Decolonizing the academy

On the denial of academic institutions when it comes to talk of decolonization.

An art installation welcoming new students at the Norwegian School of Arts and Design (KHS) in Oslo, Norway. Image by: Christel Marie Blunck

This past June, on the day that the Peace Research Institute in Oslo (PRIO) hosted the first ever academic event on “Decolonizing the Academy” in Norway, a syndicated media commentator for the Norwegian intellectual weekly Morgenbladet unwittingly demonstrated why such an event was needed in the first place. On a two-page spread in Morgenbladet that day, the Norwegian Labour Party politician and social democratic think-tank apparatchik Mr Sylo Taraku declared that “in contradistinction to Germans and several other countries [sic], Norwegians do not have a history to be ashamed of. Norway has never been a colonial power, [and] we have never committed grave war crimes.”

Now consider this statement in light of the following facts: though Norway was itself under Danish rule at the time, Norwegians did take part in the Danish-Norwegian transatlantic slave trade, which involved the transportation of an estimated 100,000 African slaves from West Africa to the Danish West Indies in the period between 1626 and 1825. Danish-Norwegian Lutheran bishops such as the one-time bishop of my own hometown of Bergen on the West Coast of Norway, Erik Pontoppidan (1698-1764), defended the Danish-Norwegian enslavement of Africans on the so-called Gold Coast of Africa (present Ghana) on the grounds that it was “infinitely better” for Africans to be slaves under Christians than “merely” free heathens.

Norwegian scholars of history and anthropology have in recent years documented the involvement of Norwegians in the high tide of European colonialism, whether as plantation owners on estates with thousands of slaves in Portuguese colonial Mozambique, or as mercenaries in the Belgian King Leopold’s colony of the Congo. Norwegians may have “hitchhiked their way to the boons of colonial empire,” but they were certainly part of colonialism.

The small state of Norway, which declared its independence from Sweden in 1905, certainly harbored colonial aspirations, and under a government led by the then Peasant Party, in which the later German Nazi collaborator Vidkun Quisling (1887-1945) served as Minister of Defense in 1931 formally occupied parts of Greenland, an occupation which was only abandoned when international courts ruled against the state of Norway in 1933. As for the Norwegian state’s policies towards the indigenous Saami population of Northern Norway, the policies of assimilation, deprivation of land and cultural rights and brutal suppression of Saami uprisings until the 1970s bore all the hallmarks of internal colonialism, including the official stigmatization of the Saami as an “inferior race.”

The late Norwegian social anthropologist Marianne Gullestad who never tired of pointing out that the myth of Norwegian exceptionality when it comes to colonialism and racism is part and parcel of a long-standing and widespread social and political imaginary inside and outside of Norway. It is by no means limited to the political right, and has the support or tacit consent of a great number of Norwegian tenured academics. As a case in point, one need look no further than the bestselling popular title of the former militant Maoist-Leninist turned professor of development studies, Prof Terje Tvedt, who in his last book presents an image of a Norway that was ethnically and religiously homogeneous until the late 1960s, and which enthusiastically and unreservedly welcomed immigrants and asylum seekers from the post-colonial world. Given the long and protracted anti-racist struggles against assorted Norwegian right-wing extremists from the 1970s and well into the 2000s, that is, to put it mildly, not necessarily how most actual former immigrants and asylum seekers to Norway remember it; but it is of course the privilege of Norwegians in hegemonic positions in academia, the media and in politics to leave out any trace whatsoever of their voices and experiences like Tvedt does.

Norway has since 2013 had the most right-wing government in power since World War II, with the Norwegian Conservative Party and the populist right-wing Progress Party in power. International news media regularly and naively sing the praises of Norway’s traditions of relative gender equality, and so when the Conservative Party Prime Minister Erna Solberg announced her second cabinet in February this year, it barely registered that all of her cabinet ministers and all of her cabinet secretaries were in fact white. Apologists for the government responded to public criticism of this lack of democratic representation by alleging that the government prioritized “competence” over “quotas,” which is a bit of a strange argument to make in the context of the highly educated country of Norway where having more than a few populist right-wing cabinet ministers who can barely string together a coherent argument and are much given to political lies and fabrications.

Equality in Norway has for most practical means and purposes come to refer exclusively to equal representation in public positions of white males and females, and “intersectionality” is hardly a buzzword in public. And so it was no surprise that the PRIO event on decolonizing the academy, organized by PRIO-affiliated researchers Ida Roland Birkvad and Cindy Horst, should be met with condemnation by tweet from the Conservative Party’s Former Minister of Education and now Minister of Trade and Industry, Mr Torbjørn Røe Isaksen, who re-tweeted an item penned by a young party colleague which characterized the idea of decolonizing the academy as an “appallingly bad idea.” There was no surprise in any of this from a conservative cabinet minister who uses a picture of Winston Churchill as his avatar on Twitter, and who as of late has taken to playing white identity politics with his Norwegian electorate and recommending the works of one Jordan Peterson. The liberal-conservative government supporting media outlet Minerva (whose staff are, one need hardly point out, all white), reacted with predictable rage and fury, and declared that “dead white men” should “still be on the curriculum” (as if anyone at all had suggested otherwise).

But the situation in Norwegian academia is, for all its talk about the merits of inclusion and diversity (all too often code talk, again, for equal representation of white women in tenured positions and positions of power), hardly any better than in the Norwegian government. As I have myself noted in a recent monograph, my own discipline of anthropology, for all its professed interests in human diversity, is and remains remarkably white in Norway.

The last year has seen an increasing public backlash against the employment of international scholars at Norwegian universities from nationalist-orientated Norwegian senior academics who themselves came of age and into academic power in a time when Norwegian academics did not have to compete at all for tenure with international colleagues, and hardly had to publish so much as a word in English or any other language in order to obtain life-long tenure. There is relatively little empirical research on the experiences of foreign-born and/or academics of minority background in Norwegian academia. But the little that we do know from research on this suggests that it is by no means easy for academics with such backgrounds.

Add to this that Norwegian university curricula in the humanities and social sciences for the  most part consists of academic literature written by and for scholars from the Global North past and present, that funding structures as well as the encroachment of neoliberal “audit cultures” in Norwegian academia and the strong undercurrent of an unthinking methodological nationalism in many academic disciplines in Norway at present mitigates against the use of academic spaces and freedom for the purpose of exercising critical thought. The retribution from a group of academics at the University of Oslo against the decolonizing the academy-initiative was swift, brutal, and replete with strawmen. The professor of philosophy Jens Saugstad declared the initiative to “reek of identity politics” which we all know by now is inherently bad, except when the identity politics in question is white and unmarked.

An associate professor of political science, Tore Wig, opined that the initiative represented a “relativization of knowledge.” The Kantian philosopher Prof Jens Saugstad for his part teamed up with the political scientist Prof Janne Haaland Matlary and the medical scientist Stig S. Frøland to up the ante by declaring that the decolonizing ideology represented no less than a global “threat to universities” [sic], and by calling for Norwegian universities to stop funding of student groups whose leaders had declared themselves positive towards the decolonizing the academy-initiatives immediately. So much for the value of free speech and critical thought in Norwegian academia.

What has been striking in all these responses, is of course that the irate professors in question have denounced these initiatives in a mode of absolute certainties, whilst documenting to all and sundry that they had not so much as bothered to read any of the relevant academic literature, dating back at least to Ngugi wa Thiongo’s seminal 1986 Decolonizing The Mind. We can of course be quite sure that few of these Norwegian professors have even heard such names or read anything from them, but it is as Erling Sandmo, Professor of History at the University of Oslo, noted that here it is as if postcolonialism never happened, and as if postcolonial scholars from Franz Fanon, Edward W. Said, Achille Mbembe, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Stuart Hall, and Paul Gilroy never even existed. The message to prospective university students in Norway was unmistakable: if you are sure and confident enough about your own lack of knowledgeability and reading of relevant academic literature, there is in other words no need to read up on anything before going on the attack in public either.

As for Haaland Matlary, a former cabinet secretary of the Christian Democratic Party in Norway and former “scientific advisor” to the Vatican under “God’s Rottweiler,” Joseph Ratzinger, it is no secret where she stands: in a syndicated column in the Norwegian business rag Dagens Næringsliv in 2017, she referred to “American liberals” taking part in the tearing down of statues commemorating Southern white racist generals and slave owners in the USA after the white supremacist Dylann Roof’s murder of black churchgoers at Charleston in South Carolina in 2015 as an expression of “an unprecedented civilizational decline.”

Another line of attack has been to proceed as if the decolonizing the academy-initiatives were not anchored in the humanities and the social sciences, but were intended to be applicable to the natural sciences too.

In her keynote, Meera Sabaratnam, chair of the Decolonizing SOAS Working Group at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London and author of  Decolonising Intervention: International Statebuilding in Mozambique highlighted the importance of decolonial knowledge for teaching, research and publication. Decolonizing the academy was, she argued “about what kind of knowledge gets valued.” It was linked to a “positive identification with anti-racism.” She called for “subverting the idea that the Global North should be the protagonists” in research, and move to see “research as co-production,” whereby our “co-producers” in the Global South get real influence on the questions that are asked, the framing of the questions, and the methodologies used. She also called for a restructuring of the curriculum “we set” so that “every student can be able to see themselves as belonging.”

Whilst these are all noble ideas and sentiments, in Norway, where academic scholars who know their postcolonial studies are relatively few and far between, and certainly not in any hegemonic positions in academia, inevitably raises the question as to how exactly they are to be put into practice.

The PRIO event Decolonizing the Academy was for an event of this sort extremely well attended. However, one left the event with a strong feeling that one had born witness to a bit of preaching to the choir, and that it will take much more than this in the years to come to move from theory to practice. The reactions certainly indicate that institutional structures as well as hegemonic conceptions both right and left in Norway makes even the most modest part of this program, relating to an increased representation of scholars of minority and/or immigrant background in Norwegian academia, a fairer representation of past and present scholars from the Global South on university curricula in Norway, and a more equitable approach to co-operation and partnership with scholars and universities in the Global South a hard sell indeed. Critical whiteness studies will not be coming to Norway anytime soon either.

Further Reading