White smoke – New rector appointed at top university

Professor Jukka Kola has been appointed to the top job at the University of Helsinki. He was one of nine applicants, four of whom were shortlisted, for the rector’s post. The university board announced the five-year appointment on 12 June.

Kola (53) has been a part-time vice-rector since 2010, following a five-year stint as dean of agriculture and forestry. He has held the chair of agricultural policy since 1992.

He won the race from a strong field, all internal candidates. The runners up for the supremo’s job included two current vice-rectors, four current faculty deans and two ex-deans. Of the remaining applicants, one was a professor at the university and the other requested anonymity. Both vice-rectors and two of the deans were shortlisted with Kola.

Those in the running until the end, but who will not be moving to the big office, are: Ulla-Maija Forsberg (52), first vice-rector, professor of Finno-Ugrian language studies and formerly dean of arts; Keijo Hämäläinen (49), dean of science and a professor of physics; and Risto Renkonen (52), dean of medicine and a professor of glycobiology.

Kola is the university’s 137th rector, but only the second to be appointed rather than being elected to the post by his peers.

One of the reforms that came out of the Universities Act (2009) was that the rector’s chair is now filled via an appointment process overseen by the university board. Previously, the occupants of many senior positions, including the rector, were ‘elected’ by their peers. The collegial election system is still the modus operandi in many European countries.

The fact that all the identified applicants were current employees of the University of Helsinki is probably a hangover from the previous system of election by peers. Perhaps a future appointment to the top job will be chosen from elsewhere, such as a rector from a university lower down the pecking order.

Old habits die hard, but some observers believe an experienced and capable rector with a track record from elsewhere could also have been an excellent choice. And one day, perhaps, a woman will be chosen to lead the university!

The first appointee since the promulgation of the new act was Professor Thomas Wilhelmsson, who recently became university chancellor. According to Finnish university tradition, the outgoing rector usually assumes the chancellor’s role. Wilhelmsson had also been rector before 2010, elected by his peers.

For outsiders, it seems strange that job applicants’ names could be considered to be public information. Finland seems not to have caught the ‘privacy’ bug to the same extent that some countries have. In Finland there is no need to look for leaks in the personnel pipeline.

* Dr Ian R Dobson is affiliated with the Higher Education Governance, Organisation and Management unit at the University of Helsinki, Finland, and is an honorary research fellow at the University of Ballarat in Australia.