(Part 2) At the mercy the faculty process: Staff well-being in the University Of Helsinki

by , under Gareth Rice

By Dr. Gareth Rice*

The Urbaria Document

The URBARIA document delineates the results of a workplace well-being survey conducted by the occupational healthcare provider Mehiläinen. It is bulletproof evidence that those who abused their power were not held accountable. The results were shared with staff in an “info coffee session” on 12th June, 2019. The survey was based on interviews with 30 individuals involved with the running of URBARIA. Rather than focus on individual gripes, the survey highlighted collective concerns.

I saw a familiar pattern which had been going on for years. To quote from page one of the document: “Urbaria’s work atmosphere is poor, with inappropriate behaviour occurring on many levels. The problems were seen to result from the management not being present or acting poorly.” Professor Mari Vaattovaara, URBARIA’s director and those who continue to protect her have lot to answer for here. I exposed her skull-duggery in the Geosciences and Geography Department at the Kumpula campus back in 2014. I thought that global exposure in Times Higher Education would have embarrassed HY into taking action against such behaviour. Alas, the URBARIA document confirms that the same inappropriate behaviour has simply been allowed to migrate from one HY campus to another.

Looking on the URBARIA website, you’ll see one background image of a pigeon – not sure of its connection with academic research – and some information about places, people and politics. You get no sense of how much of a ‘sandcastle’ URBARIA is. As outlined in the document, its goals, responsibilities and job descriptions are unclear and there is a lack of resources for the Master’s Programme in Urban Studies and Planning and ambiguity of content. There are also major problems with supervision and management, communications and transparency of recruitment processes. Many of these serial problems were presided over by Vaattovaara, who is URBARIA’s director and bizarrely is due to remain in that post until 2021!

A particularly concerning section of the URBARIA document states the following: “Complaints were raised on the actions of three individuals at the institute, both as supervisors and wielders of authority. Since the URBARIA document wasn’t official, why weren’t the three individuals named? Would they have been named in an official document? I am quite sure that everyone who made the complaints knows who the three individuals are, so why protect them?

The next sentence in the document reads: “The matters stated in the complaints have been dealt with according to the Faculty process with the dean, director of department and head of human resources, and they will be considered closed at this session.”

What exactly is “the Faculty process” for resolving complaints, especially ones of a serious nature? I really hope that it isn’t the same process which was in place from 2008-2014; this gave Vaattovaara power which she was able to freely use against colleagues in the Department of Geosciences and Geography at the Kumpula campus.

It goes on: “However, if no change is seen in practices, the matter should be raised directly with the director of department.” Can we trust that the director of the department will escalate the practice in question so that HY’s Faculty process is able to put an end to it? But it should be more than this. The wider academic community and the public really need to know that the Faculty process is properly fit for purpose: Has it resulted in disciplinary action against the three aforementioned individuals? Does it allow HY to terminate their employment contracts if they refuse to change their behaviour? On page 3, the document goes onto state that, “Inappropriate behaviour can result in a reprimand, warning or, ultimately, termination of employment.” Termination of employment is rare but it has happened. In relation to the sacking of Professor Lassi Päivärinta for sexual harassment, Hämäläinen told the Helsinki Times in 2014 that: “It has been the top priority of the university to guarantee the well-being of its employees. We have a zero tolerance policy toward inappropriate behaviour.” It’s this sort of transparency that HY owes its staff and the public instead of trying to hide behind the Act on the Openness of Government Activities (621/1999).

It’s not all doom and gloom. The URBARIA document recommends a number of measures, which if strictly adhered to, will make it near impossible for any inappropriate behaviour to continue. In an attempt to distance itself from nepotism, HY’s recruitment processes “will be observed to an even higher degree.” In an attempt to stop Professors from being able to guarantee academic tenure to their favoured PhD students or friends, irrespective of better competition, “General disqualification rules” were introduced last year. They apply to applicants who have “Joint publications (three years), supervisor-employee relationship, polemic relationship, supervisory relationship (10 years), family connection or friendship. In the case of director of department, the rules only pertain to employees directly under their supervision, students, etc.”

Staff workloads are “determined in the employment contract, while more specific details are agreed with their supervisors and immediate supervisors.” Again, if they are strictly adhered to, staff can negotiate various tasks to ensure that they have a balance between teaching, research and other duties. This should send a clear message to certain bullying Professors, who in the past were able to keep their teaching hours secret and offload work onto junior colleagues (as was the case in the Department of Geosciences and Geography).

Under the section “Rules of Conduct for Workplace”, the URBARIA document claims that HY is also committed to “the guidelines and activities of the Finnish National Advisory Board on Research Integrity (TENK).” This is good to hear, for there are too many Professors who have their names on academic publications without having contributed anything to them. I have spoken with enough PhD and Master’s students to know just how powerless and intimidated they feel when they are basically told that their supervisor’s name should appear on all of their publications. There now seems to be a way stop this misconduct: “Suspicions relating to research ethics (pertaining to, for example, publication author lists, research methodology misconduct, rights to data, research misconduct) should be first discussed with the supervisor, after which a written notification should be submitted to the chancellor, if necessary.”

The URBARIA document also highlights a concern about order of operations. The Master’s Programme in Urban Studies and Planning was established at the University level “without making a decision on its resources at the same time.” Whilst this led to “heavy workloads and uncertainty among staff and those heading the programme”, it should not detract from another important issue: Thanks to increased transparency, more discerning academics are wise to how badly URBARIA is run and have chosen to avoid the place.

To those who want to see improvements in Finnish higher education the message should be clear enough: The chain of command in HY has protected those who wish to abuse their power which has led to the problems outlined above. Ultimately, the reason why perpetrators followed the route they did was because they were allowed to, and that’s our fault. As a culture, that’s our fault. My advice? When you come across those who abuse their power, be fierce in your convictions and don’t shy away. If HY wants to be a genuine supporter of the #eisyrji campaign and to better convince the academic community that its top priority really is to guarantee the well-being of its employees, then it would do well to more frequently exercise its zero tolerance policy toward inappropriate behaviour.

Go to Part I 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.