The University of Helsinki canceled their search for a new professor when I started to ask questions

South Harbor, Helsinki

About three years ago, I was contacted by a couple of my Finnish criminology colleagues encouraging me to apply for a tenure track professorship at the University of Helsinki’s Institute of Criminology and Legal Policy (KRIMO). At the time, I was reaching the end of my fixed-term postdoctoral appointment at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, so this seemed like a great opportunity. I ended up applying for the position along with 10 other candidates. The search committee chose me as one of the top three finalists whose dossiers were sent out for external reviews. In the end, following the assessments by external reviewers, one round of interviews, and a teaching demonstration, the position was offered to a more senior candidate. Although I was personally disappointed with the outcome, the process had been fair.

In December of last year (2020), I was made aware that KRIMO had advertised a similar tenure track professorship position, this time focusing on “Crime and Public Policy”. I was initially quite perplexed when reading the description of the position. It appeared as if they were looking for the Leonardo DaVinci of 2021: a scholar of legal studies who had expertise in “social and health policies” and, importantly, “the ability to utilize KRIMO’s access to unique administrative register data generated by the authorities”. Whilst it is odd for a position to require this breadth of competencies across such wide-ranging fields and methodological approaches, I remained enthusiastic about my chances.

First, I had previously been shortlisted for a similar position. Second, I have graduate level training in sociology, a PhD in psychiatric epidemiology and I have authored numerous peer-reviewed papers in high-impact international journals focusing on understanding violent criminality and related behaviors in the Nordic countries. Serving as a Senior Research Fellow at the Social and Public Policy Unit at the University of Helsinki for the past two years, I have been able to work with the Finnish nationwide registry data, which have resulted in one accepted paper and a few others currently under review. In addition, I have recently started working on a project where we intend on assessing the validity of various violence risk assessment tools in Finnish prisons and forensic services.

Despite these credentials, my Finnish criminology colleagues were not as encouraging this time around. Turns out there was a back story to the convoluted job description. Apparently, it was a compromise between two factions within KRIMO. On the one hand, there is as a group of criminal policy researchers focusing on legal analyses of crime, and, on the other hand, a smaller group of empirical social science criminologists who use quantitative methods to understand the causes and consequences of crime and punishment. The rumors had suggested that prominent members of the KRIMO leadership were looking for an intellectual successor to its current director, Professor Tapio Lappi-Seppälä, a leading figure in Finnish criminal policy, who is expected to retire soon after decades of service. Although the idea was not to hire a new director, there seemed to be a sense that it was important for the legal scholars to preserve the legacy of Professor Lappi-Seppälä. Much of his work is dedicated to advocating for the prevailing criminal justice system, which is internationally recognized as one of the least punitive in the world.  

I therefore applied for the position with an understanding that the process may be somewhat different from my first experience a couple of years earlier. However, little did I know that things were about to go pretty weird. In the end, the search was canceled after twists and turns that raise some tough questions about the integrity of the hiring process at the flagship university of Finland. In what follows, I will provide the timeline of the events as they unfolded.

31 January, 2021

This was the deadline for the advertised position.

1 February, 2021

I requested to get a list of the applicants from the human resources specialist working on the search, Ms. Minna Maunula, as this is a matter of public record. I received the list on the same day. There were 25 applicants in total, which was more than double that of the pool of applicants for the previous position. I have decided not to publish the names of the candidates in the interest of maintaining their integrity. Those interested in the list can request to obtain it by e-mailing Ms. Maunula.

11 February 2021

I received an e-mail notification about the establishment of the internal search committee:

Dear Applicant,

Thank you for your interest in the position of tenure track or full professor in crime and public policy at the University of Helsinki. The applications amounted to 25.

The dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences, Professor Marjaana Seppänen, will establish an appointment committee soon. The committee consists of five members whom we are currently selecting. This might still take a while. However, I will let you know as soon as the committee is appointed. The first task of the committee is to shortlist the applicants.

Minna Maunula
HR Specialist

23 February, 2021

The composition of the search committee was announced:

Dear Applicant,

For your information, the dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences, Professor Marjaana Seppänen, has established an appointment committee consisting of the following five members: Professor Petri Ylikoski (chair, University of Helsinki), Docent Noora Ellonen (University of Tampere), Professor Ilse Julkunen (University of Helsinki), Professor Anne Kouvonen (University of Helsinki) and Professor Sakari Melander (University of Helsinki). The committee will hold a meeting to prepare a shortlist on the 8th of March. I will inform each applicant of the decision on Tuesday, 9 March, at the latest.

Best wishes,

9 March, 2021

It was around this time that the search process started to take strange turns. I received a notification that the search committee could not reach an agreement on which candidates to shortlist. Once I received this e-mail, I contacted some senior colleagues working at the university and they told me that this turn of events was extremely rare. No reason was given for the lack of agreement between the members of the search committee. Here is the full message sent to the applicants:

Dear Applicant,

The appointment committee hold a meeting yesterday but unfortunately could not reach a decision about the shortlist yet. I will send you further information next week.

Best wishes,

15 March, 2021

For reasons that remain unknown to me, the search committee made a recommendation to extend the deadline of the search until April 13, which was approved by the Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences, Professor Marjaana Seppänen. The job description remained unchanged and there were no indications that the search committee had made any efforts to either widen the search or make any other changes in the recruitment strategy. They simply extended the deadline by one month. 

Dear Applicant,

The dean has made a decision in accordance with the unanimous proposal of the appointment committee to extend the application period for a professorship of crime and public policy until 13 April. Current applicants will be taken into account without a further notice.

Best wishes,

1 April, 2021

A full two weeks later, the HR specialist of the search committee informed the original applicants that we could update our materials in time for the second deadline. The irony of the date in which this was done was not lost on us.

Dear Applicant,

Should you want to update the contents of your application to a position of professorship in crime and public policy, please send me an updated pdf-document by the 13th of April.

Please remember to compile all attachments in one pdf document. I would appreciate if you could insert the word “updated” to the name of the latest version of your application.

If there is nothing to be updated in your application, it will be assessed as it is at the present.

Best wishes,

13 April, 2021

The new deadline for the applications. The following day, I once again made a request to retrieve the updated list of applicants.

16 April, 2021

I received the updated list along with another e-mail from the HR specialist informing us that an additional 9 applicants had applied for the position. By this time, there were a total of 33 applicants for the position as one of the applicants had withdrawn. As a result of the new applicant pool, one member of the search committee (Dr. Noora Ellonen) became ineligible due to a conflict of interest and had to be replaced.

Dear Applicant,

This is just to inform you that we received nine new applications by the end of the prolonged application period. As one applicant withdrew her application, the total number of the applications amounted to 33.

Unfortunately, the submission of the new applications led to the disqualification of one of the members of the appointment committee. Therefore, we have to find someone to replace her.

This may take a while, but I’ll notify you of the new composition of the committee and the schedule of process at my earliest convenience.

I wish you have a nice weekend.

Best wishes,

23 April, 2021

By this date, more red flags started to emerge. We received an e-mail informing us that Dr. Noora Ellonen, the only expert in the search committee on quantitative criminology using the nationwide Finnish registries, was going to be replaced by Professor Kimmo Nuotio, a legal scholar in Helsinki. The search committee consisted now of scholars in philosophy, law (x 2), social work, and social epidemiology.

Dear Applicant,

This is just to inform you that the new composition of the appointment committee is the following: Professor Petri Ylikoski (chair), Professor Anne Kouvonen, Professor Ilse Julkunen, Professor Sakari Melander, and Professor Kimmo Nuotio. The committee will hold a meeting on Monday, 26 April.

Best wishes,

The Director of KRIMO, Professor Tapio Lappi-Seppälä is a long-time collaborator of two of the search committee members now, namely Professors Sakari Melander and Kimmo Nuotio. All three of them have coauthored several publications examining Finnish criminal policy and its legal implications. This was, however, not the only red flag.

Professor Lappi-Seppälä was the PhD supervisor of Miikka Vuorela, who earned his PhD in historical criminology on 19 February 2021. Dr. Vuorela was not eligible to apply for this position at the time of the first deadline (31 January) but he did apply for the position in the second round with the deadline of 13 April. Given what I had heard about the internal conflicts in KRIMO, I found it odd that a person who was widely considered to be a protégé of Professor Lappi-Seppälä suddenly reaped the benefits of this unprecedented maneuver by the search committee. I decided to take a closer look at Dr. Vuorela’s PhD dissertation, and I found that he had acknowledged the newly appointed member of the search committee, Professor Kimmo Nuotio, as his intellectual mentor (PDF; page 6):

According to Google Translate, this passage translates to: “I would also like to thank Professor Kimmo Nuotio. Our joint journey has been quite short so far, but I have always been impressed the fire with which you have defended and promoted the democratic rule of law and humane criminal justice in domestic and international cooperation.”

I also found that the Professor Nuotio had even acted as a preliminary examiner (“custos”) of Dr. Vuorela’s dissertation, which is clearly a conflict of interest. [Since publishing this post, I have been informed that the custos in the Finnish context refers to a faculty-appointed chair of the public examination.]

24 April, 2021

As the steering committee was about to select the candidates for the shortlist and the external assessors, I alerted the committee, the Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences as well as the Chancellor of the University of Helsinki, about my concerns of the integrity of this search process by sending the e-mail below.

Whilst searching for their contact information, I also noted that one of the search committee members and a long-time collaborator of Professor Lappi-Seppälä, Professor Sakari Melander, is currently serving as the legal secretary to the Chancellor of the University. Finnish academia is certainly a small world. 

6 May, 2021

The rector of the University made the decision to cancel the application process. One can only speculate as to the extent to which this decision resulted from my letter questioning the process. The reasoning behind this decision was expressed by the chair of the search committee, Professor Petri Ylikoski, in the proposal letter below. The committee argued that no one, out of 33 candidates (!), was qualified to even be appointed Assistant Professor of Crime and Public Policy in Finland. Interestingly, the search committee did not provide assessments of the specific candidates.

I wish to draw attention to this part of the letter: “The appointment committee considers it important to safeguard research and teaching in Crime and Public Policy” (emphasis added). Given what I know about the circumstances of this search, this sentence comes across as an implicit admission that the search was canceled because there was a risk that the external evaluators – assuming they were independent of the “network of 4” – might recommend the appointment of someone whose research agenda could challenge the status quo. Was it deemed important to the protect the field from outsiders?    

Concluding remarks

Why did I decide to share this series of events in my blog? My intention is not to suggest that I was the best candidate for the position. In fact, there were several mainstream criminal justice scholars in the pool that could have been chosen over me. My purpose here is to expose a series of questionable decisions that have contributed to making the process appear tainted. Again, without revealing any names, I know that at least two leading researchers of Finnish criminal policy, both of whom are currently senior scholars, applied for this position. I would like to see a justification for why they were not considered good enough to be shortlisted for the position. To suggest that none of the applicants were even worthy of being considered for an Assistant Professorship position is, in my view, patently absurd – and many of my Finnish colleagues agree.

I received a response to my e-mail from Ms. Maunula later the same day. She wrote:

Dear Dr. Amir Sariaslan,

Thank you for your email.

In accordance with established academic practice, the Faculty of Social Sciences does not engage the retiring professor in the selection of his/her successor. Therefore, Professor Lappi-Seppälä has not been involved in any way in discussing the related duties, preparing the call for applications or selecting the members of the appointment committee.

You have most probably received my message explaining that the rector has decided to discontinue the application process on the basis of the unanimous proposal of the appointment committee supported by the dean.

Minna Maunula
HR Specialist

Two of the closest colleagues of Professor Lappi-Seppälä served on the search committee for a position of his successor yet Ms. Maunula contends that Professor Lappi-Seppälä was not involved in any capacity throughout the process. The natural question that arises here is to what extent the university made sure that this has indeed been the case. Have they, for instance, checked phone or e-mail records documenting the communications between the “network of 4”? I assume that this has not been done. Let me be clear; I am not suggesting they should have done anything of the sort. The best way to reduce the conflicts of interest in the hiring process is to avoid involving individuals professionally and personally connected to the applicants. As noted, one member of the search committee stepped down because she had published one article with one new applicant. How should we regard a situation where the search committee features two (2) close collaborators of the dissertation chair of an applicant for a position currently occupied by the dissertation chair? The fact that this was allowed to happen with no internal resistance reflects very poorly on the university. 

One can only speculate as to what will happen next. One possibility is that KRIMO decides to use the invitational route to choose a term-limited candidate for the position. That approach would allow them to avoid Swedish applicants who ask too many questions, and to safeguard the prevailing agenda. However, I remain confident that such things would not happen in one of the least corrupt countries in the world.