Speech at the University’s opening ceremony, Rector Jari Niemelä, 3 September 2018

Dear Chancellor, Chair of the University Board, your excellencies, and staff, students and friends of the University community,

This summer will be remembered for years to come. We basked in glorious sunshine for days on end, swam in warm water and enjoyed tropical evenings. We crowded the terraces of bars and restaurants and savoured an almost Mediterranean pace of life. Such a dry summer took us by surprise.

At first, we Finns were excited: at long last, a proper summer! But when the heat and drought continued week after week, the disadvantages gradually became apparent. Fields became parched and dry, crops turned brown, berries suffered, forests were ablaze, and the Baltic Sea became toxic with cyanobacterial blooms. 

Experts discussed whether the heatwave was the result of normal weather variation or due to climate change. According to researchers, periods of hot weather cannot be directly linked to climate change, but predictions indicate that extreme weather phenomena are likely to increase. As a biologist, I am concerned about the effects of climate change on nature and, hence, our society. The warm summer led to the mass occurrence of the European spruce bark beetle on such a scale that it even posed a threat to healthy spruce. Southern insect species are increasingly spreading to Finland. Over the past 15 years, more than 100 species of butterflies have spread to Finland, changing the Finnish butterfly fauna so that it is currently comparable to that of Southern Estonia. Meanwhile, northern species have suffered. The situation is particularly difficult because the Arctic Ocean prevents species from moving further north.

Climate change affects our society in many ways. The masses of European spruce bark beetle eat away at the foundation of our forestry sector. The drought endangers our food supply. The heat poses a health risk. The rain water drains in cities are incapable of handling the downpours. 

In understanding such changes, the top-level research conducted at the University of Helsinki plays a key role. It shows us how nature reacts to climate change and how these responses are reflected in our society. As a multidisciplinary university, we provide information on both natural phenomena and social changes. It is particularly important that our research can help decision-makers prevent climate change. Our active researchers seek to benefit Finnish society by collaborating with the end-users of their research. This is how top-level research and its utilisation can be integrated into public engagement to address global challenges.

High-level research and teaching guarantee that the University of Helsinki ranks among the leading universities in the world. The results of an assessment published just a few weeks ago again showed that the University of Helsinki is firmly placed in the top 100 among the 16,000 universities in the world. This is a major achievement for which all of you deserve credit.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Our country’s education, learning and future rely on the research and teaching carried out at universities. Important members of the academic community laid the foundation for Finland’s independence and educational and cultural achievements. Now it is up to us to continue this tradition. The educational capital generated by universities also enables us to improve our society’s wellbeing.

This educational mission is stated in the Universities Act succinctly – and even nobly – as follows: the mission of the universities is to promote independent academic research as well as academic and artistic education, to provide research-based higher education and to educate students to serve their country and humanity at large. Consider these keywords: independent research, academic education, higher education and the education of students. The mission entrusted to us is astonishingly extensive. And what could be a nobler mission than educating students to serve their country and humanity at large?

Every member of the University community can contribute to the achievement of this goal. We can progress towards the goal of education and learning through all our actions, whether these take the form of a professor writing a paper, a student struggling with an examination, or University Services staff developing support systems for students and researchers.

One of the most widely known stories of working together for a common goal relates to President Kennedy’s visit to NASA’s space centre in 1962. Just a year earlier, Kennedy had declared that the US would commit itself to achieving the goal of landing a man on the moon before the end of the decade. While touring the space centre, the President is said to have encountered a janitor mopping the floor and to have asked him what he did at NASA. “Mr President, I’m helping put a man on the moon,” the janitor responded. This story is used as an example of how all members of a successful organisation must be aware of the common purpose and commit to it. 

For the University of Helsinki, the moral of the story is that only by acting jointly and purposefully can we achieve our targets. All tasks are important to attain the objective outlined in our Strategic Plan: to be a force for global impact in interaction. Everyone’s contribution is needed to achieve that goal.

As I see it, the rector’s mission is to create the conditions needed to bring about this objective. Our efforts to build an even stronger University are grounded on a solid basis: our staff are proficient and committed and our students are highly motivated.

The strengthening of the University requires that it is autonomous. We must remain vigilant to ensure that our autonomy is not eroded, so that we can continue to make our own decisions in the future. Only an autonomous university can direct its activities so that its research, education and public engagement become stronger for the benefit of learning and society at large.

The principle of democracy is the cornerstone of decision-making at an autonomous university. At the University of Helsinki, decision-making bodies are based on the appropriate representation of all staff groups and students. All members of the community should also have the opportunity to participate in preparing decisions. This is vital for a sense of community and collegiality and enables the utilisation of the community’s expertise in decision-making, thereby promoting the general acceptance of decisions and, hence, the wellbeing of the community members. 

In addition to having autonomy, a strong university must enable its staff and students to focus on their core duties. To this end, the University of Helsinki must ensure that its staff can work undisturbed and must promote workplace wellbeing. In fact, the wellbeing of our community is so important that I wish to draw attention to it as our new value.

In accordance with our Strategic Plan, we place the focus on students. They are members of our community, and supporting their learning is a responsibility shared by all. This is why undisturbed operations, wellbeing and community also affect our student body.

To promote community and collegiality, the rector and vice-rectors will tour the campuses this autumn. We wish to make ourselves available to the academic community and contribute to its cohesion. We also wish to increase commitment by improving the opportunities of community members to be heard in matters that concern the University as a whole. I would like to invite all of you to participate and encourage others to participate in these sessions, and to provide constructive feedback.

The University of Helsinki is a bilingual institution, with Finnish and Swedish as its official languages. Our goal is for an increasing number of our community members to feel that they work in a genuine and vibrant bilingual environment. For example, our bilingual degrees (i.e., degrees offered in Finnish and Swedish) have proved an excellent means of encouraging students – and teachers – to practise their language skills. A degree from the University of Helsinki should open doors in all Nordic countries, and our graduates should be capable of using Swedish in Nordic contexts.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I would like to emphasise the importance of our mission of edification, which will only become more important in our increasingly complex and fast-paced society. I find it imperative that the University not only reflects on current social values, but also initiates discussion and sets the direction. However, discussion is not enough – we must also take action. Accordingly, the University of Helsinki wishes to be a pioneer in issues of equality. 

The principles of sustainable development must also be taken into account in both the discussion of values and their practical application. Sustainable development and corporate social responsibility will be emphasised in the University’s operations. The goal is for the University of Helsinki to serve as an example and a pioneer in this respect. Consequently, we will work together to improve the sustainability and corporate social responsibility of our organisation. We have a good opportunity to serve as a forerunner in this both in Finland and abroad.

I would like to return to the importance of education. The welfare of a small country such as Finland depends on having a first-rate education system. It is important to ensure that early childhood, comprehensive and upper secondary education together provide an excellent basis for academic studies. We must increase the number of pupils who complete general upper secondary school and must promote equality in education. Universities must also have sufficient resources to complete their educational mission.

I am especially concerned about the number of school drop-outs. Adolescent boys, in particular, are at risk of being excluded from the education system. Up to one in five Finnish men aged 30 have completed no qualifications after comprehensive education. I would like to emphasize that the University of Helsinki continuously produces new research data on the different development stages of young people. Decision-makers should utilize the research in their educational planning. Social exclusion represents a personal tragedy and a lost opportunity for the adolescents themselves as well as an untapped resource for the nation.

As the rector of the University of Helsinki, I have a request for decision-makers: we need to develop a shared understanding of science, education and learning as areas in which we as a nation invest regardless of economic cycles. We need not only sufficient resources, but also the opportunity to engage in long-term development based on the specific needs of science and research. This is what autonomy is about and this is how we can produce the high-quality research and expertise that generate learning and wellbeing.

To the staff and students here today, I would like to say: the University’s senior management will do all it can to ensure that we can all do our jobs well. As the rector, I will defend the educational and research mission of Finnish universities. The resources granted to science and universities must be secured so that we can continue to perform our work long into the future.

To the students, I wish you the motivation and enthusiasm to do well in your studies. In addition to studying, I also hope you spend time growing as individuals and members of the academic community. Face-to-face discussions and meetings are particularly important in a world saturated by social media.

I wish the staff and students of the University of Helsinki a successful new academic year.