(Part 1) At the mercy the faculty process: Staff well-being in the University Of Helsinki

by , under Gareth Rice

By Dr. Gareth Rice*

This article has been almost one year in the making. What it reveals will, I hope, move the academic community to stop looking at Finnish higher education through rose tinted glasses, and to raise its brow and express earnest concern about the abuse of power and lack of accountability within one of Finland’s best known universities and their botched attempts to cover them up.

On 20.08.2018, University of Helsinki tweeted the following:  “We are proud to be a part of the #eisyrji campaign, against discrimination in the workplace. Let’s make Finnish working life even more equal: http://www.eisyrji.fi  #equality.”

With this tweet the University of Helsinki (HY) was declaring that it was part of the Work Against Discrimination campaign and a staunch advocate of an equal work culture. The tweet also helps to create the impression that Finnish higher education has a reputation of playing fair when it comes to the recruitment, promotion and treatment of academic staff. There are faculties in some Finnish universities where this is undoubtedly true and they should be commended for such good practice. As this article will show, however, such good practice has not extended to the Helsinki Institute of Urban and Regional Studies (URBARIA) https://www.helsinki.fi/en/helsinki-institute-of-urban-and-regional-studies at the University of Helsinki (HY). There you will find a despicable open secret that staff are afraid to even acknowledge for fear of losing their jobs.

I gather that it will not seem presumptuous to assume that, since you are reading this article, you may be aware that I have previously written similar articles. They exposed the abuse of power and lack of accountability in the Department of Geosciences and Geography at HY. At the time, the casual, practiced nature of the behaviour suggested to me that it was part of a longer-term pattern. To re-read those articles is to be reminded that, between then and now, insufficient progress has been made by HY to properly deal with the ineradicable perpetrators. In any case, I believe that – if you read this article right to the end and ponder over the details and evidence presented – you will sense that my frustration was outweighed by my indefatigable zeal for more accountability in Finnish higher education.

It has not been possible to write the article until now because HY was able to (legally!) withhold a certain document – a report concerning a work well-being evaluation at URBARIA – from the media and the general public. So concerning is the content of this document that it is easy to see why I ended up dealing with HY’s legal team, who were the last in the queue of those who attempted to keep it from me.

The hassle of getting the document is just as important to this story as its contents. I tried on for size every possible approach to get a copy of the document, but the responses to my initial emails gave me an accurate enough read on how HY was intending to play this game. When I asked to see the document, I was passed around various staff members, all of whom were equally cagey in their responses to me. A typical email response read:

Dear Gareth,

We share the material and documents of the work well-being evaluation only to those, who are currently part of that work community because that evaluation relates strongly to the well-being issues in that work community. We have emphasized confidentiality to all who participated in that evaluation so it would not be correct to share that material outside of that work community.

If it wasn’t evident to me at this point that HY wanted to stymie the writing of this article, what happened next made it very clear. I wrote a letter to Esa Hämäläinen, HY’s Director of Administration and asked him for a copy of the document. He emailed me back to say that, “Our university lawyer, Ms. Laura Karppinen, responds on behalf of the University Leadership to your request.”

When I emailed Karppinen to request access to the document I was again refused. Since I was now dealing with a lawyer I couldn’t resist inquiring about the legal basis behind HY’s decision. She told me that: “In accordance with the Act on the Openness of Government Activities (621/1999) section 5, subsection 4, and with the judgment by the Supreme Court of Administration 2002:2, this type of work well-being documents are not official documents and consequently not within the sphere of public access, as they are documents prepared for the internal activities of authorities.”

Karppinen’s email closed with following words: “However, since you have requested a copy of the report, you have the right to demand that the matter be decided by the University by a written decision. Please inform me if you wish a formal decision to be made.” Taking this to be a glimmer of hope, I responded right away and suggested that Karppinen go right ahead to get a formal decision from HY.

It’s a good thing that I wasn’t overly optimistic. A few weeks later her email arrived with two attachments. A letter entitled “Dean’s Decision” stated that, “The Faculty of Science refuses the request for access made by Dr. Rice.” In the “Statement of the reasons for the decision” section the letter went on to quote section 5, subsection 4 from the Act on the Openness of Government Activities (621/1999): “This Act applies to documents prepared for negotiations or communications between persons in the service of authorities or between authorities and private individuals or corporations acting on their behalf, or for other comparable internal activities of such authorities, only if the documents contain such information that, according to the archives legislation, they are to be archived. However, if the documents are archived, the authority may order that access to them may be only by permission of the authority.”

The legal language boils down to this: if HY wants to keep documents from the media it just needs to ensure that those documents are not defined as official and the Act on the Openness of Government Activities (621/1999) enables them to do so.

The second attachment was information about my right to appeal, which I would need to lodge with the Administrative Court of Helsinki within thirty days’ notice of HY’s decision. Unless the Court overturned HY’s decision, I would need to pay a general processing fee of 260 euros, not to mention the costs of flights and accommodation to and from Helsinki. 

The clock was ticking but I had no intention of going to court to appeal HY’s decision. Given how stitched-up things are in Finland, I figured that they would probably circle the wagons and win, and that I’d be left downtrodden and out of pocket. My smile had gone. No-one at HY was willing to spirit out a copy of the document to me. As far as I was concerned, there was nothing else that I could do. Case closed. Move on.

***

A few weeks later, in December 2019 I received an anonymous envelope. Inside was a four page document, written in Finnish. It was entitled “Osastonjohtajan infokahvitilaisuus URBARIA 12.6.2019, Porthania 3. Krs.” A quick online translation check told me that the document’s English title was “URBARIA info coffee session by the director of department on 12 June 2019, Porthania (third floor).” Could this be the document that HY had previously withheld from me? I had no idea but I was keen to find out.

I needed advice. Who had the moral fibre I could trust? The only person who I felt would be honest enough to confirm the authenticity of what I had been sent was Karppinen. She had been very straight with me in all of our correspondence. I steeled myself and started to type the email and waited. After only a few days her response came: “Dear Dr Rice, Thank you for your message. I can confirm that the document you attached is indeed one of the documents mentioned in the decision HY/1725/00.09.02/2019,…” However, before starting to write this article I also checked that the Act on the Openness of Government Activities (621/1999) only applies within Finland. It did. My smile snapped back on.

Go to Part II here.

*Dr. Gareth Rice is an academic currently based in the UK. Prior to this he worked in Finnish Higher Education as a postdoctoral researcher and a lecturer in Urban Geography. As an occasional journalist his writings have appeared in Times Higher Education, National Geographic, Counterpunch, Helsinki Times and Migrant Tales. He enjoys visiting coffee shops to meet friends, sometimes new people or to read magazines, which typically include Prospect, The Atlantic, The Economist, Monocle, MOJO, Sight and Sound or The New Yorker. He also appreciates nature, has spent a lot of time in Nuuksio National Park, Lapland and Loch Lomond exploring the great outdoors.

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