Occupation: Leader

Is the rector first among university professors – or is she/he the CEO of university? We asked five former and current rectors for their take on university leadership.

Text Juha Merimaa Images Outi Kainiemi

Enabler. Director of values. Fulfiller of tasks that go unpraised. A spot between a rock and a hard place. Academic management professional. A service mission.

Rectors describing their various roles

As long as there have been universities, there have been rectors. In fact, the rector’s position is one of the most important in the university setting. However, even during Russian rule the rector changed frequently, even annually. The idea was that, despite their status, the rector was only one professor, Primus inter pares, “first among peers”– somewhat like an archbishop.

However, the world changed and universities with it. Whereas the University of Helsinki had four administrative staff members in the early 1910s – a quaestor (treasurer), a secretary and two bedels (officers of the court) – there are now 1,208.

Despite the growth of the administration, the role of rector was for a long time seen as a fixed-term position. “Current rector of the University of Helsinki,” read the self-explanatory stamp used under the rector’s signature, emphasizing temporariness, up until the 1970s. Typically, the single term of office fell at the end of a professor’s career, after which he became chancellor or simply retired.

Typically, the single term of office fell at the end of a professor’s career, after which he became chancellor or simply retired.

In the 21st century, however, the situation looks different. As the election of rectors shifted from the university community to boards governed by non-university members, the criteria for the role of rector also changed. Throughout the country, a new set of academic leaders emerged, ones whose career paths can accommodate transitions from one university leadership position to another, somewhat like CEOs or mayors.

Throughout the country, a new set of academic leaders emerged, ones whose career paths can accommodate transitions from one university leadership position to another.

However, the basic tasks of the university – 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 – have not changed at all.

What do the rectors themselves think of all this? We asked five who were involved in the university management at different stages of the 21st century. The descriptions at the beginning of the article are these rectors’ views of the roles they fulfilled.

The first one to switch universities

“In my opinion, the current governance model of universities can produce very good governance,” says Mauri Ylä-Kotola, Professor of Media Studies at the University of Lapland.

“On the other hand, I personally enjoyed myself more in the old-fashioned university of civil servants, where the rector was elected by a tripartite, that is, by a joint decision of the professors, other staff members and students.”

“In my opinion, the current governance model of universities can produce very good governance,”

Mauri Ylä-Kotola, Professor or Media Studies at the University of Lapland

Such a perspective can be surprising, as Ylä-Kotola was the first modern rector to switch from one university to another. In 2005, at the age of 33, he was elected rector of the then Academy of Fine Arts. The following year, Ylä-Kotola became rector of the University of Lapland, a position he held for three terms, until 2019.

Ylä-Kotola sees his own career path as very different from that of the rectors elected by boards.

“Before I was elected rector of the Academy of Fine Arts, I was Dean of the Faculty of Art and Design at the University of Lapland, but I also had a background as a teacher at the Academy of Fine Arts. So I came to both universities as if from within the community. Students, not headhunters, asked me to apply to the Academy of Fine Arts.”

Ylä-Kotola is a philosopher, which accounts for the nature of his answers. He takes few absolute positions; it all depends on the situation. Thus, he doesn’t see it as bad that the government selects the rector entirely from outside the university.

“I would draw the line at having the board hire a consulting company to make the choice. The university board itself should know who is being pursued.”

Mauri Ylä-Kotola

“Sometimes it can definitely be a good solution. But I would draw the line at having the board hire a consulting company to make the choice. The university board itself should know who is being pursued.”

From outside to management

The Rector of the University of Jyväskylä, Keijo Hämäläinen, was elected from outside the university. He was previously the Vice Rector for Research and Teaching at the University of Helsinki. In his opinion, the choice to bring in someone from the outside was by no means special.

“I had held management positions at the university for a long time at the departmental level, as dean and vice-rector. Those were the places I was elected to from among the community. The election of the rector in Jyväskylä was accompanied by a consultation of the university community.”

“The election of the rector in Jyväskylä was accompanied by a consultation of the university community.”

Keijo Hämäläinen, Rector of the University of Jyväskylä

Jukka Kola, Rector of the University of Turku, who served as Rector of the University of Helsinki from 2013–2018, considers the current method of choosing a rector appropriate. According to him, the modern election of a rector could not really be done in a large body like a collegium or an academic board (konsistori).

“If applicants were subject to aptitude tests, it would probably not be appropriate to disseminate the results very widely.”

However, all interviewees are of the opinion that not everyone is eligible for the position of university rector and that the candidate should be either a professor or a researcher with the competence of a professor. Only Ylä-Kotola thinks this depends on the situation.

“I think it is related to respect for the community,” says Liisa Laakso, a senior researcher at the Nordic Africa Institute, who served as rector of the University of Tampere from 2016–2018 until the merger of the universities negated the term.

“The rector must enjoy the trust and appreciation of the community. The academic world is meritocratic, and professors are its most merited group. It’s hard to imagine that anyone from outside the world of research could achieve a similar position.”

“The rector must enjoy the trust and appreciation of the community. The academic world is meritocratic, and professors are its most merited group.”

Liisa Laakso, senior researcher at the Nordic Africa Institute

Laakso herself was Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Helsinki before applying for the position at Tampere.

Tuula Teeri, Aalto University’s first rector, was elected from outside the Finnish university community, from the position of Vice Rector of the Royal Swedish University of Technology. She feels that as an outsider, her situation was easier to manage than if applying from within.

“A ‘change director’ was needed to start a new university. As an outsider, it was easier to take on a role that did not stigmatize you as an advocate for any university affiliated with Aalto.”

Still, she thought it was good that, in addition to the post of rector, she received a professorship from Aalto, although she did not have time to study or teach.

“I think the professorship gives the rector a certain status.”

“I think the professorship gives the rector a certain status.”

Tuula Teeri, Aalto University’s first rector

Keijo Hämäläinen also received a professorship from Jyväskylä after becoming rector. On the other hand, Jukka Kola does not have a professorship, because his field, agricultural policy, does not have a chair in Turku.

Under board supervision

Under the current University Act, the highest decision-making body of a university is its board. And, under public law, university boards consist of external members and representatives of the university community, whereas in a foundation university, the entire board may come from outside the university.

The rectors interviewed herein consider the division of power between board and rector to function quite well – mostly. Ylä-Kotola says that during the preparation of the University Act, he advocated for an internationally common model in which the rector would also serve as chair of the board, though this did not receive support from others.

“I see that it is also in my interest to have a self-explanatory supervisor, the chairman of the board,” says Keijo Hämäläinen.

“I see that it is also in my interest to have a self-explanatory supervisor, the chairman of the board.”

Keijo Hämäläinen, Rector of the University of Jyväskylä

For the most part, the rectors say that cooperation with the boards has gone well. There is still room for improvement, however. According to Liisa Laakso, the terms of office for the members of the board should be designed so that not everything changes at once, or else continuity may suffer.

Jukka Kola, for his part, thinks that the chairman of the board and preferably all members of the board should have a good understanding of the university’s operations from the very beginning.

“Familiarizing the board with both the work of the board and the activities of the university is very important.”

The boards of foundation universities sometimes raise eyebrows. Tuula Teeri, who led a foundation university, Aalto, sees external boards as a resource.

“I was sometimes asked if I considered [non-university] outsiders smarter. I do not, of course. But I think they could offer new perspectives.”

Still, Teeri ended up establishing a professors’ council at Aalto to gather insight from professors.

The interviewed rectors also consider it justified that the board may dismiss a rector, much like a CEO is let go, in the middle of their term. Such power comes with responsibility.

The interviewed rectors also consider it justified that the board may dismiss a rector, much like a CEO is let go, in the middle of their term. Such power comes with responsibility. But how much power does the rector have in the end?

The rector’s cottage

“The rector is running this cottage,” concludes the first chair of the University of Helsinki’s board, Minister Antti Tanskanen, in an interview with Yliopisto magazine in 2009, when the new University Act was introduced. In the current model, the rector elects not only vice rectors but also deans. The rectors find this to be justified.

“Deans are the rectors’ most important partners. It is clear that the connection must work,” says Kola.

Hämäläinen also mentions gender equality, which is difficult to achieve if each faculty chooses its own dean.

“Deans are elected on the proposal of the faculty. In my opinion, it would be best if there were a few options from which the rector can then choose the one that suits the whole.”

Still, respondents do not unreservedly believe that power is concentrated in top management. On several occasions, one will hear the comparison of leading professors to herding cats: it is challenging to steer everyone in the same direction.

Liisa Laakso also points out the complexity of the university’s structures.

“Deans are the rectors’ most important partners. It is clear that the connection must work.”

Jukka Kola, Rector of the University of Turku

“The university has faculties and disciplines. Then there may be a university hospital with its own administration and normal schools with their own. And so on. Then there is the Ministry of Education and Culture and the national research and science policy it implements. I would say that even for a rector, it is often challenging to get even good ideas through.”

Several also point out that there is little to be said by rectors in the recruitment of professors, even though this is a key means of exercising their power. In theory the rector could block a selection, but rejecting a much-prepared proposal would be an awkward solution.

Universities are also known as communities that are resistant to change. The former rector of the University of Helsinki, Kari Raivio, once likened the changes made at the university to relocating the cemetery: both receive the same amount of help from the parties involved.

Still, dissidents need to be accepted and listened to, Mauri Ylä-Kotola says.

“No censorship or retaliation is right for the university. It is not appropriate for the rector to think that they have been chosen as a lead singer who does not have to listen to [other bandmembers].”

At Aalto Tuula Teeri says that she has held the line that mere opposition is not sufficient as an argument.

“I always like to listen to better suggestions.”

“Even for a rector, it is often challenging to get even good ideas through.”

Liisa Laakso

Table of difficult things

Is the rector’s job any… fun?

Interviewees’ answers to this question were evasive. Many emphasize the rigor and fascinating aspects of the work but also the results they achieve.

Keijo Hämäläinen considers the best part of his work the fact that he can be proud of the entire university.

“The same way a professor can be satisfied when a student succeeds, I can now rejoice in the success of the entire university. Whenever I read about the achievements of the University of Jyväskylä, my mood brightens.”

On the other hand, the work can be hard. Hämäläinen mentions that most of the issues that have come to the rector’s table have already been broached elsewhere.

The hardest part was experienced by Kola during his term of office. Due to cuts made by Juha Sipilä’s government, the University of Helsinki had to go through codetermination negotiations that affected the entire university.

“Presenting and implementing even nasty decisions is part of the job.”

Jukka Kola

Although the final decisions were made by the board, they were strongly personified by the rector.

“Presenting and implementing even nasty decisions is part of the job,” says Kola. “Although it wasn’t always easy.”

Kola felt that his work was interrupted. He applied to the University of Helsinki for a second term but was not elected.

The rector labor market

The rector’s position was established at the University of Turku in autumn 2018. Kola applied and was elected. He started in Turku in 2019.

Is such a transfer a sign of the birth of a new profession? Have rectors become a professional group with a research career in the past and management in the future?

It would seem so, Liisa Laakso says. After becoming Rector of the University of Tampere, she had already lost her permanent position at the University of Helsinki. She did not have a professorship at Tampere. She applied for the post of rector of the University of Helsinki but was not elected and did not even receive the position of visiting researcher, as it was thought to be a vote of no confidence for elected management.

She was left empty-handed until she secured a temporary and then a permanent position at the Nordic Africa Institute as a senior researcher.

There were other job offers – for management positions though, not for researchers.

“At least for my part it would seem that whoever is in the management of the university is seen above all as a leader, no longer as a teacher or researcher. And that they asked to apply for such positions: as rector, vice-rector and director of a research institute.”

“It would seem that whoever is in the management of the university is seen above all as a leader, no longer as a teacher or researcher.”

Liisa Laakso

Tuula Teeri confirms such an observation. After finishing as Aalto’s rector in 2021 in the middle of her second term, she moved to Sweden to become CEO of the Royal Academy of Engineering. There were also offers of rector positions from universities all over the world. Teeri herself does not find this problematic.

“Personally, I think all good things must come to an end. I spent eight years as rector and ten years in management positions. After that I don’t know if I would have been a very good researcher anymore. The management positions of the universities were no longer of interest to me either,” says Teeri.

“Still, I think academic leadership is a species of its own. I think it is justified to ask people who are qualified in this field to fill this role elsewhere.”

D.Soc.Sc. Arto Aniluoto, who has studied university management, has also been interviewed for the article.

Recommended articles

Families in Focus

The negotiations of this spring are done on the universities’ part, and an agreement has been reached. The family leave reform was packaged into the collective agreement, but it did not come free of charge.