Four years as Chancellor

Chancellor Thomas Wilhelmsson retires at the end of September. His four years of service have been filled with hundreds of cups of coffee, and €40 million in fundraising.

Just about four years ago, the then newly appointed Chancellor Thomas Wilhelmsson joked in his speech to his successor, Rector Jukka Kola, that the job of the chancellor is to grace events with his presence and leave the dirty work to the rector.

– Actually that line probably goes back to Chancellor Palmén, Wilhelmsson says now.

The joke is that the chancellor has few obligatory duties.

Willhelmsson himself steered the office strongly towards fundraising, which he had become familiar with during his years as rector. As chancellor, he found that doors opened for him with less effort.

– It was almost a surprise to see how esteemed the chancellor of the University of Helsinki is as a brand.

Fundraising requires groundwork

Over the years, the chancellor has sat at the country’s most important coffee tables, from chambers of government to corporate offices.

– I’ve probably had coffee with the heads of all of Finland’s major corporations, he laughs.

It has paid off: together with fundraising staff, he has collected more than €40 million in donations for the University. 

– We don’t go in begging for money, we negotiate a partnership. Of course a donation is offered as one possible alternative.

According to Wilhelmsson, forming partnerships requires a surprising amount of groundwork. The upper management in major companies are typically engineers or MBAs, and they may not be familiar with the research and other work of the University of Helsinki.

Getting to know politicians

According to the Universities Act, the chancellor promotes science and scholarship and the University’s community relations, as well as oversees the University’s interests and activities. The chancellor also has the right to be present and speak whenever the Government considers matters that have a bearing on the University. Wilhelmsson has felt that the right to be present at government sessions is an important asset, and he has participated in these several times a year.

– At that point, decisions have typically already been made, but it’s a good place for networking and unofficial lobbying. And that means that it’s government protocol for other events as well to seat the chancellor of the University at the same table with ministers, the chief of defence, the archbishop and the presidents of our highest courts.

The budget cuts targeting the University in 2015 were a severe blow. Nevertheless, Wilhelmsson has hope for the University.

– The cuts have been an incredibly difficult thing for the University, and they should not have happened. But the University is on sound footing. I consistently hear excellent feedback about our research and our students. For example, both our undergraduate exchange students and doctoral students are always praised for their competence when they go abroad.

Return to research

At the end of his term, Wilhelmsson has accrued a total of 19 years in University leadership.

– It’s been an interesting journey. I have been very lucky to be able to lead such a glorious University.

He has no intention of resting on his laurels, as he plans to conclude an agreement with the Faculty of Law regarding an emeritus position. 

– I had to leave in the middle of some extremely interesting research when I was appointed rector. My old colleagues around the world have already been asking when I’ll return.


Thomas Wilhelmsson’s term as chancellor ends on 30 September 2017. The new chancellor as of the beginning of October is DPhil Kaarle Hämeri.