Erling Olsen
Our dear friend and founding UArctic board member, Erling Heymann Olsen, passed away suddenly in late June at the age of 84. A memorial service for Erling was held at the Danish Parliament with two large Danish flags flying at half-mast in respectful recognition of his extraordinary career, character and contributions. Danish leaders and friends paying tribute to Erling expressed their deepest admiration, fondness and sadness for a man considered to be among Denmark’s most important and respected politicians in the second half of the 20th century.

A Remarkable Life and Career of Service
The trajectory of Erling’s life was a remarkable one. As a teenager, he and his family had to flee to Sweden when Denmark was occupied by the Germans. At the end of WWII, he returned to Denmark, earned his doctorate in political economy at the University of Copenhagen, and ultimately became a highly respected professor of economics there. He was appointed the first Rector of Roskilde University during a very turbulent time, and he frequently found himself at odds with the many doctrinaire far left professors and students there. So, despite his illustrious career and many achievements thereafter, I know how very pleased he was to receive an honorary doctoral award from Roskilde University a year ago, 40 years after he had left the university.

There are few successful political leaders whose fundamental careers have been in the educational world, but, Erling was different in many ways. On one hand, he appeared to be private, even shy. Yet he thrived in his very public life. As his lovely daughter Ida remarked at the memorial service, Erling had a burning desire to help Denmark create a just society. And, no one ever misunderstood his calm, friendly manner as weakness. In fact, he loved a good fight, if it was on behalf of society’s weakest or for a cause he considered to be just.

He became one of the most important members of the Social Democratic Party, and successive Prime Ministers appointed him as Minister of Housing, Minister of Justice and ultimately the leader of the Danish Parliament.

The stories about Erling’s leadership style and dealings with the press are legendary; both have endeared him to all Danes. A visionary thinker and extremely intelligent, he had the ability to relentlessly pursue his innovative ideas, and to do so cheerfully and with a disarming humor that made it particularly difficult for his political opponents.

One of Erling’s many remembered accomplishments has been referred to as the “Olsen Plan” – a major organizational change in the Parliament which he introduced upon becoming its leader. It significantly strengthened the Parliament and had a lasting impact on the way in which Denmark’s legislators conducted their business. Erling was not just a visionary but also a very practical manager of people. He was more concerned with the successful implementation of innovative ideas and their ultimate long-term impact than with the early press and praise always associated with new programs when launched.

…Then, a transition back to the world of education

Other than continuing to provide guidance to younger political leaders, Erling largely stepped away from politics in 1998 at the age of 71. In addition to enjoying his wonderful wife, Annette, and very capable children and their families, he again focused on the development of unique international educational endeavors - as a Board member of the innovative United World Colleges, as Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Scandinavian Seminar College, and, most importantly, as a founding board member of the University of the Arctic, a position he held for 9 years.