President's summer letter 2017
Dear colleagues and friends, everyone in the Aalto community,
I started my own Aalto journey about 8 years ago, and have spent most of my time pretty much on reviewing and discussing our strategy. There is no better way to achieve a big thing than a constant dialogue to find the very best ideas and to agree on the way forward together. Now that I will soon be leaving Aalto, I have looked into the documents describing the dreams and plans for the new university that we had when we started, and I’ve composed this last summer letter to you after the speech that I gave in the inauguration ceremony of Aalto University in January 2010.
I felt that the memorable Inauguration Day represented truly a new beginning and an ideal moment for reflection; I think we were all still contemplating what kind of a university we were going to build and how (on Earth) we were ever going to achieve our ambitious goals. How does one go about it when asked to merge three already established prestigious universities, and from that build a world-class university within ten years.
On that day, we had already decided that our mission was to change the world through top-quality research, pioneering education and continuous renewal. We had made a promise to educate responsible, broad-minded experts to act as future visionaries in our society. Today we aspire to educate future game changers – and we have reformed our entire curriculum accordingly at all levels. The next big step will be to adopt digital technology and pedagogics in our education, Continuous Renewal now being Aalto’s middle name.
In 2010 we also wanted to stimulate innovation by surpassing traditional boundaries. We were quite committed to building an open community of students and experts, academic and others, for a free exchange of ideas to impact society at large.
So we did know what we wanted to achieve (sounds quite familiar, even today, doesn’t it?); then came the how:
The first how that we decided on was to create internationally attractive working conditions for our faculty so that they can succeed in their own missions. Based on careful international benchmarking we decided that the single most significant investment that Aalto University will make is to establish a tenure track career system in line with international models, and I quote: ‘In this system, emerging faculty is recruited in international competition. Those selected will be offered an independent position, sufficient resources and support, and a clear career path towards a permanent professorship.’
When we said back in 2010 that we will be opening 20–40 new tenure track positions annually, few believed it possible. However, looking back on that moment now, in 2017, we know that we did reach this goal: We have recruited over 270 professors to the tenure track in about seven years, and I truly hope that we have been able to create great working conditions for these new professors to enable their world-class research and teaching.
Also, in 2010 we recognised that small countries and small universities cannot excel in all fields, but that choices must be made. We felt it important to identify and focus on the areas where we were already strong and those where global strength can be built.
To identify our strengths, we carried out an international research assessment exercise in 2009, which helped us to identify the four key research focus areas and three multidisciplinary themes — which have continued up to the present day. Today, close to 90% of our faculty work in these key areas. We moved quickly, thanks to the generous ‘start-up’ funding from the Government, which allowed the rapid recruitment of new faculty years before the imminent retirement of several senior faculty. Another bonus has been that the senior faculty was able to mentor their junior colleagues in the early steps of the tenure track.
In my opening speech in 2010, I also quoted our strategy, in that ‘scientific breakthroughs and radical innovations are often born in multidisciplinary collaborations, with one field of research studying and feeling the borders of another one’. We trusted that the marriage of science and art with technology and business at Aalto University would give unique opportunities for co-creation across many different disciplinary borders, and we already had one multidisciplinary research programme, AivoAalto, and three Factories in operation.
Today, we have many more platforms and programmes for multidisciplinary collaboration. When updating our strategy in 2015, we were ready for an even stronger mission: ‘Shaping the future by science and art not only meeting but working together with technology and business’. We’ve had an excellent start in multidisciplinary collaboration, but I think we can do more there — and this will become so much easier when we will all be on the same campus in about two years.
On the entrepreneurial front, our students had started running the Aalto Entrepreneurship Society, which already in 2010 had thousands of members. This community is now one of the trademarks of Aalto, with their best practices spreading all over the world, with the founding of new companies – over 500 startups since 2010 – and with planeloads of investors flown from Silicon Valley to Helsinki to participate in SLUSH. Our students clearly have game changing capacity and we have the obligation to focus our education to enable entrepreneurial as well as academic performance. Our excellent partnership with Aalto University Student Union will help us in reaching even this demanding goal.
The International Research Assessment Exercise, in 2009, praised Aalto as a committed partner in collaborations based on real-life problems, challenges and opportunities – and we decided to continue to stay so by building long-lasting, strategic partnerships with industry and business. In the middle of the hurdles of our Big Reform, this goal took perhaps a bit longer to achieve than we thought, but we now have our first strategic partnership, signed with SAAB in January 2017 for a 10-year period and a total budget of 20 million euros. Many other companies are also keen to engage in this kind of long-term partnership for working together to move forward the frontiers of knowledge and technology.
So what else have we done in 8 years? We have carried out loads and loads of other reforms and projects, our faculty and students have won prizes and awards, our research and our artistic performances have improved dramatically. We are among the best 100 in the world in our key research areas, and in the absolute top in fashion education. Our Executive Education AEE has a worldwide reputation among the world’s best leadership and management educators. Our entire staff has continuously updated their best practices and are now able to provide one of the best support services in any university that I know. Our brand is famous particularly in Europe, but also beyond.
Our hard work has repaid itself with concrete results that we can all be very proud of. Everyone working or studying at Aalto has taken our huge challenge to heart; we have been working together. We have had the courage to go where no university had gone before. We have grown into a community that shares the same values and ambitions, and the same Aalto-way of working for a better future.
When I started in 2009, I received a file where members of the Aalto community had written down greetings to the new President. One of them read: ‘We now have an opportunity to make Harvard plus MIT in Finland — good luck!’
Well, we have not become Harvard or MIT but rather something completely new and - in my mind - equally valuable. We didn’t think anything was impossible at face value, and I think that we are now succeeding since many impossible things have turned out to be possible in our hands.
It is hard to leave Aalto, I will miss the courage and the action, the people that are critical and generous, hardworking, brilliant and honest, who try their best and get up after failure, all of you that have been building Aalto and who will be continuing to build a better world. A university is never complete, but needs to be rebuilt over and over again when the times change. After these demanding first years, we now know how to do it!
It has been a privilege and joy to work with all of you, sharing our own grand challenges as well as many small and some huge victories. I thank you sincerely for the most interesting and most fulfilling years of my life – and for co-creating the miracle of achievement that many doubted when we began.
Keep up our bold vision and the Aalto spirit!
Yours very sincerely,
Everybody is welcome to celebrate Tuula Teeri’s 60th birthday at President’s Anniversary Seminar with reception on Tuesday 20 June 2017 at 13.30, Uncergraduate Centre, lecture hall Aalto, Otakaari 1 F, Espoo.
The topic will be a great passions of President Teeri: biotechnology and biomaterials. Join us for an afternoon filled with fascinating talks on the topic by Aalto’s researchers, such as professors Janne Laine, Markus Linder, Merja Penttilä, Herbert Sixta, and Tapani Vuorinen.