Aalto University: An inquiry into allegations of misconduct and financial irregularities at Helsinki School has been completed

A thorough inquiry into allegations of inappropriate conduct and financial irregularities at the Helsinki School of the Aalto University School of Arts, Design and Architecture has been completed. At the request of the School, Aalto University’s management launched an external inquiry into the allegations made in the media.

The inquiry was conducted in accordance with Aalto’s ethical principles, the Code of Conduct, ensuring independence and objectivity. The investigators (University Legal, Finance and Learning Services) reviewed all allegations and contacts brought to the attention of the University during the course of the inquiry, including allegations of inappropriate conduct and failure to address previous allegations. The inquiry included oral and written hearings with the parties and contacts.

Findings of the inquiry

The majority of the complaints and contacts received during the inquiry were critical of the Helsinki School. Criticism has focused on experiences of inappropriate teaching styles, inappropriate treatment and the ambiguity of Helsinki School’s position between academic and professional activities. The Helsinki School received positive feedback on its role in promoting Finnish photography, its relevance to work life and the training opening up professional opportunities.

The inquiry also addressed some very serious experiences of inappropriate treatment reported in the media. Given the limited powers and possibilities of the University to investigate these cases, and the fact that several years had passed since the events occurred, it was not possible to fully investigate the events and draw clear conclusions.

In recent activities of the Helsinki School, the inquiry did not reveal any serious irregularities, such as systematic or deliberate harassment or discrimination.

However, based on the information obtained in the inquiry, there have been instances of misconduct in the teaching of Helsinki School, such as commenting on students’ personal matters. In addition, according to several contacts, the Helsinki School has created a negative, competitive atmosphere among students. Certain students have been supported through Helsinki School while others have been excluded. This has created fears that giving negative feedback might affect one’s career.

Helsinki School’s activities started in 1996 at the University of Art and Design and its Department of Photography, and was transferred to Aalto University when it was founded in 2010. The activities at Aalto have included teaching and export promotion. In practice, export promotion has meant renting a gallery space in Berlin and paying the rent for a photography fair. The activities have received funding from the Ministry of Education and Culture in 2011. The university has not received any income from the sale of artworks. The University’s role in promoting the export of art has benefited the students and alumni involved, as well as the external gallery. The export promotion has not been based on written contracts.

The report cannot comment on the allegations that art was sold for cash and without receipts, as the sale of artworks was a direct collaboration between the artists and the gallery and Aalto University was not a party to the transactions. The problem, however, has been that the roles of the different actors have been unclear and the involvement of the University has been blurred.

Measures and developments

The Aalto University School of Arts and Design recognises its position of power as an educator and influencer in the art scene, especially in relation to students. Its mission is both to strive for excellence in research, teaching and the arts, and to provide a safe, diverse and high-quality student experience. Selecting talent at the very beginning of the study path does not support the current concept of lifelong learning and study as continuous effort.

On the basis of the Inquiry, the following measures will be taken:

The School of Arts, Design and Architecture will instruct teachers on safe and inclusive teaching, especially when giving feedback and criticism. This guidance also applies to the handling of personal issues shared by students in courses. This work will continue in cooperation with the student organisation TOKYO in autumn 2022.

Aalto University is preparing to open a reporting channel with an anonymous reporting option. The introduction of a reporting channel may contribute to lowering the threshold for reporting inappropriate behaviour.

The university’s dealings with external parties must always be based on written agreements and clearly defined responsibilities. Activities such as the Helsinki School’s export promotion projects, which are based on verbal agreements, are no longer possible.

Aalto University encourages its staff to be active in society, especially if it supports the pursuit of science, art, teaching or social impact. However, there must be no conflict between work for the university and work related to outside commitments, and a clear distinction must be made between the two. Aalto University has clear policies on secondary employment and outside employment that all staff must follow. Students must be guided in their commercial activities with particular care, fairness and transparency.

Aalto University’s cooperation with Helsinki School comes to an end

The findings and shortcomings described above have led to a re-evaluation and intervention in Timothy Persons’ activities in the Helsinki School.

All Aalto University cooperation with Helsinki School will end in 2022, based on a decision taken before this report was launched.

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