Rector Kalervo Väänänen: “Universities Have to Protect Nature and Culture”
Universities have a central role in building an ecological society and treasuring civilisation, believes Kalervo Väänänen whose term as the Rector is coming to an end in July 2019.
Väänänen has enjoyed spending time in the nature ever since he was a little child collecting pine cones in the forests of north-east Finland. Later on, he switched pine cones to berries and says that he picks them whenever he gets a break from work.
– My real profession is berry picker. Being a Rector is just a hobby on the side, jokes Väänänen.
However, along with the personal relationship to nature, a worry about its state also began to grow. As the Rector of the University of Turku, Väänänen has consciously wanted to ensure that environmental issues are emphasised in research as well as other operations.
– I have always considered it important to support research projects that study the state of the environment and, in best cases, look for solutions to the problems. We have to seek answers to those questions that are possible to solve. I’m worried, for example, about the state of the Archipelago Sea and the entire Baltic Sea. I was happy to discover that there are well over a hundred ongoing projects on sustainable development at the University of Turku. Not only in the natural sciences but also in many other fields, says Väänänen.
In December 2018, the University Board decided that the University of becomes carbon neutral by the end of the year 2025. Väänänen believes that universities should be in the front line in creating an environmentally sustainable society.
– As institutions based on research and rationality, universities should be at least a decade ahead of the rest of society so that we can lead the way. To achieve carbon neutrality in the University’s activities, we most probably have to create carbon sinks and maybe even buy emission allowances. The goal is ambitious but I believe it to be possible, and we should make it. The work for reaching the goal has already begun; first, all the activities are reviewed from the perspective of sustainable development and after that we will plan our actions. Travel and facilities are the largest contributors to our carbon emissions, says Väänänen.
The retiring Rector wants to see the University of Turku supporting societal change, through which it would be, for example, self-evident for future students to strive towards sustainable development both in personal life and on societal level.
– However, it has to be said that the current student generations are much more ecologically aware than we older ones, which is great. Young people are creating a pressure to solve these issues.
“New Discoveries Are Made at the Boundaries of Different Disciplines”
When asked about his most significant achievements as the Rector of the University of Turku, Väänänen mentions purposeful degree programmes and high-quality, multidisciplinary research. Väänänen is happy that the number and assessed quality of publications have increased during his term as the Rector.
– When I started as the Rector in 2012, I decided that all the degree programmes have to reach such a level that I can discuss them proudly. In my opinion, we have achieved this. Graduation is at a top level nationally in almost all the programmes and, according to the latest surveys, students are employed rather well regardless of their field. We have been able to increase the number of degrees with smaller resources.
According to Väänänen, this has been achieved thanks to skilled teachers and researchers and hard-working and motivated students.
– Of course, we have hoped for the expansion of educational responsibilities, for example, in technology, but have not yet seen eye to eye with the Government. I hope this happens as soon as possible, says Väänänen.
Maintaining the multidisciplinarity of the University has been important to Väänänen as he believes new discoveries are made at the boundaries of different disciplines. Even though politicians and sometimes even academics swear by centralising disciplines to certain universities, Väänänen considers multidisciplinarity a strength. Therefore, he has not wanted to seek savings by discontinuing departments, even though it would have been an economically sound decision.
– There is a strong desire in academia to differentiate one discipline from another; it’s though that physics handles this and biology that. But when we consider, for example, our planet, it cannot be explained with just one point of view. If people with different knowledge and skills work together, some unusual observations can be made. A good example is combining IT with any sector of society – be it healthcare, social work or commerce. Mere technical solutions are not enough, usability and applicability have to be taken into consideration.
“Civilisation Is More than Just Focusing on Your Own Issues”
Väänänen says that he is so even-tempered that he cannot single out any one top moment from his term as the Rector, but it says something about the meaningfulness of the job that it has been pleasant to wake up for work every morning. And each night it has felt that there is still so much more to do.
– Developing the university is a test of endurance and there are no quick wins. Scrimping and scraping during the past few years have maybe taken too much time and energy. On the other hand, I feel that I’m leaving behind a university that is a significant player and a highly respected partner, for example, for the City of Turku and business life. I’m especially glad that our innovation activities and number of patent applications have increased. I also believe that transnational education will be a much more significant sector in the future than is even realised at the moment.
In Väänänen’s opinion, cherishing education is a crucial goal in our times both for the academic community and for the wider society. According to him, education does not simply mean acquiring more knowledge but the ability to perceive larger entities.
– No one owns culture and education. It is too often thought that education should include specific information, but for me, education signifies extensive understanding of the world. Meaning that you understand both societal and global problems and work towards solving them. Civilisation is more than just focusing on your own issues – it's the aspiration to understand other people’s starting points and goals.
Väänänen confesses that when his term as the Rector of the University of Turku comes to an end in July 2019, he will pack his bags and go berry picking to Lapland. After the vacation, he will move on to work at the Centrum Balticum where he will be leading the sustainable development plan project on the Archipelago Sea.
Text: Jenni Valta
Photos: Hanna Oksanen
Translation: Mari Ratia