A pleasant eight years on a building site

18.04.2017
Eliisa Anttila

President Tuula Teeri says goodbye to the University she was called to build with peace of mind.

Tuula Teeri turns sixty on 20 June 2017. Instead of birthday greetings and floral tributes, she hopes that well-wishers direct their generosity to a project she values greatly, Aalto University's fundraising effort. • giving.aalto.fi

“First, we'll have to see how the activities of Aalto University shape up, and where we can find common synergies,” Tuula Teeri said in a December 2008 interview conducted following her appointment as the first President of Aalto University.

Many irons were in the fire at that time, and the initial moments of the University were associated with several structural reforms as well as many hopes, and even fears. Teeri was, however, aware of the need to prioritise and distribute reforms over several years. She hoped that the University's leaders would be able to inspire people and build a team that works.

Eight years after that interview, we are seated for a discussion in Otaniemi, and once again by a major building site. New buildings are being erected on campus while old structures are under renovation. In addition, an eagerly-awaited western expansion of the metro will soon provide the campus with a convenient connection to central and east Helsinki.

Fresh responsibilities await

Her years at the helm of Aalto have practically flown by, she says. The pace at the President's office only ever got faster, but no performance bonus will be handed out at an acceptance inspection for a finished job. As Teeri points out, Aalto will never be completely ready – as no university really ever can be.

She has, for her own part, arrived at a crossroads, however. Teeri has tendered her resignation and will start work as President of the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences next autumn.

“If it felt like the work I started at Aalto would be left by the wayside, I'd be going nowhere. But the big changes I was recruited to manage have now been implemented. Aalto has a new, well functioning tenure track career system, research is focused into four fundamental competence areas and the quality of research has improved. The degree programmes have been modernised to better serve the future needs of working life, and the University's service functions have been developed to provide effective support for academic work. The major objectives set for the University's formative years have been reached through a collective effort. We now have a strong foundation on which we can build multidisciplinary and multifaceted cooperation together with business and industry as well as the rest of society.”

Never give up

The work at times has resembled a long-distance run through the twilight zone.

“This has been a tough job for the entire organisation, not just me. I never considered quitting, but I was very disappointed when the university sector was targeted with spending cuts in 2014 and earlier funding promises were cast aside.”

But she assures me that no corners were ever cut when it came to standards.

“We simply decided to do less, but equally well. Cost-cutting did slow us down, but it never stopped us going ahead,” she says with resolve.

For her, the stability and predictability of the University's funding is most important.

“Scientists are passionate about their work – if conditions erode, they will head elsewhere in search of resources. Sudden cutbacks force a halt to a researcher's long-term work, and it takes time to rebuild. The hard core of research should be taken care of, even in difficult economic circumstances, as competence is the best trump card for a small country.”

A spirit of cooperation and learning together

The President pauses to consider what Aalto has built into over the years. In her mind, the best achievement is its good team spirit.

“Three universities have come together to form a functioning, multidisciplinary, academic Aalto community. It would not be possible to achieve concrete objectives without this. I'm always happy to hear about the success of an interdisciplinary venture, or of someone receiving a large research grant or capital for a company they have established. We can take joy in each other's successes and we feel pride in our inclusion in this community.”

Tuula Teeri hopes that she will be remembered as a fearless leader.

“My thinking is that nothing is impossible per se. My ideas might at times be considered crazy, but the impossible can become possible if you just make the effort.”

Teeri says that she, too, has learned a lot about all of the disciplines practised at Aalto University.

“I don't rank people depending on the nature of their expertise, be it practical or theoretical, as different competencies complement each other. I like to talk of learning together, and I think that students are partners instead of clients. Students have a better and more unbiased view of the future than we do.”

Sweden–Finland–Sweden

Tuula Teeri's home has been in Stockholm throughout her tenure as President, although she also has an apartment in Otaniemi. She left the post of Vice President of the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm to came to Aalto. How did it feel to shuttle between Finland and Sweden for eight years?

“Well, at least I didn't get stuck at home,” she says with a laugh.

“When you're at work, you immerse yourself in work. And Sweden isn't that far away. My weekend begins on the plane when I open Suomen Kuvalehti magazine on a Friday.”

As Walpurgis Night and the First of May are approaching, I'm minded to ask whether Teeri has ever been the target of a tech student prank?

“No. Perhaps because a woman has been President of Aalto?”

But she has become familiar with the “newer French-style horn tunes” of the brass ensemble Retuperän WBK. The President also has a related hidden talent, as she herself played in a brass orchestra in her youth.

“I might be leaving Aalto, but Aalto will never leave me. This has been such a comprehensive and unique experience.”

PS.

What's the first thing you do when you get home?
“Sink my hands in the dirt. Gardening is so relaxing.”

What's your favourite place?
“The forest. I enjoy the silence and being close to nature.”

What would you change about Finland?
“Give me a magic wand, and I'll conjure up more joy, positivity and pride in our abilities. Self-discipline is an integral part of our national character and it can actually make success difficult. We should be more forgiving of ourselves. I prefer for the glass to be always half-full.
The Swedes worry less about failure. If something goes wrong, they just reckon that something else will go better in turn.”

Photo: Aki-Pekka Sinikoski

This article is originally published in Finnish in the Aalto University Magazine issue 19 (issuu.com), April 2017.