Jari Niemelä, Professor of Urban Ecology, was Rector of the University of Helsinki from 2018 to 2022 and retired late this spring. He passed away after a prolonged illness at the age of 64 on 5 July 2022.
As a scholar, an administrator and a human being, Niemelä was above all focused on sustainable development, biodiversity and combating climate change. He had a doctorate in natural sciences and was originally an entomologist with a particular interest in ground beetles. He would often preface his opening remarks at various functions with a beetle anecdote before proceeding to the topic at hand.
Niemelä was elected Professor of Urban Ecology in 2000. Before being appointed Rector, he was Director of the Helsinki Institute of Sustainability Science (HELSUS) in 2018 and Dean of the Faculty of Biological and Environmental Sciences from 2004 to 2017. While Dean, he was in charge of the HENVI network for environmental research and was also involved in heading the urban studies network.
Niemelä was a community builder and a proponent of wellbeing at the University, besides being an active opinion leader in society at large. He gained the trust of the entire University community with his practices and his personality and provided the University with leadership rooted in its values: truth, Bildung, freedom and inclusivity. In everything he did – including treating his illness – he relied on science and evidence-based knowledge.
Jari’s colleagues and his doctoral students describe him as a dependable, calm and encouraging manager and mentor who encouraged them to explore new approaches, and he was always open to new ideas. He was a dependable and consistent supervisor whom one could consult on any issue. Despite having a multitude of responsibilities to attend to, he always found time to discuss science and to give feedback on manuscripts, problems in working life and life situations in general.
Jari was a diplomatic negotiator with the ability to engage in agile conversation with anyone on any topic, with full attention and courtesy for the other party. While dedicated to the University and to science, he also had a fair measure of wit. His celebrated advice for doctoral students preparing to defend their thesis was this: have a swig of cognac before the event, and if the opponent asks something, never admit anything.
Niemelä was active in society at large beyond the University as well. He was variously chair of WWF Finland and a member of the Board of the Maj and Tor Nessling Foundation, which supports research promoting environmental protection and the leveraging of environmental research data in society. He was also on the Board of the Hanasaari Swedish-Finnish Cultural Centre. He spent his free time with his family and in outdoor recreation.
Niemelä’s vision on scholarship can be summarised in his opening words at the course on scientific writing: “We should have a dream, we should publish good papers. A dream is not a proper dream until it is published.”
Sari Lindblom, Rector, University of Helsinki
Tarja Halonen, President, Chair of the Board of the University of Helsinki 2018–2021
Susanna Lehvävirta, Research Director, Helsinki Institute of Sustainability Science (HELSUS)
Jari Niemelä’s funeral were held on 5 August with only immediate family attending. At the family’s request, instead of flowers his memory may be honoured by making a donation to the University of Helsinki sustainability fund or to WWF Finland.
Donations to the sustainability fund can be made online or by bank transfer to “Helsingin yliopiston rahastot”, Nordea: IBAN = FI15 1660 3001 0767 70, BIC = NDEAFIHH. In the message field, enter “Sustainability Fund, in memory of Jari Niemelä, [your name], [your contact details]”.