Vice-Dean Hanna Wass: We are all in this together

Hanna Wass is the new Vice-Dean for societal interaction, equality, and sustainability for the period 2022-2025. We have talked about her plans in the new position, the university during the pandemic, and her research on democratic harassment. The interview took place in early February.

What are your priorities for the next four years as Vice-Dean, and in what direction do you think the university should develop in terms of equality and sustainability?

Big question. At this point it seems that the whole job description is enormous, so it’s easier to think in terms of one year and so on. But of course, we also need to see the bigger picture and think about the whole period. The bottom line is that the university has an overall strategy, which we are then implementing at the faculty level, so everything that we do needs to be in line with those bigger goals.

I guess this whole idea of societal interaction has different dimensions in it. Of course, there is one big field, which is how can we increase the societal impact of research, and everything that we do, our visibility in society, in policy-making. That’s one dimension.

The other dimension is alumni cooperation. That also relates to students, because we need to build bridges from studying to working life, and alumni are a great asset in that respect. And that’s precisely what our faculty could do more in cooperation with alumni: teaching and giving guest lectures, or organizing visits to enterprises. Because if you think about it, our faculty basically has networks to all over the society, so that’s a huge reservoir of knowledge and expertise. And our alumni are usually big fans of the faculty, they want to collaborate, to be part. But we of course need to think about a way to engage with them that is reciprocal, so that we are not just asking things, but are also able to provide.

The third dimension is the stakeholder interaction in terms of fundraising. That’s a big part of societal interaction, but it’s also reciprocal. It’s not like we are just asking to get money, it’s well-designed, there are all sorts of engagement. And that is something that is not necessarily that apparent at the faculty level. And then the fourth component is a collaboration with enterprises, which is a new dimension: this kind of innovations and how our researchers and even students would have connections to business life and business thinking in a bigger way.

It does sound like a lot of work.

This is only the societal interaction. There is also well-being, which is another part of my job. Then there is anti-discrimination, equality, and inclusion, and then the fourth component is sustainability. So yeah, I don’t necessarily have a lack of work in that respect… But all of these are extremely important, and also nicely connected to each other. And I guess that well-being is the basis for everything, because if that is jeopardized, there is not very fertile ground for anything else either, because everything that we do is more or less dependent on the well-being and motivation of our students, researchers, and teachers. Without that kind of passion and genuine desire to work for the best of society and the faculty, nothing really happens.

Actually, my second question is related to this. From the point of view of the student or the teacher, where can they meet your work in their everyday life, and what kind of influence does it have on them?

I guess one kind of short-term thing that we are now planning is crowdsourcing of the code of conduct. The entire aim of that exercise is to deal a coherent, cohesive plan or an overall framework of our activities and encounters and the ways we communicate with each other in everyday life, students and teachers alike. This is precisely like I said the basis for well-being. But it’s also important in that respect that we've maybe had a little bit too rosy picture of how students perceive the environment. I don’t know whether you’ve been following the news and discussion that was provoked during the fall term, it even hit Helsingin Sanomat. Some students perceived that there is not necessarily that welcoming environment for students of communications, and also gender equality could be improved. So that was the incentive for us that “hey, we obviously need that kind of framework”. But then the question was how to develop it because it can’t be a top-down process, it needs to be bottom-up. And that’s why we decided to do crowdsourcing.

That can be done in multiple ways, but usually, the idea is that there is some kind of online exchange where people can insert ideas and give input. How we decided to do it is that we have a very basic draft paper to start from, and people can initiate new forms of relations and new types of content. That’s the basis of the exercise. Then we will collect all the possible data, analyse it and use it in order to move towards the actual document. Then the second step is obviously the implementation of that document because it doesn’t really fly if it’s buried on the website: it needs to become vital guidance for our everyday life and interactions. It's going to be a fun exercise and it’s essential that students are involved as well. That’s the kind of thinking that we are not three separate sections, teachers, researchers, and students, but that we are all in this together, and everything that we do needs to be aligned.

What I noticed is that students are actually far ahead of us in terms of this… Kannunvalajat (the Social Sciences Students’ Association at the University of Helsinki) has this 5- or 10-page document of their own code of conduct, and it seems so thorough and so well thought, and I was like “we do need our own if there is something like this already available”. I think students are able to guide us very well in this crowdsourcing exercise. I was thinking that we could implement this in February, now it’s probably going to be in March. But something that is definitely happening during the spring term.

And the other thing that we’re doing is that kind of portal where we are trying to incorporate and include all sorts of scientific impact attempts that our teachers and researchers are doing. Students can also contribute. When we are giving an expert statement, assessment or other highly policy-relevant work, it is at the moment not collected anywhere. I think that our societal and policy impact is much bigger than anyone realizes because we don’t have that kind of reservoir of knowledge. So that would be something that also needs to be done during the spring term.

Sounds like a great project, to have all the information at one place…

It’s not like that kind of knowledge can be gathered from different places because at the moment it’s nowhere except those individual researchers who know what they are doing. But getting the bigger picture could be also a great reservoir for the students, in order to know what’s being done and have access to these documents. Our researchers are producing so much topical and policy-relevant knowledge. For example, the social and health care reform has been approached last spring, and if you look at the overall process, our researchers have probably produced tens and tens of different statements. I myself have given two, and I’m not even an expert in that field. Collecting that in one place would be such a great reservoir, and the possibilities in that respect are rather endless. But of course, it will also require input from individual scholars to make it work.

"We have adapted to the pandemic, but more attention needs to be focused on students’ well-being"

How do you view the functioning of the university during the pandemic, and how do you think the institution was able to adapt to this very new and challenging situation?

I guess the answer depends on who do you ask, and we also have to think about it at different levels. So if we talk about the technical performance, I think we have adapted relatively well, we were able to go to online teaching and then rather rapidly think about more innovative ways to take full advantage of the digital environment and try to make the best out of it. The quality of teaching has not declined dramatically.

But when we now look at the actual figures, the number of people who have been graduating declined, and the online studying is not the same, obviously, not only in terms of experience but also in terms of the actual performance. And I guess one very important reason for it that we haven’t necessarily realized is how much horizontal teaching makes a difference. It’s not only the exchange of information between students and teachers but also all the exchange that is taking place between the students. Now when that dimension has suffered, we are beginning to see the outcome and the impact of that.

That’s why at least in my course we have tried to think of different ways to enhance that dimension. I have now two courses in which students are working in groups, so there are strong incentives or even imperatives for constant collaboration. There are two reasons for that: you work together, and there is also a group that kind of watches over that no student is left behind, and makes sure that no one is getting too isolated and you’re getting some kind of obligation to be in contact with others.

I think that these types of corrective measures are vital but of course, they are no substitute for the actual encounters. And that’s why it’s so important that now we are rapidly moving back to normal. There are of course very positive new innovations that we can incorporate to this new normal, but we also have to make a clear exit plan: this is the end of the pandemic era. It won’t be the same normal that it used to be, but it won’t be the kind of prolonged pandemic either.

So technically I think we have managed rather well, but this well-being dimension might be really alarming, and we haven’t even begun to see all the possible implications. And I think we need all sorts of information gathering in order to find out what has been causing the most severe damage because that type of knowledge is obviously essential in terms of developing and planning the corrective measures. It takes a little while after this kind of a shock to really figure out what are the long-term consequences. So that’s why even though we shift to a new normal, we also need to revisit the possible negative side and negative effects and to make sure that we are not taking them with us.

As you mentioned, the current situation might be very hard on some students. Would you have some kind of advice for them? What can the university do for them, where can they seek support or help?

What we can do as the faculty is that we need to try our best to compensate for the time lost, think of new ways and new kinds of activities to make sure that the rest of the studying experience will be as complete and enjoyable as possible. So thinking about new ways how to interact with students and teachers, different types of get-togethers, and things where we can actually get to know each other in real life. So that’s important.

But of course, when it comes to different types of health implications, it’s always within blurred lines what the teachers can do. Of course, we can listen and try to give that type of support. But when it seems there are more severe issues involved, then of course our expertise ends, and it would not be sustainable or professional for us to move forward. So then there is of course the YTHS, the Finnish Student Health Service.  We’ve been working closely together with them, and I think students are relatively well aware of where to seek help.

It’s also always a question of resources, and we know that the situation could be dramatically better in terms of the availability of mental services: for example, early consulting, which is very important for these potential rising issues to be being tackled before they become something more severe. Speed is the key in that respect. That’s something that us as a university have limited room for manoeuvre, but now as the new parliamentary elections are coming, it can also be put on the agenda: when we are saying that we need more resources, more resources can also be in terms of student health care and well-being.

"When we build protection against democratic harassment, citizens have to be involved"

In the past, you have participated in a number of large research projects, and you’re focusing mainly on health, elections, and political participation. What are you working on right now?

Mostly the same areas. And right now, it’s also democratic harassment, and developing democratically sustainable self-protection. It’s also the topic of a course that I’m teaching at the moment with a bunch of colleagues and experts: we are trying to figure out what kind of different forms of democratic harassment, which is an umbrella concept for anything from electoral interference to social media attacks and hybrid threats, what are those contemporary risks that a democratic regime is facing and what can be a potential solution or counter-action. There is this very nasty tension embedded in democratic defence or democratic self-protection because when you start taking more militant forms of countermeasures, they very easily backfire. And the key question is how do you protect democracy, but stay loyal to the very core principles of democratic regime that should still be ensuring individual rights, rights of minorities, and widespread political participation. If we start banning certain parties or certain types of demonstrations or speech, we are restricting the very core room for manoeuvre for democracy, and we are doing the work for the democratic harassment attackers because we are limiting the democratic domains.

I’ve been applying for funding for this project for quite some time, and now we have another research proposal being assessed by the Academy of Finland. In that proposal, we are trying to think of ways how to build this democratically sustainable protection, and our key point is that in order to be sustainable, citizens need to be involved. They don’t necessarily need to be the executors of the democratic protection, but at least all possible measures need to be co-designed with citizens, and citizens need to have a perception that it’s their democracy, so if there will be some kind of restrictive measures, those are accepted, and the legitimacy is ensured by having a widespread societal discussion and negotiation.

In an article published at the university website in December, you’ve talked about the importance of smaller Finnish municipalities to have representation in regional councils to be able to impact decisions that influence their local interests. What is then your opinion on the results of the recent county elections, where many of these small municipalities were left without representation?

I think it resonates with the idea of what is politics and how policy-making takes place. Of course, one interpretation is the classical that politics is a struggle over our limited resources, that it’s a zero-sum game. And if you have that kind of interpretation, then regional policy-making looks pretty grim: there are these smaller municipalities whose interests are in direct opposition to the bigger municipalities, and it’s a pretty severe battle over power. But maybe that’s not a very useful interpretation in order to build that kind of wider collective or regional level thinking about what are the joint incentives and benefits. Hopefully, these new county councils will quickly understand that the whole logic of decision-making needs to be something else than that type of interpretation because otherwise, it’s going to be really difficult.

And of course, it’s really important to understand that the small municipalities versus bigger central areas is only one kind of tension that is embedded in these county councils. There is also the fact that all the big important decisions like resources allocation are made at the national level, so there might be incentives for representatives of opposition parties to play that card by saying that they can’t do anything because the government is making poor decisions, and not taking full responsibility for their decision-making. That would also be highly harmful. And then of course the third dimension is experts working in the area of social services and health care services, who have that kind of specific knowledge, versus the “general politicians”. Because what we see in the municipal level is that when you have public sector servants included as representatives, it’s usually costly, because they are able to bring that knowledge and information about what is needed in their particular area, and they are usually rather skilful in terms of argumentation, and then, of course, the resources will follow. So that kind of battle could also take place.

And then also we have county councils where even ministers are involved, so there are people with a very different political background, some have none, and some are professional politicians. So there are several dimensions where political competition can take place. But it’s going to be very interesting for a political scientist to follow what kind of decision-making environment will develop.

And my last question: is there some interesting event or course at the faculty, maybe related to your research, that you would recommend us to attend in the spring?

I would definitely recommend both of my courses, but they are now taking place already: it’s the Sustainable Democratic Self-Protection, and Research Methods. But obviously, a brighter side of remote teaching is that we have recorded lectures that can be made available. Like I mentioned, I have experts from different fields in the course: for instance, next Wednesday, we will have a senior analyst from the European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats giving a speech, and there will be a recording of that*. So that could be one possibility to use those individual lectures, not necessarily taking the entire course.


*The lecture by Maxime Lebrun titled Discrediting Democratic Dovernance: Democracy and Populism is available online.