On October 10, Finnish president Sauli Niinistö visited the University of Toronto to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Finnish Studies program and mark the end of 25 years of the Finnish government’s financial support for the program.

Niinistö attended a discussion on Finnish Studies in North America and presented scholarships to Finnish Studies students. In a separate event, Niinistö discussed international affairs with Janice Stein, director of the Munk School of Global Affairs.

Cheryl Regehr, U of T provost, began the discussion by highlighting the prominence of the university’s Finnish Studies program and the close relationship of the program with Finnish universities.

Members of the university’s Finnish Studies program then spoke about the future of Finnish Studies.

End of Support

Concerns over funding were a major theme in the discussion. Upon the program’s inception, the government of Finland agreed to pay half of the professors’ salaries for 25 years, with the Canadian Friends of Finland Education Foundation (CFFEF) and the university sharing the rest of the expenses.

Though Finland’s financial support is ending, the speakers expressed thanks for the assistance received so far. “The days of 50 per cent support are over,” said Borje Vahamaki, professor of Finnish language and literature and head of Finnish Studies from its beginning until 2009. 

Vahamaki attributed the move to the ebbing Finnish economy and the Finnish government’s reduced budget for promoting Finnish studies internationally — now only €200,000, or $288,000 Canadian. “They have supported us for 25 years — we have nothing to complain about,” Vahamaki added.

A well-endowed program

The CFFEF is now trying to raise a minimum of $3 million to endow a chair in Finnish Studies. So far, they have raised $1.4 million of that goal — $500,000 of which has been set aside for the endowment, with the rest going towards immediate expenses in the program.

The university has also contributed, but there remains a gap of about $2.4 million.

Vahamaki, who is also the president of the Canadian Friends of Finland (CFF), has high hopes for the fundraising campaign. “We would like to get halfway there in a very short time, within a year — a year and a half — so that the university can see that it is viable,” he said.

The Finnish Studies program is the second largest in the broader Slavic Languages department. “My successor was hired for two years only, because that’s how far we’re able to guarantee money,” Vahamaki said, adding: “If we have no success at all, then we’ll just have to bite the bullet and we’ll gradually fade out.”

However, Vahamaki was quick to dismiss the possibility of failure, especially because of the attention garnered from the president’s visit. “We have a moment now where the awareness is a little bit heightened,” he said.

With this in mind, the CFF is reaching out to many sources for aid, including corporations like Rovio Entertainment — the Finnish company responsible for creating Angry Birds — as well as private donors.