A history in three parts of the 100 years of Åbo Akademi University will be published by its centennial year, 2018. The history will present a broad perspective on Åbo Akademi University and will also contain a number of in-depth studies based on issues that current historians are particularly focussing on.

Text & Photo: Nicklas Hägen


Åbo Akademi University was founded in Turku, Finland in 1917 and the university commenced its activities in 1918. The university’s centenary will be commemorated in 2018 with celebrations including the publication of a 100-year history. One part of this history will be a traditional synthesis, written by Nils Erik Villstrand, professor in Nordic history at Åbo Akademi. The two remaining parts will take the form of anthologies, one of which approaches the history of the university from the perspective of the history of science and ideas, while the other explores the relationship between Åbo Akademi and society. The former is edited by researcher Laura Hollsten and the latter by researcher Anders Ahlbäck and docent Henry Nygård; all the editors work within the department of history at Åbo Akademi University.

According to Nils Erik Villstrand, one aspect of working on this centennial history is to look at things that do not exist today.
“As historians we should shift the focus away from teleology; things did not necessarily have to develop in the ways they have. We should point out the fact that there have always been alternatives and active subjects making specific choices. We mustn’t deny that many positive things have been done and something valuable has been created, but at the same time we will represent a critical perspective,” Villstrand says.

According to him, the general overview will take the form of a good local history, saying something on everything. Villstrand’s aim is to situate the establishment of Åbo Akademi University within a larger context: the break-up of empires and World War I. In Russia the Tsar abdicated as a result of the February Revolution in 1917, which for Finland led both to independence and civil war. In the wake of World War I the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed into a number of European national states where one nationality dominated each population.

These new nations sought to strengthen their identities and legitimise their existence by emphasising their characteristic features. One of the functions of the universities in the new, considerably smaller states was to contribute to the project of nation-building.
“In the entire Habsburg or Romanov Empire, perhaps with the exception of Helsinki, it was possible to work as a German- or Russian-speaking professor and travel within a large area. And then suddenly there were, instead, many small countries where the university was to play a totally different role from that of being part of an empire – it was to form the basis of a national state,” Villstrand explains.

“The university was to build the nation while also being at the forefront within the world of science. It was like a donkey between two haystacks. The combination of these two aspects is an interesting question to explore.”
While the general part of the history is to say something on everything, the anthologies will contain in-depth studies of a number of narrow fields. In order to create focus an exclusive selection was necessary, according to Laura Hollsten, and therefore some subjects and faculties are not included in the anthologies at all.

This selectiveness is to a certain extent compensated for by the extensive background of the anthology authors. The history working groups include researchers and professors from the subjects of history, folkloristics, comparative literature, philosophy, sociology, information technology and chemical engineering at Åbo Akademi University.

“We’ll conduct various case studies asking how new knowledge emerges at a university and what the contributing factors are. One example being explored is the first Rector of Åbo Akademi, Edward Westermarck, his network, and specifically how the theory of relativity was received. In this case certain individuals are the objects of study, and therefore the narrative is not characterised by a broad perspective,” Hollsten says.

So how was the theory of relativity received here at the university?
“Well, it could be said that Åbo Akademi was not part of the avant-garde, at least. But it might have been a wise decision on the part of a professor with the sole responsibility for a small department not to immediately declare himself to be an advocate of something that would perhaps prove to be a passing trend,” Hollsten says.

Despite the focus on narrow areas, can you identify a certain general mode of operation at Åbo Akademi University? Is a broader pattern discernible?
“One defining factor is the small size. Subjects were small, and the fact that this was a small university meant that the professors to a very great extent set the tone and dictated the research profile of their subjects,” Hollsten says.

“Another factor is its Swedishness. This is a minority university in Finland, which meant that the orientation towards the Nordic region and Sweden was key, not least in the recruitment of staff. The Faculty of Theology has attracted personnel from Sweden to such an extent that we could call it a ‘Swedish diaspora’. Overall, the number of Swedish members of staff has been very large.

Focus on internationalisation

One issue that the history researchers pay attention to is the nature of international networks over the years. According to Villstrand, this is connected to the attempts on the part of present-day scientists to be good Europeans.
“While it was previously taken for granted that researchers had contacts with colleagues that they found interesting, today we call it ‘internationalisation’,” says Villstrand.

What is the reason for this change? Is nationalism taken as a point of departure today, as something one moves away from by being international? Internationalism as such is not anything new?
“Not at all. It’s just a question of naming and paying attention to the phenomenon, that’s the difference,” Villstrand says.
“Transnationalism is currently a buzzword within history research and the history of science, just as globalisation was a few years ago.

But universities do have a national mission and nationality research has always been very important. While the tendency today is to deconstruct the nation, it has always been taken for granted that universities have a public duty, too. Today it is perhaps mainly a financial one, but also one of creating a basic identity,” says Hollsten.

During its early years, Åbo Akademi was very international. In order to safeguard Swedishness in Finland, the university was very much oriented towards the other Nordic countries, a tendency which is still in evidence today in the names of some subjects within the humanities, such as ‘Nordic history’ and ‘Nordic folkloristics’.

“I think that the natural scientists at Åbo Akademi University too have had more contact with colleagues in Sweden than is the case at other Finnish universities. It’s difficult to measure and compare these things, but looking at the correspondence of individual professors at Åbo Akademi University, it proves to be very international,” Hollsten says.

“Before World War II it mainly looked to colleagues in Sweden, but also in Germany and other countries in continental Europe. After the war the orientation increasingly turned towards the USA. This was the trend in the entire academic world, but it is obvious that Åbo Akademi was very international at an early stage – perhaps even more so than later.”

What is the significance of the 100 year anniversary of Åbo Akademi University?
“Jubilees are a good reason to stop and reflect on why and how things have developed in a certain direction, on what we currently have and on the way forward. This is something every organisation needs,” says Villstrand.
“And not a single university history has been written without an anniversary. It just does not happen,” Hollsten points out.

What function will the history fulfil once it is completed?
“I hope that the anthology texts will be at a good level scientifically and also interesting to read, that they will be based on high-quality research and can be rewritten for publication in an international journal on university or science history. Thus they could contribute to strengthening the research environment on the history of science at Åbo Akademi University,” Hollsten concludes.
“We have managed to create new interest in the history of universities and have been able to attend conferences on the subject. This has had further impacts and strengthened both our own and other subjects.”