working life which have different consequences for men and women, and this goes for academia too. Take bachelor students – more than half of them are female. Half of PhD students are women, 40 percent of associate professors are women and 25 percent of professors are women. There is a slow leak all the way. What’s happening?

“The answer to that question is structural, and I am very interested in making sure we understand this better. As a woman, you must have done more than a man in order to achieve these things. This is, of course, both unfair and stupid.”

The Nobel Prize - to women only

He has become a travelling gender equality champion, and is active within many areas as the chair of the Committee for Gender Balance and Diversity in Research.

“We provide direct feedback up and down in the system. Last week, the Research Council of Norway awarded 500,000 kroner (€51,900) each to three young researchers. The awards went to three young men, and I find that unacceptable.”

As a result of his strong commitment, he was recently invited to Stockholm to address all of the Nobel Committees on gender balance when awarding prizes.

“They used similar arguments to the Research Council of Norway,” he says:

“We had to relate to the nominations that had come in. It is quite fascinating to see how good they are at ignoring women’s achievements. Not one Nobel Prize has been given to a woman in the past two years. They should be ashamed.

“You are faced with a variant of the classic explanation that it is important to focus solely on quality. People are so willing to say that. Sorry girls, you are just not good enough.”

Since 2003, The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters has handed out a prize for outstanding contributions to the field of mathematics, the Abel Prize. So far there have been 18 winners – no women. The field of mathematics is far from gender equal, but there certainly are more than zero women.

“The Nobel institutions have awarded the Prize to men for a hundred years. Perhaps you could give the Prize to only women one year,” suggested Curt Rice.

“One time. It would create an enormous international engagement. No other prizes than Nobel creates so much engagement.”

OsloMet – Oslo Metropolitan University is a reality. What now?

The aim has been achieved,  So what?

“What’s next? Well, a lot…,” he takes a breath.

“What I really want, now that we have got this status, is to show that we can live up to society’s expectations.”

There is currently a debate about how to prepare for the future of work. Which role will OsloMet play in the development of society?

“This means that we must do more than just prepare students for the job they will be doing tomorrow. They need to be ready to develop and update their knowledge. That means providing continuing education in a new perspective too.

“We must not become slaves to the campus model. It’s almost like people take a break from real life in order to study. I want further education to be integrated into working life. Not as a break, but something which happens every day, every week, every year. I believe there will be big changes to how we provide education. We need a much closer integration of education and working life.”

He uses the nursing degree as an example, because the practical part of the training makes up 50 percent of the study.

“Imagine if that was the case for everybody," says Rice.

"People going in and out of working life for the duration of the course. This would create a completely different pattern for education and practice. The government’s focus on normative time and throughput does not fit with what we need right now. We have to go back and forth all the time.”

He thinks more should be done to make sure those who teach can spend more time in the field.

“I would very much like to see a practice semester system for all employees. Just like researchers get time off to do research, the teaching staff at OsloMet should get time off from teaching in order to spend time in the field. We can make this happen.”


Digitalisation is seen as being immensely important, and OsloMet is “extremely proactive”:

“The government has clearly signalled that it expects us to work with digitalisation. It is not difficult to be part of the discussion. The government considers this to be partly a tool for improving efficiency, and we agree, but you need to have many things in place before it is possible to digitalise. You need good routines and structures, and we work with this in a way that you do not see elsewhere.

“We are changing the organisation in order to standardise and professionalise processes, which makes us able to ask whether the use of digital technology can improve the efficiency of processes.

“As an example; this institution has 10,000 students in internships every year. It is an enormous administrative task to make this happen. Each faculty does this in their own way. This has not been standardised. Even though it is ripe for innovation which would allow us to make it more efficient, we cannot do anything before we manage to coordinate the different processes.

“We also do a lot of good work with the courses, but others do the same. The competencies among the staff is a key factor here. We have just opened a new competency centre. Their mandate is to help teachers improve their competencies, allowing them to deliver according to the government’s and students’ expectations.”

The role of research

Rector Rice is keen, as he puts it, “to deliver according to social responsibility”.
“Our work will be based on the idea that we are a university closely linked to the wider society.”

The Centre for Welfare and Labour Research (SVA) plays a key role in this. SVA is the largest applied social sciences contract research institute in the Nordic region.

It was created as a unit at the Oslo and Akershus University College between 2014 and 2016, consisting of the formerly independent state research institutes the Work Research Institute (AFI), Norwegian Social Research (NOVA), the Norwegian Institute for Urban and Regional Research (NIBR), and Consumption Research Norway (SIFO).

SVA comprises four independent institutes, each enjoying autonomy and each financed through external means. The research institutes are both market driven and is expected to contribute to the professional courses. This is where OsloMet enjoys a unique position – at the crossroads between contract research and the development of professional courses, Rice believes. 

“The contract research institutes have a unique opportunity to meet the needs of the welfare state, and they provide focus for research,” says Rector Curt Rice.

Rector at OsloMet, Curt Rice
  • Born in Minnesota, USA
  • Moved to Tromsø, Norge, in 1993 
  • Holds a PhD in general linguistics from University of Texas at Austin, 1991. 
  • Between 2003 and 2008 he chaired the Center for Advanced Study in Theoretical Linguistics at the University of Tromsø 
  • In November 2008 he was elected Prorektor for research and development at the University of Tromsø, and also became Head of Board for the research documentation system CRIStin. 
  • He became Rector of the then Oslo and Akershus University College (HiOA) on 1 August 2015
  • On 12 January 2018 HiOA was given university status and changed name to OsloMet – Oslo Metropolitan University.


Read more:

Curt Rice on LinkedIn

Curt Rice's own blog 

Curt Rice on Twitter

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