As extensively as the internationalisation of universities is talked about nowadays, the leadership of Finnish universities has always remained firmly in Finnish hands.
Back in the Grand Duchy times, the University of Helsinki Chancellor position was formally held by the empire’s crown princes, represented by acting chancellors that were often Russian. Ever since Finland gained independence, our universities have been led entirely by Finns for a century.
However, the situation is changing. Last year, the Hanken School of Economics appointed the Canadian David B. Grant as their new Dean of Research.
This June, the University of Vaasa became the first Finnish-language university to appoint a rectorate member from outside Finland, when Martin Meyer from Germany became their Vice-Rector for International Affairs. His previous position was that of Dean and Head of the University of Aberdeen Business School in Scotland. In addition, Meyer has worked as a visiting professor at the School of Technology and Innovations in Vaasa.
While vice-rectors are commonly chosen from positions of responsibility within the university, Rector Jari Kuusisto selected the German-born Meyer who built his career in the UK and speaks no Finnish, and whose existing connection with Vaasa was a mere percentage-based professorship.
Who, then, is Martin Meyer?
Meyer answers a Teams call in his Helsinki apartment. The background for the call is still the beautiful lobby of the University of Aberdeen’s library, but COVID has forced Meyer to work remotely like so many others. The good-humoured professor turns 50 in a couple of years but appears younger than his age. He tells us he is studying Finnish, but for now the interview is conducted in English.
“I am very excited to start work in Vaasa”, Meyer says.
“The University of Vaasa has got a very ambitious plan to increase the number of international students, researchers, and cooperation projects. I believe I will be able to help with this.”
Looking at Meyer’s career path thus far, the faith appears well-placed. His career has practically entailed growing academic communities for nearly 20 years. It began in the English University of Sussex, where he did his PhD in 2002 on nanotechnology cooperation networks between research centres, the business world, and society.
Afterwards, Meyer spent ten years at the University of Sussex. During that decade, he helped develop the university’s School of Business, Management and Economics and found their Department of Business and Management. Post-Sussex, he moved to a similar position at the University of Kent, where he became the Dean of Kent Business School. From there, he moved on to the same position in Aberdeen. And now, next in line is the Vice-Rector position in Vaasa.
Meyer defines himself more as an academic entrepreneur than a researcher.
“My job is to find new connections and opportunities for the university, as well as market the university and our research. This is the same as start-up businesses looking to grow their networks, but on the university side.”
But why Vaasa?
Meyer was already quite familiar with Vaasa. For instance, he has known Rector Kuusisto since the turn of the millennium. From 2011 to 2015, Meyer spent time in Vaasa as part of the Finland Distinguished Professor program for top international professors, also known as FiDiPro.
However, Meyer actually spent most of his time at the Kauhava branch as Director of Research.
“People ask me, ‘Isn’t Vaasa a small place?’ I tell them it is at least bigger than Kauhava.”
Meyer’s British colleagues have reacted curiously to his decision to head to a remote university few have likely heard of.
“The first thing you hear is people talking about how cold it might be over there. But when I tell them more about the university and the renewable energy cooperation plans in Ostrobothnia, many of them start to get interested. When I also have time to mention the archipelago next to Vaasa that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, quite a few start to seem jealous.”
Of course, it is not just the attraction of Ostrobothnia that has lured Meyer to Finland. In fact, it’s the most common story of them all.
In 1995, Meyer was an Erasmus exchange student at the Uppsala University in Sweden. While there, he participated in a Europe-wide writing contest for students, on the topic of how the world was going to change in the next 25 years. Meyer wrote about his views on nanotechnology and how it would change everything.
“Well, that did not quite happen”, he now admits.
He did, however, reach the finals held in London. There, he met another finalist — Tiina from Finland. The two began dating and eventually married. Thus, the couple have already been together for 26 years. Most of that time, however, they have lived in different countries.
“Distance makes the heart grow fonder. That has been our motto”, Meyer says.
However, he has been quite a frequent visitor to Helsinki. Going forward, the couple will mostly be living together because Meyer is mainly going to be working at the Helsinki unit of the University of Vaasa.
“But I am going to be in Vaasa as well! It is important to get to know people personally. I want to be accessible when people want to talk.”
So, in what language should you approach him?
“Yes, I must say you should probably stick to English for now. Maybe in a few years, we could already converse in Finnish.”
At this point, we turn our attention to Vaasa, where Rector Jari Kuusisto answers his phone between meetings. He says he immediately got very excited upon hearing Meyer might be interested in a rectorate position.
“When I think of the makeup of the rectorate, Meyer’s CV definitely made the decision a whole lot easier. We also have a long history with him, and I believe he is the right person for us.”
The legally mandated administrative language at the University of Vaasa is Finnish, but Kuusisto does not think choosing a non-Finnish speaker for an administration job is likely to cause issues.
“Martin’s area of responsibility will be international matters, where English is the most important language. He also will not work alone. And of course, he is learning Finnish as well.”
However, what makes the situation different for Meyer is the fact the rectorate must hold their meetings in English, even if the minutes are still written in Finnish.
The language used also affects thinking, the linguists say. So, is this consistent with the values of a Finnish-language university?
“I understand your question and admit you think a bit differently in English than in Finnish”, Kuusisto articulates.
Regardless, he considers the issue mostly theoretical.
“Really, the universities are sort of between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, we are supposed to internationalise, publish in English-language publications, participate in international projects, and attract students and researchers from abroad. On the other hand, our official languages must legally be domestic. There is a certain tension, which can be seen with Martin as well.”
Meyer plans to help the University of Vaasa internationalise through methods such as increasing the number of international students. However, he has not got any one tip or trick to ensure success.
“I do not really believe in one-size-fits-all solutions. We must assess the situation in Vaasa and consider what kind of students we want and from where.”
More English-language master’s programmes are likely. As such, is the intention to attract paying students from outside the EU’s borders?
“Them too, but not only them. I think you should remember balance when gathering students. I believe a diverse student base is an advantage for the university.”
International students frequently face issues with employment in Finland. While you can manage in English at the university, the job market may pose more difficulties.
“Expert work is of course moving towards English everywhere, so in those terms English is still important in Finland as well. But it would certainly be useful to also learn Finnish or Swedish.”
Meyer still believes that, in a way, an expert does not even have a home country. Despite being born in Germany himself and living there for the first 20 years of his life, he does not call himself German.
But what if he were to whack his finger with a hammer? Would he yell out in German?
“No, I think that would be in English now. Or in Finnish! You have expressive swear words!”
Text: Juha Merimaa
Images: Veikko Somerpuro
Translation: Marko Saajanaho