Fear of change leads to failure to pick Tartu rector

February 9, 2007

Estonians consider the post of rector of the 375-year-old University of Tartu to be one of the most prestigious jobs in the country, and the election of a new rector is a matter of keen public interest.

But this year, Tartu's 295-member electoral college failed to pick a new rector. There were three candidates: Ene Ergma, professor of astrophysics and Deputy Speaker of the Estonian Parliament; Volli Kalm, professor of applied geology; and Birute Klaas, professor of Estonian as a foreign language and vice-rector for academic affairs.

Professor Ergma, who initially said she would not stand because she had too many enemies in academe, changed her mind and was widely tipped favourite.

She came top in the first round, getting 116 votes to Professor Kalm's 103 for and Professor Klaas's 44.

But 148 votes are needed to win. A run-off between between professors Ergma and Kalm resulted in a dead heat, with the winner decided by the toss of a coin - Professor Ergma.

In the final round, she was the sole candidate, with voters deciding, in effect, whether or not they wanted her as rector. Of the 258 ballot papers, three were spoilt and 114 unmarked. She gained 141 votes, seven short of those needed.

In such a case, the university statutes allow the incumbent to continue in office. But Jaak Aavkisoo resigned to stand for Parliament in the pending general elections. The university council was consequently forced to ask the Cabinet to appoint an acting rector to hold office for up to a year.

Before the elections, Professor Ergma indicated that she had plans for a major shake-up of posts if elected. The electoral college includes all of Tartu's professors, so this could be why she was unable to gain sufficient votes.

Professor Ergma said that Estonia's academic reputation was at risk because too many people were given chairs without proper qualifications. She told The Baltic Times last year: "We need to establish quality norms, and not only for the professors at Tartu, but for all professors in Estonia."

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