Leadership Ethics in a Volatile World

Esa Hämäläinen, Chair of HUMANE (Heads of University Management and Administration in Europe) and Director of Administration of the University of Helsinki, considers the impact of the current political landscape on higher education and the role of universities in a post-truth society.   

Impact. That is what society expects from us. Likewise, the funding agencies. And applicants dreaming of their future professions. For autonomous organisations like universities, complying with expectations can be difficult. Professors may not approve of the pressure to do so, but in management, we are more at home with it. We have not been employed to satisfy our own personal goals, but rather to help the university to prosper.

Truth. Staff and students are constantly searching for truth. With the help of scientific methodology, individual members of university communities collect data, analyse findings, gain evidence and finally make conclusions. This, one could argue, is the virtuous task of the researcher. Post-factual reality may be present in the press and social media, but in science that is not the goal. Intrinsically, science exists to discover truth and so do universities. We as university managers, also have to be true to our cause by following respected professional standards.

One might think that the level of institutional autonomy or the profile of a university makes a difference. However, regardless of institution or country, this tension between academic core and society’s needs is constantly present. To navigate these storms is an essential part of our profession: highly-cited academic Scyllas at the one end, and the Charybdian demands of more value for money at the other. This requires not only professional codes and dedication to common principles but also strategic thinking, tactical skills and flexibility.

Alongside universities’ continuous battle to justify their existence, there are indications of new tides on the horizon. I am not thinking so much about globalisation or digitisation, two megatrends certainly changing university business at the moment. Rather, I have heard many colleagues from various parts of Europe talk about politics and its impact on universities.

In 2015, an unprecedented flood of people seeking refugee status started to fill European cities. That very same year, Parisians faced three terrorist attacks – followed by similar attacks in many other countries. In the 21st Century we are witnessing a wave of political populism gaining a foothold as many countries turn inward on themselves. Be it Erdogan, Putin, Soini, May, Trump, Wilders or Le Pen, university leaders are worried about how many political leaders are building walls around nations. Many of us are deeply concerned – not only about the direct impact of these measures, but also about the reactions they may cause.

In HUMANE, the Network for European University Registrars, we are always sharing our views on where the world is going. Of course, we do talk about management, services, governance, recruitment, digitisation and sustainability. But the period when universities were regarded as temples or oases is long gone, and now our topics of conversation – ranging from smart resource management, to inspiring research and study environments, from R&D practices and civic engagement, to service delivery and quality management – have a real life political context.

In June 2017, HUMANE will celebrate its 20th anniversary in Paris. Hosted by the distinguished Collège de France together with the new alliance Paris Sciences et Lettres PSL, we will focus on “Redefining university leadership in a volatile world“.

In particular we will discuss various aspects of crisis leadership in universities in a globalised world. The increased risk of violent incidents such as terrorist attacks, combined with the ubiquitous impact of social media and the 24-hour news cycle, mean that university leaders are often faced with existential crisis leadership challenges.

Most crises cannot be predicted; but the institutional response can at least be controlled.


Esa Hämäläinen will also be speaking at the AHUA Spring Conference in Belfast on Tuesday 4th April 2017.