When Professor Jari Niemelä in late January 2022 announced that he was relinquishing his position as the rector of the University of Helsinki for health-related reasons, social media was flooded with warm-hearted greetings and acknowledgments from a number of University community members and partners. Many pointed to a particular aspect of Niemelä’s rectorship: elevating measures relating to sustainable development to the strategic level.
Niemelä too lists this as one of the highlights of his term, which began in August 2018.
“I am truly happy and impressed by how we worked on the new strategic plan for 2021–2030 with the entire community. I’m also very pleased that sustainability and responsibility were considered throughout the University as themes important enough to have as one of our four strategic choices. We want to be a leader in sustainability and responsibility, which will be reflected in all University operations,” Niemelä says.
Niemelä points out that, through its strategic plan, the University of Helsinki is also contributing to achieving the sustainable development goals of the United Nations’ global Agenda 2030. In addition, the University has held a key role in drawing up the theses on sustainable development and responsibility of Universities Finland UNIFI, published in autumn 2020.
As another high point of his rectorship, Niemelä points to the significance of striving for quality.
“The University of Helsinki recently passed the audit of its quality management system with flying colours. It’s a wonderful demonstration of how seriously we take the promotion of quality. It is part of everyday activity, which was seen in the audit results as well.”
During his term as the rector, Jari Niemelä had long-term absences due to illness on a few occasions. Those circumstances brought to the fore the significance of the tightly-knit relations between the rector and vice-rectors for the University’s management and leadership.
“I can honestly say that ours has been a genuine ‘dream team’. The team of four vice-rectors has collaborated successfully with me, and we’ve supported one another at all times,” Niemelä says, offering praise.
Research-based knowledge lays the groundwork for sustainability expertise in society
The themes of sustainable development, biodiversity loss and climate change have dominated Niemelä’s long career as a researcher and as an academic leader. With a PhD in entomology, Niemelä is professor of urban ecology, and from 2004 to 2017 he served as the dean of the University of Helsinki’s Faculty of Biological and Environmental Sciences. As dean, he headed the Helsinki University Centre for Environment (HENVI) network and the network for urban studies. Before assuming the rectorship, Niemelä served as the director of the University of Helsinki's Helsinki Institute of Sustainability Science HELSUS.
“Above all, my work has been characterised by multidisciplinarity. I've had great opportunities to collaborate in all of my positions with researchers representing several different themes and fields, from the natural sciences to the social sciences,” he says.
After relinquishing his position as the rector, Niemelä went on research leave and assumed specialist executive duties at the University until August 2023. In relation to both, he will focus on questions related to sustainable development.
“Through research, teaching and public engagement, their three core duties, Finnish universities hold a substantial role in promoting sustainable development. The research conducted at the University lays the groundwork for how sustainability is understood and what kind of sustainable and responsible choices society makes.”
Niemelä is particularly keen to inspire young people to turn their attention to matters related to sustainability.
“They are justifiably worried about the future. Our students must have at their disposal the best knowledge available to utilise for their own benefit and that of society.”
In this regard, Niemelä is currently working on two books that focus on sustainable development and environmental education. The books are part of the public engagement efforts Niemelä wishes to carry out, especially by actively communicating on the impact of research.
What, then, might our future look like if we are able to curb biodiversity loss?
“In that case, the future of course looks bright! Then again, we have to keep in mind that we are still travelling in a bad direction. In Finland, as many as 12% of all animal species are classified as threatened. At the same time, other species thrive in the current conditions, demonstrating that change is never one-sided.”
Niemelä believes that people want to live in harmony with nature and take care of their environment. However, this requires knowledge and the motivation to act.
“We at the University have a crucial role in inspiring people to adopt a sustainable lifestyle. We hold the ideas and knowledge with which the course of development can still be corrected.”