Andres Tennus

The rector: both the pandemic and the war have demonstrated the university family’s sense of unity and social responsibility

Dear members of the university, 
new doctors, 
honorary doctors, 
and guests, 

We have a reason to be proud and satisfied. After several years, we can meet again in such a distinguished company in the most elegant place of our alma mater. The last time we met here was to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Estonia's national university, and it is somewhat symbolic that after two anniversary ceremonies we could not hold, we are today welcomed by a newly renovated and luminous assembly hall. It is still the place where the most influential people in Estonia gather every 1 December. The university's impact is felt not so much in political or day-to-day decisions but, above all, in shaping society's future prospects and scientific worldview and in maintaining an enterprising and innovative small state. The impact of Estonia's national university over the past 103 years has been, and continues to be, exactly what the leaders of the time pinned their hopes and Estonia's prospects on in 1919.   

I recently gave an interview to a British journalist who asked why we in Estonia struggle to maintain Estonian-language higher education and research. Similarly, external evaluators who visited the university in the spring asked: why does the University of Tartu want to be an international research university and a national university at the same time? To the outside world, these roles are contradictory, and it is difficult to understand why a university in a country of 1.3 million people is not fully international – both in content and language. Why do we continue to teach and do research in Estonian and, in the eyes of outside observers, hold back our development, especially as we are already firmly established internationally as a top university? The Guild and LERU networks of universities include us as an equal partner, we are nipping at the heels of the top 200 in the university rankings, and many of our researchers are among the most influential in their fields. The university no longer bears the label of a poor Eastern European that needs help catching up. This international position gives us our hallmark, the confidence to offer solutions to the Estonian state and businesses. 

The answer to why we are still holding on to our language lies in the choices made 103 years ago. 

To understand why Estonians aim to keep their universities Estonian-language and at the same time international and see the Estonian language of the university as a guarantee of the security of the Estonian state, one needs to understand why Estonians wanted to open an Estonian-language university at all costs during the War of Independence. At the time of the opening of the Estonian-language University of Tartu, we did not have enough students or teaching staff. They were at the front. But by the end of the war, the Estonian-language university was there. For a nation that had fought for independence, it was the starting point from which to build its own state, higher education, and higher culture. Of course, national sciences and supporting statehood had a more critical meaning then, and the university was much more a national university and much less an international research university than it is today. But the university without a national university component is still unthinkable even a century later. 

The freedom won for Estonia was short-lived, but thanks to the Estonian-speaking intellectuals who knew how to preserve and carry the spirit, diligence and professionalism of the University of Tartu, we remained a nation through the years of occupation. Thus, the Estonian-language university retained the same attitude of ownership that Jaan Tõnisson had when he was arguing with Russian revolutionary students in this hall 14 years before the opening of the Estonian-language University of Tartu: "This is our university, not yours!" In Soviet times, this attitude may have been cleverly concealed from the authorities, but it was there. Just as, for half a century, the conviction remained deep in society: "This is our Estonia, not yours!" 

Supported by this feeling, we were able to rebuild our country and continue to develop Estonian-language science and higher education, and thus society, in the free world. As an universitas of the free world. In her novel Shadow Play, Viivi Luik describes a book lying on the floor of a violently emptied farmhouse, with a picture of the Roman Colosseum that was too grand for the Soviet man to grasp. This image stayed with the author for almost half a century. We are fortunate to live in a time when Rome is accessible to us all, when the world is open to us. 

It is also a good time to think of our many colleagues and students who have come to Tartu from difficult societies. Let us think of the situation in Ukraine and what is happening in Iranian and Russian societies and universities. We can all help and support these colleagues. They deserve to feel protected. They also help us realise how lucky we are to live in a free world with academic freedom and freedom of expression. Where you can choose your specialisation and research topic, express not only your knowledge but also opinions and attitudes in public and without fear of repression. These are values worth preserving and cherishing. But they are also opportunities that automatically and inalienably come with personal responsibility. 

I am convinced that at the university we have a very balanced understanding of this responsibility –responsibility for our words, deeds and inaction. How we, as a university, have weathered the recent years’ turbulence gives me reason to be proud of all the people at the university. The kind of collective effort and personal involvement that we saw in these years is something that we might have hoped for, but it was certainly not something to be taken for granted. Both the pandemic and the war have demonstrated the university family’s sense of unity and social responsibility. 

All the university staff, students, all colleagues who have self-sacrificingly devoted their time and skills to Covid-related research and Ukraine-related activities, the university’s managers from members of the Rector’s Office to programme directors – you all deserve recognition and gratitude. I am happy to thank you personally from this distinguished cathedra today. 

From commitment and by taking responsibility we get the confidence to take on the challenges that require our shared effort. This means accepting the necessity of sustainable development, the green transition, including the technological transition, the readiness to adapt and act at every level of society, and the university's ability to offer solutions. Sustainable development also means keeping Estonia's population growth curve on track so that the Estonian land and country would last. 

When you read international reports on future jobs – be it by PricewaterhouseCoopers, Forbes, McKinsey –, one might get the impression that future societies will mainly need jobs in project management, programming, and artificial intelligence. As the rector of Estonia’s national university, I view these reports with a healthy filter. It is true that being ready for the future also means integrating technological skills into the teaching of all disciplines at the university. However, it must not be done at the expense of existing specialisations. After all, we still have the same number of people, and this is not likely to change. We will also need high-quality historians, ethnologists, physicists, journalists in the future, but the range of skills that the university will give them must expand. Of course, the state and the university also have small and mundane tasks besides the global existential issues – whether it is the electricity bill, the employers’ ability to pay salaries that keep pace with inflation, the signature of the administrative contract that brings new responsibilities to the university. All these problems are easily solved because we know what they are and we have people and means for that, even if scarce. From our recent years’ experiences we can show off many changes achieved by working wisely, together, in small steps, but persistently. We have seen that things of “vital national importance” can be done in this way: the level of research funding has been agreed on, higher education funding has a fixed growth rate in the national budget strategy, doctoral students have become our young colleagues with secure salaries. Based on these agreements, reached at the government level, the university can now also make better life decisions. 

The fact that on 5 March next year, Estonian people will elect new leaders for our country – leaders who, as the saying goes, we either “deserve” or “have earned” – this may seem a mundane topic, too. In any case, Estonian people deserve a secure future. They have earned it. 

The pre-election period gives us an opportunity, both as citizens and as universities, to be demanding and formulate our expectations on the issues on which we want to hear the parties' solutions before going to the ballot box. What are the visions based on which will we give the mandate to the state leaders so that Estonia would have research-based governance, high-quality higher education, students’ social situation that supports learning, a smart labour market and a smart funding policy? What is the plan for our future leaders to ensure the survival of health care in Estonia? How will politicians ensure that universities continue to have the freedom and opportunity to operate internationally and at the same time in Estonian? How will we achieve that our researchers and their knowledge are used as much and as well as possible – for the benefit of smart governance?  

Many of the key people needed to tackle the existential and topical challenges, both long- and short-term, are present in this hall today. We see their names and expertise on the title pages of doctoral theses, among honorary doctors, not to mention every member of the university community who is well versed in their field and represents a broad societal perspective. One example to follow is the personal attitude of the recipient of the "Contribution to Estonian National identity" award.  

But most importantly, the skills and responsibility of all these people do not only lie in describing the problems and proposing solutions but also in sending a message to society: there is hope. We know that young people are always ahead of us in terms of their vision. Let us reassure them that our concerns for the future are shared, that we hear them, and that they do not need to take a can of soup to an art gallery as a desperate move to get our attention. We will manage. We will endure.  

Vivat, crescat, floreat!  

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