UW News

June 24, 2011

Iceland's president talks about collaboration, economic recovery

News and Information

President of Iceland Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, with Interim UW President Phyllis Wise.

President of Iceland Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, with Interim UW President Phyllis Wise.International Relations and Protocol Office

A brief visit by the president of Iceland to the UW campus was punctuated by overtures for greater scholarly exchange and some observations about the legacy of the global financial crisis.

Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, president of Iceland, was accompanied by the pro-rector of academic affairs at the University of Iceland, as well as Icelandic diplomats, to meet with Interim President Phyllis Wise and other UW academic representatives, who reviewed current academic relations and raised ideas about future cooperative ventures.

Grímsson has a strong academic background. He built the political science department at the University of Iceland, where he worked from 1970 to 1988, before becoming Icelands minister of finance.

“Iceland,” he said, “is looking for a few key academic partners who can work with us to embrace new challenges.”

The connections between the UW and the University of Iceland are numerous, particularly in the number of Icelandic graduate students here – in engineering, chemistry, geophysics, biology and math.  But Grímsson would like to see greater numbers of UW faculty and students visiting Iceland and collaborating with faculty there.

“Overall, I believe higher education is the greatest change agent within society,” he said. He ticked off four areas of highest priority for him and Iceland: engineering and computer science, climate change and the environment, medical research and information technology.

He offered the resources of Iceland to assist UW researchers who want to use that country as a base for studies of the Arctic. Changes in global climate, he noted, are likely to have profound impacts on the way of life in Iceland, which relies on fishing as a key part of its economy.

Lisa Graumlich, dean of the College of the Environment, responded that Icelands citizens share many sensibilities with the colleges faculty, who are asking, “What is important about climate change? What does it mean for real people and real economies?” She also noted that the college does have an emphasis on Arctic research, suggesting this was indeed a possible avenue of future collaboration.

In response to a question from Jim Jiambalvo, dean of the Foster School of Business, Grímsson commented on the lessons that his country has learned from the financial crisis. “We learned that a crisis this traumatic, even for a very stable country, can pose a threat that is both political and social. Iceland is now emerging from the crisis, but we have instituted political and financial reforms, and we have brought banks and other financial companies to justice. Weve also learned that we need to go ‘back to basics, investing in sectors of the economy that can promise future growth. Having an overly-large banking sector is bad news, because it takes workers with a variety of specialties – not just finance, but science and engineering – and lures them with high salaries away from other, more productive sectors of our economy.” He pointed proudly to earlier investments that Iceland had made in clean energy, investments that have eliminated the need for imported oil and, he said, allowed the economy to recover more quickly.