Swedish Academy in Crisis as 3 Members Quit Amid #MeToo Scandal
Posted April 7, 2018 5:15 p.m. EDT
STOCKHOLM — The Swedish Academy, which awards the Nobel Prize in literature, was hit this past week by one of its worst crises in decades after three members walked out and a fourth threatened to quit in the wake of abuse accusations against a cultural figure with close ties to the institution.
On Friday, academy members Klas Ostergren, Kjell Espmark and Peter Englund said they were leaving their seats. A fourth member, Sara Stridsberg, said she was considering doing so.
But the academy has 18 members who are elected for life, and there is no provision for resignations, meaning the seats of those who quit remain unfilled until their deaths. If one more member walks out, however, the academy will no longer have the 12-member quorum required to vote in new members.
Per Wästberg, chairman of the Nobel Prize Committee, said the Nobel Prize was not at risk. “For that you only need a simple majority and you have a quorum when eight members are present.”
The academy members acted after a long-simmering scandal, which erupted in November during the rise of the #MeToo movement. The Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter reported that 18 women had accused Jean-Claude Arnault, a major figure in cultural society who had close ties to the Swedish Academy, of sexual assault and harassment.
On Saturday, Bjorn Hurtig, a lawyer for Arnault, said: “My client, Mr. Arnault, denies all charges directed against him.”
Arnault ran a private cultural club called the Forum that was considered a gateway to Swedish cultural life.
The Swedish Academy had provided financial support to the Forum, which is co-owned by Arnault and his wife, poet Katarina Frostenson, a member of the academy. The basement club drew writers, musicians and other artists to perform on its stage.
Police opened a preliminary investigation in December, though parts of the inquiry were closed in March because the statute of limitations on some of the accusations had run out. Two days after the accusations became public, the academy severed all ties and funding to Arnault.
In December, the academy hired a law firm to investigate each member’s ties to him. While the firm recommended filing a police report against the cultural club, the academy has chosen not to, the daily newspaper Svenska Dagbladet reported Saturday.
Sara Danius, the academy’s permanent secretary, told Svenska Dagbladet that while the academy is not responsible for the abuse of the women, many of the members say they believe that the name of the Swedish Academy may have been thrown around to facilitate those abuses.
“It is our responsibility to react against that,” she said.
Ostergren was the first to announce his departure. In an email to Svenska Dagbladet, he wrote: “The Swedish Academy has for a long time had serious problems and has now tried to solve them in a way that puts obscure considerations before its own rules and which constitute a betrayal to its founders.”
Espmark, the second to leave, wrote in an email to Swedish news outlets that he could no longer participate in the academy’s work when “leading voices within the academy put friendship and other irrelevant considerations” before its integrity.
Englund announced his departure with a statement on his blog: “Decisions were made that I don’t believe in nor can defend, and I have therefore decided to no longer participate in the Swedish Academy’s work.”
Besides deciding on the laureate for the Nobel Prize in literature, the Swedish Academy, founded in 1786, distributes about $3 million in stipends annually.
Danius said Friday that the academy would revisit the life-appointments rule with the aim of making it possible for members to resign and be replaced. She also told Svenska Dagbladet that after the investigation, the conclusion was that Arnault did not have any influence on the Swedish Academy’s awards.
The inquiry did conclude that secrecy rules on Nobel Prize deliberations had been broken on numerous occasions. In addition, by awarding financial support to the cultural club, it noted, the academy was, in effect, awarding one of its members, Frostenson.
“We have broken our own rules,” Danius said. However, no police complaints have been made against Frostenson, who has not spoken publicly about the matter and could not be reached for comment Saturday.