Last fall, students of political science and communication submitted a serious public notice to the Faculty: enough is enough. Unhealthy behavioral patterns had been rooted in the community, making some of the students a target of belittling and bullying.
We soon realized that these experiences reflected the problems of academic meritocracy more generally. When an individual's position in the community is based on merit and performance, the neighbor becomes a competitor.
The most corrosive consequence of meritocracy is self-centeredness, which thins the connection to the collective. These prerequisites make it difficult to build a supportive atmosphere for students who quickly learn the house rules.
In a community where some members experience unworthiness and exclusion, no one is doing well. A social scientist’s response in such a situation is structural reform. The first step was to develop an ethical code of conduct for the Faculty that everyone could accept and commit to. We conducted crowdsourcing using the otakantaa.fi platform. This pilot was a kick-off for a more extensive process of building a fair and safe community culture together that would enact three core values: diversity, equality and inclusion.
The pilot revealed shortcomings related to identity, language and working relationships, as well as with management’s readiness to deal with problems. The most startling observation was perhaps the experience of powerlessness. When the essential guidelines are made in the ministry and “central management”, the faculty's equality projects may seem to be only naïve diligence.
The most effective way to fight against powerlessness is to provide channels for effective engagement. The University of Helsinki is currently conducting a study of the state of internal democracy and power structures. This offers a valuable opportunity to develop new forms of participation that can be closely connected to decision-making processes.
University democracy enhances knowledge-based solutions: innovations such as crowdsourcing not only strengthen community, but are also a way to harness all the brains embedded in the community for a common good. At the same time, students discover that there is more to do at university than just compete.
The author is the Vice-Dean at the Faculty of Social Sciences.
This editorial has been published in Finnish in issue 8/2022 of the Yliopisto magazine.