dr. Sigurður
Gylfi
Magnússon

Academic Liturgy. Humanities and the Society of Scholars

Published by the Centre for Microhistorical Research, 2007. 337 pages. - (Akademísk helgisiðafræði - Hugvísindi og háskólasamfélag (Reykjavík: Miðstöð einsögurannsókna, 2007)).

Over the last years I have taken a lively interest in analyzing the operations of academic society through public and scholarly debate in a variety of ways. I have attempted to understand what it is about and the various means it employs to achieve its ends. In addition, I have taken active part in discussions within the university community over the last quarter of a century, first as a student, later as a fully-fledged historian. I have come to the view that as institutions of learning universities throughout the world are often fatally flawed and that academia is failing to provide the fertile ground for new thoughts and ideas that it ought to be. This view is set out in detail in a new 527-page book called The History War: Essays and Narratives on Ideology, published May 7, 2007.1 As one example, I draw attention to what I see as the peculiar circumstance that the most active forum for scholarly “debate” within the University of Iceland seems to occur in selection committee reports on staff appointments.

The incongruity (or paradox) of this observation goes back to the fact that all scholarly debate within the University is colored in one way or another by the existence of examining committee reports. Once a committee has reached its conclusion, weighing up the work of some scholar and finding it wanting, there is little chance that those stuck in the mess will have the disposition or desire to take up normal working relations or discussions with someone who has previously passed judgement on their life’s work. As a result, there are certain faculties of the University that appear to be holed in the water and drifting aimlessly, incapable of offering an academic agenda of any real substance. There are powerful arguments for this view that I set out in my book The History War

My most recent attempt to provoke debate within the university community took as its starting point the unusual course of submitting a large piece of research work for consideration for a doctoral degree with the Faculty of Humanities of the University of Iceland. This is a route the University has offered since its inception, just as many European universities have done over the centuries, whereby a candidate, without a special course of study, presents a piece of work with the aim of being granted the title of doctor. The particular piece of research I submitted was something I had been working on at intervals for a decade and a half, with the results appearing in two books,Dreams of Things Past: Life Writing in Iceland (2004) and Metastories: Memory, Recollection, and History (2005). My decision to submit this research for doctoral defense was unconventional since I already hold a doctorate from an American university from 1993 and have thus already completed a doctoral dissertation, on the subject of popular culture in Iceland.2 My reason for submitting the two new books for evaluation by the Humanities Faculty of the University of Iceland was that I saw no other way of raising the profile of the subjects they dealt with within the university community: there seemed to be an almost total lack of any meaningful forum for such debate within the structure of the university. I anticipated that by acting in this way it would be possible to stimulate serious consideration of the works in question, as well as provide a basis for worthwhile discussion of all the newest trends in the humanities. Both books in fact go into the changes that have taken place in the academic community in recent years. They present a systematic approach to subjects that have been at the forefront of people’s minds in the academic world for many years and offer some novel ideas on developments in the world of learning. I (along with friends and colleagues) felt sure that the material might prove an important contribution to debate within academic circles – in precisely the way a doctoral dissertation is supposed to be.

I submitted the work formally to the Humanities Faculty of the University of Iceland with a covering letter dated August 15, 2006. I was subsequently requested to provide some kind of confirmation that the two books were the product of the same piece of research, which I did with a short statement sent to the chair of the faculty, Oddný Sverrisdóttir, on October 25, 2006. After this I heard nothing from the university but news eventually reached me that a board of examiners had been appointed, consisting of Loftur Guttormsson, historian and professor at the Iceland University of Education (chairman), Gunnþórunn Guðmundsdóttir, literary specialist and appointed part-time lecturer at the University of Iceland, and Sigríður Matthíasdóttir, historian and independent freelance scholar. Some time later I heard on the grapevine that Sigríður had withdrawn from the committee and been replaced by Einar Hreinsson, historian on the staff of the Ministry of Education and Culture.

The matter proceeded in an unusual way through the spring months. On May 15, 2007 I received a phone call from my colleague, Jón Ólafur Ísberg, who told me that he had happened to speak to Einar Hreinsson, historian and member of the board of examiners, and that Einar had told him that the committee had judged my books and come to the conclusion that they did not qualify as doctoral material. I was taken aback at this news; I found it uncomfortable to be informed of how things stood in this way and felt that the leak was tantamount to a breach of trust that undermined the credibility of the committee process. On the instigation of trusted friends I appointed a lawyer to draw formal attention to this breach of trust, as well as to enter a protest at the appointment as chairman of the committee of Loftur Guttormsson, a man with whom I had had fierce academic disagreements over the course of many years. As I, and those whose advice I sought, saw things, he should unquestionably be deemed disqualified from having any say in my work in view of our previous relations in the field of scholarship. To cut a long story short, my attorney, Dögg Pálsdóttir, therefore couriered a letter to the board of the Humanities Faculty on the morning of May 25, 2007, in which an appeal was entered for the board of examiners’ report to be disallowed and a new board of examiners appointed so that my work might be scrutinized by people deemed qualified to do so. Her opinion was unequivocal: Loftur Guttormsson was unfit to act as a member of the board of examiners and Einar Hreinsson’s leak was a serious breach of trust: it was therefore proper and self-evident that the examiners’ report be rejected.

My petition was taken for material discussion at a meeting of the governing body of the Humanities Faculty on June 4, 2007 and passed on for comment to the history and archeology department of the University of Iceland, as noted in the minutes of the meeting. Here it states: “Unanimous agreement to refer the board of examiners’ report to the history and archeology department and elicit their comments on the conditions and production of the board of examiners’ report.” The department met on June 11, 2007 but failed to complete its business at this time. It met again on June 13 and concluded its part in the matter.

As things now stood, there were around 30 people from the Humanities Faculty of the University of Iceland who had access to the examiners’ report. I, however, was not among them, having still not received any formal communication. I did not, however, have long to wait before the report was “leaked” to me from various sources and, so far as I could see, it appeared to be doing the rounds of the university. At least, I got it from various people who were well outside the circle of those actually entitled to see it if everything had been conducted in the proper manner. I had in fact heard rumors somewhat earlier that “certain people had seen the examiners’ report”, as it was expressed, but I had no confirmation of these rumors before June 11-13, 2007, when I finally received a copy of the report.

As soon as the examiners’ report was in my hands, I set about typing it up. I received the report as a PDF and had to convert it to ordinary text form. This task gave me the opportunity to consider my options and think carefully about the attitudes that revealed in the report, all the details of the text. When I had keyed it in, on June 13, 2007, I realized that the purpose behind allowing the report to go from person to person was highly anomalous; in fact, the whole way the case had been handled was anomalous. I felt the best thing to do to counteract this tactic was to publish the report myself – to “declassify” it, as it were. This, I felt, would remove any secrecy and leave a public document that anyone could read and judge, especially as so many already had access to it. This would pull the rug from under those who had been behind its distribution. I therefore decided to publish the examiners’ report in full on the web journal Kistan (kistan.is) late on the evening of June 13, 2007, despite the fact it had not been formally cleared by the board of the Humanities Faculty.3

In this way a highly unusual course of events was set in train that was to take some interesting twists and turns through what remained of the summer of 2007. I decided almost immediately to go over the whole of the examiners’ report in fine detail and draw attention to its many weak points, show how the committee had performed its tasks and how faulty the entire appraisal process had been. The examiners had failed to discuss my research in any meaningful way; the new ideas presented in it appeared to have gone over their heads and the entire work had fallen on stony ground. I decided also to put together an account of the history of my relations with Loftur Guttormsson, the chairman of the examiners, a history going back a full ten years in which we had crossed swords repeatedly in the public arena. My whole discussion led to me sinking myself in the rules on fitness and competence enshrined in the Public Administration Act (1993) and realizing that higher education institutions in Iceland applied an unusual interpretation of these rules to suit their own requirements, to handle matters in a way designed to benefit the interests of the institution without regard for the rights of those who stood outside it. This interpretation of the law meant that institutes of learning were entirely under the thumb of those that controlled them, that their corridors were for the most part isolated from any new winds that might blow through them. My research into these matters led to me deciding to present my view of the events in a book to be published in September 2007. In it the case is gone over from start to finish and all the documents relating to it published, together with my analysis of various of its aspects.

Every scholar has at his command a certain amount of what might be called “cultural capital.” This can be applied in a variety of ways inside and outside the academic community. The debates that form a normal part of the work of all scholars can both eat into or add to the cultural capital he has at his disposal. In a sense one might say that every dispute between scholars – every debate that takes place within the academic community – is built upon the struggle for the cultural capital of those who take part in it. The academic community formulates certain rules of play to regulate how these disputes are conducted. It tries to ensure a level playing field before they start and employs various means to ensure fairness. One, for example, is to arrange things so that there is always the opportunity for reply, that the person being criticized gets the chance to answer back. People who take part in heated disputes within the academic community do so with the aim of chipping away at or directly undermining the cultural capital of their opponents.

On June 28, 2007 I received a letter from the board of the Humanities Faculty in which I was informed for the first time of the examiners’ findings and of the board’s decision to refuse my request for the board of examiners to be dissolved and its verdict on my work on life writing in Iceland overturned and a new committee appointed. My grounds for this request were, as said above, breach of trust on the part of one of the members of the committee and lack of fitness and competence of the committee chairman. In other words, the examiners’ statement of opinion was allowed to stand and my request to be permitted to defend my research before the University of Iceland rejected. This result came as a great disappointment, not only because I felt the university had acted dishonorably in the matter of the appointment of the examiners and how the examiners had reached their conclusions, but also because it showed black on white a weakness within the academic community. My purpose in presenting my works in this way had been to stimulate debate on the status of life writing in Iceland; but despite my having published getting on for a thousand pages of material on this subject, it had proved almost impossible to provoke any kind of discussion of it for complex reasons related to cultural politics and how universities operate.

I therefore instructed my attorney, Dögg Pálsdóttir, to write to the chairman of the Humanities Department and enter a request that all the papers relating to the case be handed over. I felt I needed to be in possession of all the documents in order to assess how the case stood and how it might proceed. After considerable reflection and analysis, I came to the conclusion that it was important for interested people within the academic community to be allowed to view the case papers and thus be able to form their own conclusions on the matter. I am convinced that this case is more than just about myself; it concerns all university educated people, who almost invariably find themselves in the position of having their work judged in ways similar to the way done here. It is therefore in the interests of everyone connected with higher education in this country that the issues that have arisen here are treated fairly and properly and that their legal framework is as transparent as is possible. For the above reasons I decided to publish this book.

The main points of the case are here set out in brief to allow readers more easily to assess their value and significance. Note that some of these points are described in more detail above:

  1. After submitting my request in autumn 2006 for my work on life writing to be judged admissible for doctoral defense at the Humanities Faculty of the University of Iceland, the faculty failed to inform me formally of the appointment of the board of examiners.
  2. It subsequently emerged that the history and archeology department of the University of Iceland had nominated Loftur Guttormsson, professor at the Iceland University of Education, as chairman of the board of examiners.
  3. Loftur Guttormsson agreed to act as chair of the board of examiners on my work despite our having been involved in academic disputes going back many years that had been both fiercely contested and at times personal.
  4. I only learned of the make-up of the board of examiners from friends within the University of Iceland some time after it had been appointed and started work, as well as about changes to it during the period. No kind of formal notification was ever received from the University of Iceland. I was therefore never given the opportunity to challenge the constitution of the committee or withdraw my petition.
  5. On May 15, 2007 Einar Hreinsson, one of the members of the board of examiners, divulges confidential information about the committee’s findings to Jón Ólafur Ísberg; this occurred before the board of the faculty had given material discussion to the examiners’ report.
  6. On May 25, 2007 my lawyer, Dögg Pálsdóttir, writes to the chair of the Humanities Faculty, drawing attention to the breach of trust that has come to light and also pointing out that there are clear reasons for challenging Loftur Guttormsson’s right to act as chairman of the board of examiners.
  7. On June 4, 2007 the board of the faculty decides to refer the examiners’ report to the history and archeology department of the University of Iceland for comment.
  8. The examiners’ report itself is also leaked to me, among others by parties who had no right to have access to it. This occurred before the report had received material consideration by board of the Faculty of Humanities.
  9. On June 13, 2007, in order to defend my position, I take the course of publishing the examiners’ report on the web journal Kistan.is, since I feel that allowing the report to be passed indiscriminately from hand to hand is being used to prejudice my interests.
  10. The case receives detailed coverage in the media. The consensus of those who express an opinion is that there is something decidedly abnormal about the way the University of Iceland has handled matters.
  11. Einar Hreinsson, historian, writes to the chair of the Humanities Faculty of the University of Iceland, contesting Jón Ólafur Ísberg’s account of their meeting of May 15, 2007. He denies having committed any breach of trust when speaking to Jón Ólafur: it is entirely Jón Ólafur’s own interpretation of their conversion that resulted in his drawing the conclusion that the board of examiners had passed a negative judgement on my work.
  12. At the request of the board of the Humanities Faculty of the University of Iceland the case goes before the history and archeology department for material consideration. On June 13, 2007 the department passes a special resolution with its findings. Here it is stated that the governors of the department have no comment to make on the examiners’ report, thereby giving it its seal of approval, nor on Loftur Guttormsson’s appointment to the examining committee. It is not entirely clear what means the department used to come to this conclusion, nor what means it applied to judge the material arguments in examiners’ report. Despite searches, some of the papers relating to the case remain missing.
  13. The legal advisor of the University of Iceland, Gestur Jónsson, delivers his opinion on the case and comes to the conclusion that there is no reason to question the way the Humanities Faculty has handled it: Loftur Guttormsson is not regarded as unfit to sit on the board of examiners since the academic disputes between him and me have not, despite considerable asperity, been sufficiently bitter to count as “invidious” (illvígar). In connection with the lawyer’s statement of opinion here, it is notable that it is based on very limited evidence, suggesting that he has failed to carry out his required duty of investigation. Questions arise as to how he selected the sources on which his analysis was based. The attorney maintains that he has reviewed the documentation referred to in the case papers, but this statement cannot stand now they are all to hand. For instance, there is no reference to Loftur Guttormsson’s articles in Skírnir as examined by the attorney; however, my article “Íslensk sagnfræði 1980-2005” (Icelandic History 1980-2005) which appeared in the book Frá endurskoðun til upplýsingar (From re-evaluation to disintegration) (2006) is referred to in an unpublished lecture by Loftur Guttormsson at the 3rd Historical Conference, 2006. This article, however, does not appear in the list of writings Gestur Jónsson saw reason to examine. In other words, the methods the attorney applied in formulating his opinion and selecting the sources on which to base it are far from sound. One thing at least that is clear is that the circumstances of the case called for further investigation and that the attorney has patently been negligent in this regard. For the above reasons, his opinion appears, to say the least, to stand on dubious grounds, and its conclusion is therefore open to serious question.
  14. On June 19, 2007 the case comes before the board of the Humanities Faculty and my request to defend my writings for doctoral consideration is rejected. The board’s decision here is founded on the opinion of the lawyer acting for the University and the history and archeology department, that there is no reason to question how the case has been handled – that matters have been conducted normally and properly in all respects.
  15. My lawyer, Dögg Pálsdóttir, requests copies of all the documentation relating to the case and repeats this request in a number of letters through June and July 2007. It proves difficult to obtain information on how the history and archeology department of the University of Iceland carried out its tasks when dealing with the case at its various stages.
  16. Jón Ólafur Ísberg sends me an account of his meeting with Einar Hreinsson in which he confirms formally what he said in his conversation with me on May 15 after meeting and speaking to Einar. He points out that he told Gísli Gunnarsson, professor of history at the University of Iceland, about this conversation and that Gísli had discussed it in detail at the departmental meeting on June 11 at which the whole case came up for discussion at the request of the faculty board. It is striking that this information provided to the members of the department has no effect on how they deal with the case.
  17. On July 26, 2007 news reaches me by chance that, at an informal gathering and before my case has been formally processed by the governing board of the Humanities Faculty, Einar Hreinsson has mentioned in the presence of bystanders that I would not be permitted to defend my work. This is subsequently confirmed to me in August 2007 in conversation with one of those present. This development demonstrates that the account provided by Jón Ólafur Ísberg is correct in all details and that the insinuations made by Einar Hreinsson in his letter of June 12, 2007 against Jón Ólafur and myself must be regarded as entirely unfounded. In other words, Einar is shown to have perpetrated a shoddy distortion of the truth, which in turn calls into even more serious question the position of the board of examiners and the status of its report. My source here chooses to remain anonymous but is prepared to corroborate his testimony before the Althing Ombudsman (parliamentary ombudsman) if so requested.
  18. In consultation with my attorney and following a detailed analysis of all the papers in the case, I decide to take the matter to the Althing Ombudsman with an appeal for it to be taken for material consideration. On the functions of the Althing Ombudsman, the webpage of the Office of the Althing Ombudsman says the following: “The role of the Althing Ombudsman is to monitor the administration of the State and local authorities and safeguard the rights of the citizens vis-à-vis the authorities. The Ombudsman shall take pains to ensure that the principle of equality is observed and that administration is in other respects conducted in conformity with the law and good administrative practice.” Ombudsman’s decisions can have considerable influence on the result of cases.

This provides a broad rundown of the main episodes in connection with the case from the outset up to the present. There are four particular points that stand out when the matter is viewed in context:

Firstly, there is the question of whether Loftur Guttormsson was a fit and proper person to act as a member of the examining committee, whether his position is viewed in the light of general ethical principles, the ethical rules of Sagnfræðifélag Íslands (The Icelandic Historical Association), or the law on public administration currently in force.

Secondly, there is the seriousness of Einar Hreinsson’s breach of trust in divulging to Jón Ólafur Ísberg the committee’s conclusions before its report had been discussed by the governing board of the Humanities Faculty. Einar Hreinsson’s declaration, in which he denies having leaked information to Jón Ólafur Ísberg, provides a setting for their supposed conversation; however, it is shown that this declaration contains perversions of the truth by an unnamed source who later reveals that Einar Hreinsson said precisely the same to him and others, thus putting the matter in an entirely new light.

Thirdly, there is something conspicuously underhand about the way the representatives of the University of Iceland department of history and archeology have dealt with the case, both in their selection of committee members and when they were delegated to discuss the examiners’ report in June 2007. This assessment does not appear to have been carried out in accordance with proper professional standards.

Fourthly, the failure of the governing body of the Humanities Department to provide formal notification to relevant parties of the composition of the board of examiners is in breach of good administrative practice; such a failure prevents interested parties from being apprised of their rights and duties, including how they might go about challenging the composition of the board of examiners. It should also be borne in mind that the examiners’ report was itself leaked to me at a time when the case was still actively open, and by parties who had no right to have access to it: this, too, must go down as dubious administrative practice.

When considering these points it is important to bear the following in mind:

  1. There is a long history of animosity between myself and Loftur Guttormsson. I trace these relations in detail in the book, I believe demonstrating sufficiently that, although we have in the vast majority of cases shown restraint in our use of language, there can be identified an underlying antipathy and even ill-will against the person being criticized. The examiners’ report itself provides the clearest testimony of the atmosphere existing between myself and Loftur Guttormssson. By such means I can demonstrate that the premises underlying the case presented by the attorney for the University of Iceland are flawed. He is guilty of a failure in his duty to conduct proper investigation, has made use of only a small part of the documentation that exists concerning our relations, and as a result has arrived at a false conclusion. On the basis of the current interpretation of the rules on fitness and competence under public administration legislation, his case does not stand inspection, as set out in the book: for this, our relations have been too acrimonious and personal.
  2. Moreover, I am of the opinion that the current interpretation of the rules on fitness and competence under public administration legislation, in so far as they apply to scientists and academics, cannot be allowed to stand. Here I am referring to the interpretation of the law that allows for a “wide degree of latitude” when applied to these groups because of the degree of judgement and criticism inherent in their work. It is pointed out that scientists and academics need to be able to express their opinions on colleagues and their work without running the risk of being judged unfit or disqualified. I cannot however see any reason why it is necessary to have special rules covering these groups: they should simply be subject to the same general rules on fitness and competence as apply to others, since the rationale behind this broad interpretation no longer holds true. With the proliferation of educated people now a reality, the learned community in this country, and indeed elsewhere in the world, is no longer a small and restricted group. This paucity of numbers was, it seems, the chief reason for the learned community being singled out for greater leeway: there would at times be no way to avoid appointing to positions on committees scientists and academics who had already expressed opinions on parties involved in a case, since there were simply no other experts available. This is the interpretation of the law that legal scholars such as the Norwegian Arvid Frihagen and the Icelandic professor of law Páll Hreinsson have applied. But I stress that times have now changed: the scientific and scholarly community has grown so rapidly that the argument based on scarcity hardly applies. For instance, in the particular case in point it can be shown that there are at least ten people with doctorates in history who might have been considered as chair of the board of examiners.
  3. I even take the view that the rules on fitness and competence applying to the academic community should be more stringent than the general rules. This is because discussion in the academic world can be highly elliptical and devious and it can often be difficult to judge how much seriousness should be attributed to it. Discourse that appears to be plain and unproblematic is often charged with meaning that can in many cases only be grasped through deliberate expert exegesis. As a result, this group might benefit from having stricter rules applied to it as a necessary means of ensuring that matters are conducted justly and equitably. In addition, it might be argued that the institutional structure of many institutions of higher learning is very weak, both as a result of the concept of “academic freedom” and because their financial framework is generally very precarious. This situation calls for a toughening up of the rules on fitness and competence in the scholarly and academic world, since strong-willed and determined individuals can very easily exert considerable personal influence on how business is conducted in these institutions. As a result, those who stand outside these institutions find it difficult to press formal cases “on the inside”, as has been my experience in this particular case.
  4. If the argument outlined under B. above is not accepted, i.e. if it is allowed that scientists and academics should remain partially outside the general rules under public administration legislation, nor the strengthened version under C. that I feel might be more appropriate in this instance, then it is my view that the leading principle in the case of scientists and academics should be that, once two individuals who are members of these groups have been involved in long-standing disputes, their disqualification is automatic. It should be of no significance what they have said or how they have said it. The ideological changes that have taken place within the academic community in recent years are such that it is no longer possible to assume that any simple analytical method will be able to determine when a written dispute can be classified as “invidious”. There has been considerable uncertainty around the ideological status of written evidence as a result of the ideas of the poststructuralists on the status of texts about past times (sources), which have revolutionized people’s more traditional understanding of the past and the ways in which it can be approached. One thing, however, that can be said is that as soon as people start discussing each other’s work systematically in scholarly disputes it is hardly possible to expect that one of the parties involved will be able to raise himself above the attendant clashes and approach things with complete objectivity. There is also, to be sure, a degree of subjectivity in judging whether a dispute has been long-standing, but this without doubt provides a much simpler criterion than the one presently applied in interpretations of the law.

From the above, it appears evident to me that the Humanities Faculty of the University of Iceland, supported by the history and archeology department and the legal opinion of the university’s lawyer, has infringed my rights to have the works I submitted to the faculty for doctoral consideration discussed by disinterested parties. The case, from beginning to end, has been characterized by confusion and inefficiency in which at a certain point the governing body of the Humanities Faculty lost control of procedures. Among the manifestations of this train of events was a breach of trust on the part of one of the examiners and the leaking of documents, to which should be added falsehoods leveled against a party in the case that cast still further discredit on the reliability of the examiners’ report, which already stood on weak ground as a result of the anomalous position of the chairman of the board of examiners with respect to myself.

In the remarks of the Althing Ombudsman in a case centering on access to documents and accountability (Case no. 2548/1998) in connection with a request by an applicant to Rannís (The Scientific Council of Iceland) for information on the identity of the person who had assessed his research project on behalf of the fund, it says:

    Article 4, paragraph 1, clause 1 of the Public Administration Act, no. 37/1993, states: “A person who is ineligible or disqualified to handle a case may not take part in its preparation, handling or resolution.” In the notes to Article 4 of the bill for the Public Administration Act it says, among other things: “A member of staff who is ineligible or disqualified may thus not take part in the handling of a case at any of its stages. The rules on eligibility and qualification under Section II therefore extend to members of staff who provide or take part in providing comments or reports on matters of public administration that are intended to act as the basis for a government decision in the matter. A member of staff who is involved only in the preparation of a case, e.g. in its investigation or the processing of its papers, without taking any decision in the case, is obliged to relinquish his position if he is ineligible or unqualified.” (Alþingistíðindi (Parliamentary Proceedings) 1992-93, A Division, pp. 3289-3290).4

So far as I can see, Loftur Guttormsson comes within the terms of this provision. He is subject to the rules laid down in Section II of the Public Administration Act, headed “Special qualification or competence”, where in article 3, paragraph 6, it says regarding the conditions under which a staff or committee member may be deemed ineligible or disqualified from involvement in a case: “if there otherwise exist such circumstances as might properly cast doubt on his impartiality.” There is however an exception under this section of the Act, as follows: “Ineligibility or disqualification does not apply if the interests at stake in the case are so minor, or the nature of the case is such or the involvement of the staff or committee member in the handling of the case is so insignificant that there is reckoned to be no risk that extraneous attitudes may affect a decision.” Clearly this exception does not apply to Loftur Guttormsson’s position in the present case.

Essentially, the task before the representatives of the Humanities Faculty and the history and archeology department was simple, i.e. to appoint an board of examiners that was free from any suspicion of bias and personal interest. The historians that took this decision had the ethical rules of the Historical Society of Iceland as a guideline to go by; in addition, both the department and the faculty board might have taken account of public administration legislation and the general principles of propriety in Iceland when coming to their decision. It was common knowledge that there had been disputes between myself and Loftur Guttormsson going back ten years and that these had materialized in many places, including on the back page of the newspaper Morgunblaðið, where serious charges were leveled against Loftur, as well as other instances where we had clashed publicly. After such long-standing disputes there was no likelihood that Loftur might manage, any more than anyone else in his position, to raise himself above ideological clashes of this kind and judge my writings with impartiality. This is something any right-minded man or woman might have perceived. The shortcomings in procedures are also clear to see when the examiners’ report itself is weighed and measured: prejudice against my work and ideas shines out from just about every sentence.

For the reasons stated above I have decided to take my case to the Althing Ombudsman in the hope that he sees himself able to take it on. I believe that this case is of considerable significance to everyone associated with the academic community and may be able to provide a clarification of the rules or play that those living within this community need to go by.

Finally, it is important to bear in mind the following points relating to the case and the unsatisfactory way it has been handled within the Humanities Faculty of the University of Iceland.

  1. There can hardly be dispute that there are serious inadequacies in the argumentation in the examiners’ report. Stringent demands must be applied to reasoning and argumentation in reports of this kind since there is no right of reply. We are thus left with a situation that is unsatisfactory in an academic regard: it is of itself unacademic, and therefore requires the strictest demands of reasoning and argumentation.
  2. The examiners’ report itself provides perhaps the clearest evidence of Loftur Guttormsson’s lack of fitness and competence, so striking are the prejudices that appear in the case presented by the examining body.
  3. The handling of the case by the history and archeology department is open to question and censure. Firstly, the nomination of Loftur Guttormsson is highly irregular, even ignoring the legal status of this act. Here it enough to cite the ethical rules of the Icelandic Historical Association, which are quite specific that if there is any question of bias or prejudice on the part of a person appointed to judge the work of another scholar this same person shall give up his seat on the adjudicating committee. In addition, general ethical practice in this country strongly supports the view that Loftur’s appointment to the committee was improper. Secondly, there are striking flaws in the department’s endorsement of the examiners’ report, dated June 13, 2007, especially as regards its sweeping and categorical nature. The department gives the examiner’s report its seal of approval, while simultaneously avoiding consideration of the matter of Einar Hreinsson’s breach of trust as corroborated by Prof. Gísli Gunnarsson, despite its having been made aware of this almost a month earlier. This handling of the case invites astonishment, exacerbated the fact that it has proved impossible to obtain clear information on how the department handled the case as a whole – what people were entrusted with assessing the examiners’ report when the department was asked for its comments in June, and what kind of discussions were held about it. The details of how the case was processed here are still obscure, and they constitute a key element in enabling the validity of the department’s endorsement to be assessed. The department’s handling of the case seems to indicate that the departmental chairman compiled the endorsement and pushed it through without much discussion. It also appears that no importance was attached to the evidence of Gísli Gunnarsson following the University’s receiving Einar Hreinsson’s letter in which he denied having leaked confidential documents. Einar’s letter thus appears to have had a decisive influence on how the matter was subsequently handled by the department.
  4. We know nothing about how the University of Iceland’s legal representative came into possession of the documents on which he based his evaluation of Loftur Guttormsson’s fitness and competence. It is clear that the indication he gives in his report that he has reviewed the documents referred to in the case papers cannot stand. Somebody must thus have directed him and therefore had a guiding influence over his investigations. One thing that is certain is that he failed to examine certain highly material sources relating to previous relations between myself and Loftur Guttormsson, with the result that the picture he emerged with of these relations was seriously distorted. The conclusion the attorney drew from the case and the opinion he offered on it were thus fallacious.
  5. Jón Ólafur Ísberg’s testimony indicates that Einar Hreinsson committed a serious breach of trust which compromised the credibility of the board of examiners. This alone should have been sufficient for the examiners’ report to be declared invalid, since it must be considered highly implausible that Jón Ólafur would fabricate this account on his own initiative. The governing bodies of the Humanities Faculty and the history and archeology department, however, took the option of ignoring Jón Ólafur’s testimony, it seems on the grounds that the two accounts conflicted – Einar Hreinsson denies explicitly in his letter dated June 12 having informed Jón Ólafur of the examiners’ conclusion. Jón Ólafur interpreted their conversation, which Einar describes precisely and in detail, to mean that the examiners had rejected my petition. The question that remains unanswered is what effect it has on the future course of this side of the case that the account of his conversation with Jón Ólafur Ísberg that Einar Hreinsson gave to the boards of the faculty and department has now been shown to be untrue. There can be no question but that the evidence provided by my unnamed informant exposes the insidious tissue of fabrication perpetrated by Einar Hreinsson and provides an insight into the attitudes that this member of the board of examiners brought to bear on my work. Divulging the examiners’ findings in a two-man conversation alone is a culpable offence, but to be shown to have broadcast these findings to all and sundry and then to issue false statements about his actions is a highly serious matter that the University of Iceland can hopefully neither support nor condone.
  6. The summary and slipshod manner evidenced in the legal opinion produced by Gestur Jónsson is of course cause for regret. Not only has the attorney paid scant regard to his duty of investigation when providing himself with relevant documentation on relations between myself and Loftur Guttormsson, but he has also made little attempt to consider the fundamental principles underlying the rules on fitness and competence enshrined in the Public Administration Act. It is hardly to be expected that a lawyer will present legal arguments that run counter to the “interests” (or supposed interests) of his clients; but his opinion disregards important considerations that plainly put the case in a new context. The same may be said of the governing board of the Humanities Faculty: people there should have seen through the weaknesses in the case presented by the attorney and rejected it.
  7. The case leaves the university in difficult position, in that it appears to have been incapable of handling a simple matter without resort to dubious procedures that have no part in good public administration. It also sends out to the academic community a clear message that in order to command a hearing one needs to belong to the group of individuals that hold the whip hand over this community. Others should know their place. The institution has set up watertight controls to see that undesirable influences are kept “outside the pale.”
  8. It needs to be remembered that the University of Iceland is a national institution, paid for by the Icelandic taxpayers. The rules by which it operates should therefore be transparent and its doors should be open to fresh winds of learning and science. At the heart of the matter lies authority and control, both academic and administrative. The University of Iceland needs to demonstrate to an ever-growing body of highly educated people who will not in the future get permanent posts within it that they are nevertheless welcome to express their views in this, the highest forum for science and learning in the country. The school should not be closed to outside influences; it should not be run as the private club of those who have already established themselves there. It should be the fertile ground for new ideas that is essential to every freeborn society.

When the matter is viewed in a nutshell, it becomes clear that the actions of the board of examiners discussed here do not stand scrutiny, whatever way one looks at them. I know for a fact that this is not the only case that has suffered similar treatment in recent years. In conclusion, I therefore propose the establishment of a post of ombudsman for science and research to adjudicate on matters of dispute that will inevitably arise within the learned community in future. Comparable examples exist in many countries and the interests at stake are considerable.

1 Sigurður Gylfi Magnússon, The History War: Essays and Narratives on Ideology (Reykjavík: The Center for Microhistorical Research and the Reykjavik Academy, 2007).

2 Sigurður Gylfi Magnússon, The Continuity of Everyday Life: Popular Culture in Iceland, 1850–1940. Doctoral dissertation, Carnegie Mellon University, USA, 1993.

3 Sigurður Gylfi Magnússon, “Dómur yfir hverjum? ‘Samræða’ í dómnefndaráliti,” Kistan.is, 13 June 2007 (Web).

4 See the website of the Althing Ombudsman: http://www.umbodsmaduralthingis.is/skyrslur/skoda.asp?Lykill=575&Skoda=Mal(Vef). The case was heard on May 26, 2000.

SUMMARIES:
Academic liturgy
From Re-evaluation to Disintegration
History War
Metastories
Dreams of Things Past
Education, Love and Grief
Pieces and Molds
The Sound of Divine Revelation
Microhistory - Conflicting Paths
Brothers from the Stranda Commune
Modes of Living in Reykjavik, 1930-1940
Away. Faraway! - And to Another Continent
The Contours of Social History
Method facing a Dilemma
"I am 479 Days Younger than Nilli."...
Modern fairy tales...
Dissertation: The Continuity of Everyday Life
LINKS:
microhistory.org
The Reykjavík Academy
Íslensk heimasíða
© 2006 - Sigurður Gylfi Magnússon