Expendable? A cautionary tale about foreign scholars in Finnish universities

Finnish universities see the employment of topnotch international scholars as crucial to attaining global excellence. Indeed, in many Finnish universities nearly all academic positions from post-doctoral researchers to tenured professors are now advertised internationally. Recent years have seen a significant increase in the number of foreign scholars taking up positions in Finland.

Despite the evident benefits for students and colleagues, this innovation has not always landed smoothly. What follows is a cautionary tale that reveals a shadow over Finland’s internationalization strategy in higher education. It suggests that efforts over the past decades to bring the university sector into alignment with the demands of international science are not always reflected in the culture of academic leadership on the frontline of knowledge production — at the faculty and department level where scientific breakthroughs occur.

The story I am about to tell concerns a young international scholar who proffered his skills in the service of Finnish science, but ended up experiencing abuse and injustice at the hands of his employers. Despite its anecdotal nature, this tale is worth recounting because it reveals serious lapses in the prevailing culture of academic leadership and in the legal framework through which scholars are employed.

‘Victor’ (all parties to these events have been anonymized) was finalizing his doctoral thesis in environmental studies at a prestigious Australian university when he came across an open post at a Finnish university. An Academy of Finland funded project was seeking a post-doctoral scholar with expertise in mining studies. Victor’s thesis had dealt with the environmental effects of mineral extraction and an opportunity to pursue similar questions in the Arctic region was an exciting prospect. The advertised position was in a Humanities faculty, which is an unusual context for an environmental scholar, but he was assured of the project’s commitment to multidiscplinarity and strongly encouraged to apply.

Victor was shortlisted for the post. After two skype interviews, he was offered the position, starting January, 2017. Victor was surprised to learn that the Finnish university in question offered no compensation for relocation costs — which were naturally a heavy financial burden for a fresh PhD based in Australia. When Victor inquired about this, the project’s Principal Investigator (PI) questioned his commitment, and told him that being prepared to cover unexpected costs was part of a professional attitude. Victor wrote this harsh response off to cultural differences, and decided to take a loan and bear the costs of moving to Finland. The allure of expanding his academic reach to the Artic remained very attractive, and he assumed that standard academic practices would prevail once he was in place at his new position.

Another unusual aspect of the contract Victor was offered was the cryptic caveat: ‘trial period: four months.’ Nothing in the contract or on the university’s Human Resources web page explained what a trial period entailed, nor what factors might trigger the cancellation of his contract before the trial period elapsed. Naively (as it turns out), Victor assumed that this was an idiosyncratic formality of the Finnish labour market and gave it little further thought. He had no doubt that his work, which had always been assessed at the highest level by peers and mentors, would be more than adequate for the project.

Victor arrived in Finland in the beginning of January, at the cold, dark nadir of the Nordic winter. Immediately upon his arrival in Finland, it became apparent that the Finnish ‘normal’ comprised some unusual elements. The PI ran the project like a work camp. Victor was told that he must take up a work station adjacent to the PI’s and that he was obliged to be in the office every day from 9am to 3pm in case there was a need to communicate with him. It was also evident that his work involved, for the most part, carrying out the PI’s commands. Victor had been employed to participate in data collection according to a pre-designed template, about which he had not been consulted. It became increasingly evident that the project had no substantial interest in environmental concerns and that the professed focus in mining was an arbitrary choice based on ‘strategic’ factors (problems at the Talvivaara nickel mining in Lapland were causing a public uproar at the time). Despite assurances of the project’s commitment to multidisciplinarity, the study was not designed in any way to accommodate Victor’s expertise in the environmental impacts of mining.

Naturally, Victor raised questions about the project design and his role in its implementation. The PI responded with rising hostility, questioning not only his commitment, but his professional expertise. When asked about the scope of his academic freedom to pursue his own research interests (the explicit purpose of the post-doctoral phase in an academic career), he was told that he had none.

Less than a week after his arrival in Finland, Victor was taken to Lapland on a fieldwork outing. The trip lasted 13 dark winter days without a break. Part of the fieldwork involved a meeting with representatives of a mining corporation. In the course of the meeting, Victor asked a standard question about the company’s environmental practices. Although the company representatives expressed no consternation over Victor’s query, it infuriated the PI who accused him of trying to sabotage the project. After a week in the field Victor, still jetlagged and by now quite unsettled by the PI’s behavior, suffered a physical collapse. The PI’s reaction was to suggest that he consider going back to the office because by being in Lapland he was wasting the project’s money.

Over the ensuing weeks the situation did not improve. Victor’s attempts to formulate an operational work plan were repeatedly rejected. The PI continued to berate Victor for his lack of commitment and professionalism and threatened him with the cancellation of his contract. The PI told him to avoid contacting Finnish people for the research on the basis that he was ‘culturally insensitive.’

As Victor became increasing despondent, he contacted me as a fellow international colleague. I know from experience that communication between Finns and foreigners can at times be awkward, but the level of inflexibility and hostility Victor described seemed entirely off the map. On the basis of several conversations with Victor, I asked around and received independent verification for his claims. I then consulted my head of department about how to best advise him. My HoD explained that sometimes ambition can blind project leaders to their basic responsibilities as mentors and colleagues, but that usually a word from their HoD is enough to smooth things over. In any event, my HoD assured me, ‘everyone’ understands that one month is a short time for someone to get fully adjusted to Finland, especially in the dead of winter. Encouraged by these words, I tried to comfort Victor and suggested that he take his concerns to the head of his own department.

I heard again from Victor a few days later. He had been told that his HoD was not allowed (!) to discuss his situation. The reason for this was revealed two days later when Victor received an email from the faculty’s Head of Administration:

“On the basis of the trial period of your employment terms and conditions, we are considering terminating of your employment contract. Prior to the final decision we give you an opportunity for commenting the issue [sic].”

No grounds for termination were mentioned in the letter. Victor had been in Finland at this point about seven weeks.

Immediately upon taking up the post-doc position, Victor had joined the local branch of Tieteentekijöiden liitto (the Finnish Union of University Researchers and Teachers). The campus shop steward accompanied Victor to the meeting which was also attended by the Dean, the faculty Head of Administration (HoA) and the PI. This account of the proceedings is based on the shop steward’s notes; the Faculty representatives kept no record of the meeting. From the outset, it was clear that there was to be no negotiation, and that the meeting was not intended as a means of arbitration between employee and employer. The decision had already been made to fire Victor and the ‘hearing’ was a mere formality. The HoA began by noting that the termination of Victor’s contract was legally possible within the ongoing 4-month trial period and invoked the following grounds for termination of his contract: 1) Deficiencies in following instructions, 2) Results of the work done, and 3) Adaptation to the work.

Victor responded that the accusations were unfair: He had completed all the assignments he had been given according to instructions. He added that it was unreasonable to expect substantial results in the second month of a three-year project. Furthermore, a little more than a month could hardly be considered a reasonable period to judge his capacity to adjust culturally and professionally.

In response, the HoA said that Victor’ arguments did not change their minds about terminating the contract. Despite the shop steward’s pleas that the final decision be postponed pending further arbitration, the Dean summarily fired Victor saying that nothing was likely to change by delaying the process.

The events that led to Victor’s dismissal suggest that he was naive, but more importantly that the University was either unwilling or unable to protect its international employees from the arbitrary abuse of power exercised by an insular buddy network. The three managers that fired Victor all come from the same academic background, and have worked together in the same department for more than 20 years. There was no attempt at arbitration and Victor was not given a chance to be heard by an independent party. This is in clear conflict with the professed commitment among all public institutions in Finland to openness and transparency in their personnel practices. How is it possible, then, that a scholar on the cusp of academic seniority has no basic rights and can be made an expendable object of blind discretionary abuse?

I have read Victor’s academic output and can attest to its high level of skill and creativity. Our research community has lost an innovative and productive scholar. Despite Victor’s eagerness to pursue his research interests and contribute productively to the project, the PI’s shocking managerial practices made it impossible for him to settle into a productive role in the project. There was no recognition of his substantial merits. The PI ignored the commonsensical fact that special measures might be needed to facilitate the acculturation of a new foreign team member arriving from half way across the planet.

The PI had clearly not given due consideration to the practical and epistemic implications of recruiting a scholar from a distant disciplinary background into the project. No awareness was demonstrated concerning reasonable differences about fundamental conceptual and methodological issues among different research fields and research traditions. Why, one wonders, was an expert in environmental studies recruited into a project which had no tangible interest in the environment? (Indeed, after Victor was fired, the mining component was dropped from the project design.)

The process described above suggests strongly that Victor was recruited capriciously, with no regard to the professional and financial risks he was taking by relocating in Finland at his own expense. In retrospect, it appears obvious that the PI was prepared, from the outset, to summarily dispose of him if he proved to have a mind of his own. When this proved to be the case, the PI recruited old associates and collaborators to dispose of Victor without due process. The Faculty and University leadership abdicated their responsibility for ensuring the integration of the new colleague into the academic community. Responsibility for this challenging transition was dumped on Victor alone.

Clearly, it is the seemingly innocuous contractual caveat: ‘trial period: four months’ (six months according to the new collective agreement) which made all of this possible. What is its rationale? Whom or what is it meant to protect? For someone who has financed his relocation from the other side of the planet, the cancellation of a contract is a catastrophe with longlasting repercussions. Current recruitment practices, which routinely involve independent committees that scrutinize publications and interview shortlisted candidates should be ample guarantee against serious recruitment errors. Many externally funded projects, however, eschew these routines, as was the case in Victor’s recruitment. There is no doubt some merit in giving project leaders a margin of discretion in recruiting and managing their teams. But it is a grave mistake to sanction personnel practices which encourage administrative laziness and the arbitrary abuse of power seen in Victor’s case.

Local Union representatives gave Victor substantial support during the process. They were duly outraged at the injustice he suffered. Victor could have taken the university to court, but only at his own expense. Given the draconian trial period clause in his contract, success in court was unlikely. At the end of the day, the Union saw no other option than to allow Victor to be sacrificed. The basic rights of international scholars, even those with union membership, appear to be beyond the scope of Union protection. Ultimately, of course, it should have been the responsibility of the Union’s rank-and-file membership — Victor’s Faculty colleagues — to defend him. But we, too, let him down.

The lesson for international academics in Finland would seem to be: Keep your mouth shut and do as you’re told — at least for the first 120 days of your contract. This is hardly conducive to excellence in science. A more fruitful lesson would be for the responsible officials to revisit the trial period clause, and to subject the personnel practices of project managers to greater scrutiny.

I suspect that Victor’s PI is not the only manager who treats junior colleagues like expendable foot soldiers. Such treatment is surely not limited to foreign employees alone. The prevailing system of incentives permits young scholars, regardless of their nationality, to be casually disposed of, for no fault of their own. Taking responsibility for one’s actions, and for one’s team members is a two-way street. The leadership culture which permitted Victor’s perfunctory dismissal undermines risk-taking and mutual loyalty — two key preconditions for innovative science.

Darren Stewart
professor emeritus

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