The University of Oslo is a good university - but with major administrative deficiences
– My case shows that the central administration at the University of Oslo needs improvement, professor Nils Christian Stenseth writes commenting on the Norwegian newspaper VG's article on his extensive use of taxis paid by the University of Oslo.
IMPROVEMENT: – My case shows that the central administration at the University of Oslo needs improvement, professor Nils Christian Stenseth writes.
The Norwegian newspaper VG has recently published an article detailing my extensive use of taxis. I would like to convey a few comments on my taxi usage and the administrative deficiencies at the University of Oslo. I am writing this in English because my message relates to my international colleagues, in Norway and abroad.
- It is indeed correct that I very frequently use taxis. I use taxis in connection with my work for the University of Oslo, and for science in general. Using taxis enables me to carry out my job as efficiently as possible – my work has resulted in many contributions to science that I am very proud of (as is, I know, the University of Oslo). Through my work I have an extensive network that is of great value to the University of Oslo, which indeed benefits my own research and that of my colleagues (https://titan.uio.no/node/3018). In short: I use taxis to go between meetings, to go to and from the Oslo Airport, etc. During the ride, I work on e-mails, manuscripts or editorial work. I work 13-14 hours a day during weekdays and 10-12 hours a day on weekends.
- I have had an Oslo Taxi card for 7 or 8 years. I was given such a card because it was supposed to make the accounting of my taxi usage easier – and indeed I felt it did.
- I found that having a taxi card was a good solution – both efficient and transparent. Each and every month, a bill is sent to the university with all of my taxi trips: the time, the origin, the destination, and the price. Nothing can be hidden.
- Half a year ago (6 to 7 years after I got my taxi card) I was called to the central administration at University of Oslo to discuss my extensive use of taxis – all of which I explained.
- One way or another, this ended up in VG. The newspaper was sent a print-out of all monthly bills from Oslo taxi of taxi-tours paid out of my taxi card account for the last couple of years. Although this was not very pleasant, I am grateful for the openness and I do not have any difficulties with VG receiving my taxi bills – indeed, I have no difficulties with the VG article.
- However, I do have difficulties with the following:
- When sending the monthly print-outs to the newspaper, the university administration may not have informed them that many of the taxi trips have been invoiced to other institutions (in Norway and, indeed, mostly abroad): this amounts to about a quarter to a third of the trips (many of which being the most expensive ones between Oslo and Oslo Airport).
- It seems that the central administration has also failed to inform the newspaper that we have used the card to pre-book taxis for several of our guests (particularly during August and September, when there are many visitors to the university, be it guest speakers or our advisory board members). As a result, these travels were paid over my taxi account, from the airport to their hotels, and between their hotels and the university or other meeting places (expenses being quite sizable). In doing so, our visitors have not had to ask for reimbursements from the university for such expenses—reimbursements that can take months to be processed.
- One might ask: what would I have done differently if the university administration had told me earlier that they wanted me to change the way I was using the Oslo Taxi card? I would not have changed anything, except that I would not have used the taxi card as a service to our many prominent guests: I would not have billed their taxi trips to my taxi account (a practice that is, incidentally, fully acceptable). In the end, it would have been less unpleasant to receive their complaints about the University of Oslo reimbursing them late for such expenses, than to be exposed by the media as if these particular taxi trips were my own. Moreover, I would have paid nearly all of the trips not invoiced to other institutions myself. I would do this to further reduce costs for the University of Oslo, as I do in other ways. I, for instance, almost never ask for per diem expenses when traveling, instead I only ask to have my actual expenses covered – most of which are typically covered by my hosts.
- If the university had proper control routines, any issues with my taxi usage would have been observed much earlier. I think the central administration should have alerted me within half a year or so after I started using the Oslo Taxi card, particularly since the system was so transparent. If they had told me that my taxi usage could not be covered by the university, I would have continued to frequently use taxis, but would have covered parts of it from my own pocket. Now – after 7-8 years, it is me who is taking the blame for the bill, while the University of Oslo should have been the one to blame for having insufficient routines for recognizing and intervening on cases such as mine.
I have loved the University of Oslo for some 50 years now, but throughout most of these years I have complained about the support to the core activities of our university (research and training of students). When we bring in external funding for doing science, I often feel – as do many others – that we cause trouble for the administrative support system, because their workload increases. One notable exception is the Centre for Ecological and Evolutionary Synthesis (CEES) at the University of Oslo that I have been – and continue to be – a part of, where the support staff are as happy as the scientists when we receive external grant-funding for our work. My most recent interaction with parts of the university’s administration has made me re-think my view of – and love with – the University of Oslo.
My case shows that the central administration at the University of Oslo needs improvement. Over the years, we have had many good rectors (Vice Chancellors) leading University of Oslo. However, none of them have been able to improve the central administration, which needs a critical re-assessment and most likely a reduction in size. My advice is: reduce the central administration and reallocate the resources to the level where science and training is actually done. By so doing, the University of Oslo will be an even better university than it currently is. Throughout my nearly 50 years at the University of Oslo, I have seen and interacted with many rectors. I remember very well when one of them had his last day on the job and he told me in his office, “I have enjoyed these years as rector – but, Nils, I tell you that this university is very difficult to change due to all the difficulties caused by this very building” – and he pointed down, to the eight floors below him, at the Administration building at Blindern.
I myself will happily continue to serve as an advisor at the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences – a fantastic faculty with a strong leadership and support staff. I will also continue doing science at the Centre for Ecological and Evolutionary Synthesis (CEES) – a very stimulating workplace, with great people at all levels from students to professors, including the support staff. I will continue doing science in close collaboration with the institutions I am associated with – be it the University of Agder, NTNU – or the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing Normal University or the Tsinghua University – and many other institutions. That is, I will be closely linked to exciting places outside of the University of Oslo for much of my time in the years to come.