Ahead at the Finnish (Cornell Alumni News 1-2/94)

The winds of change that blew across the Hill in the late 1960s have borne distant fruit, in the person of Risto Ihamuotila, the new rector of Helsinki University in Finland. “I would never have been here” — meaning the rector’s chair — “without Cornell,” the very tall (six-foot, eight-inch), very kindly, and very serious Finnish educator says.

The craggy-faced, 50-something agronomist-turned-administrator spent the 1969-70 academic year at Cornell doing postdoctoral research as a Fulbright fellow in the Ag college. Ihamuotila came to Ithaca with his wife, setting up residence in a small apartment in Cayuga Heights with their two young sons. It was a pivotal year in Ihamuotila’s life and career.

His Cornell experience was crucial in several ways, he says. First, it provided the “gold star” he needed to make professor upon his return to the university, Finland’s foremost educational institution. Just as important was the fact that it coincided with the late ’60s tumultand that, he says, “helped me to understand the importance of the students’ point of view. You could say that my interest in being an administrator began at Cornell.”

“I remember attending numerous student demonstrations — as an observer, not a participant, mind you. There was a lot of shouting, I forget about what. But it was very exciting.”

A quarter of a century later, Risto Ihamuotila is still doing his best to keep his door open to students at the Helsinki campus. For the most part, the 15,000 students at the university have rallied behind him in his ongoing battle with state authorities over the university’s budget. A delegation of students recently pleaded with him not to accept the loftier, if less substantive, office of university chancellor.

“That made me very happy,” he says.

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