University of Tartu (TÜ) rector Toomas Asser has decided to terminate the university's employment relationship with Faculty of Social Sciences dean and macroeconomics professor Raul Eamets, the university announced Monday. Eamets told ERR that he will be appealing the decision, justifying that he was doing the right thing, but went about it the wrong way.
"On Friday, August 11, the university was made aware that Faculty of Social Sciences dean Raul Eamets has unlawfully signed a cooperation agreement on behalf of the university with Pere Sihtkapital SA, in so doing violating several of the university's bylaws and also the law," Asser said Monday.
"I condemn the dean's actions with no justification whatsoever, and I informed both Raul Eamets as well as the public of this as soon as the situation emerged," he continued. "At today's meeting I informed Raul Eamets that given the gravity of the violation, it's unthinkable [for him] to continue working at the university."
Asser said that termination of employment is the only possible option, because Raul Eamets has, as a professor and dean, has consciously made choices in the course of which he has chosen (1) to violate the university's governance bylaws (entering into and concealing an ostensible contract; (2) not to comply with the code of conduct for research integrity and research ethics requirements; and (3) disregard procedural restrictions outlined in the Anti-corruption Act.
"If there had been just one error, the university may have weighed [issuing] a warning or only the early termination of [Eamets'] term as dean," he explained. "In this case, however, that would be unthinkable, as the committing of successive violations was a conscious choice. Even after the incident went public, Raul Eamets has not understood the full gravity of his violations."
The rector considers it unequivocally unacceptable that Eamets signed an agreement on the university's behalf with a foundation on whose supervisory board the dean himself serves.
What makes this violation even more gross, he continued, is that despite the fact that the dean had consulted a university legal adviser regarding the concluding of this agreement and received a clear answer that the university cannot conclude such an agreement, he disregarded the guidance he had received.
"The legal adviser noted then already that with [this] agreement, the university would assume responsibility for activity in which we're not actually involved, and considering the content of the agreement, it would constitute a fabricated authorization so that the foundation could obtain people's data from the population register," Asser pointed out.
"While the dean announced in response to this legal assessment this spring that he wouldn't sign the agreement, the opposite has now turned out to be the case," he continued. "Moreover, he failed to register the agreement in the university's document register. Thus, Raul Eamets has disregarded a direct prohibition to conclude the agreement and violated the university's internal procedures, the principles of research ethics as well as the Anti-corruption Act."
Not fit to teach research ethics
As it's rare for a professor to be fired from their position, Asser justified this decision regarding Eamets — a professor of macroeconomics at TÜ — as well, emphasizing that a professorship is a leading position, the holder of which is involved in both research and teaching work.
"It would be inconceivable for someone who has so grossly violated the rules of research ethics themselves to teach research ethics to university students and be involved in the management of research teams," the rector explained.
"I am very sorry that with his actions, the dean has, on top of damaging the university's reputation, also made all of his colleagues' work difficult who conduct independent scientific research in compliance with all strict ethical and procedural rules," Asser said. "This case has abused the trust of Estonian residents, and unfortunately, it has been left up to the entire academic community to regain that [trust]. I call on my colleagues and the relevant authorities to work together to find solutions to this."
The rector said that he's always welcomed the societal engagement of the university's researchers.
"This requires a conscious awareness of one's limits, however, so as to avoid a conflict of interest or violating ethics and the law," he stressed. "This boundary must be particularly clear when working in a senior position."
Eamets: I was doing the right thing, but the wrong way
"Both sides presented their arguments, and the decision was unexpected for me — certainly disproportionate to the violation I'd committed," Eamets said, commenting on his Monday morning meeting with the TÜ rector. "For that reason I intend to appeal this decision as well."
The dean said that he would likely start with a labor dispute committee, but would consult with lawyers first.
"I made management mistakes, but the termination of [my] employment contract means that my work as a professor isn't deserving of continued employment either," Eamets told ERR.
The backlash in response to his comments on social media came as no surprise to him.
"It just makes me sad that when certain issues are addressed this way, then it will lead to a situation where no one dares touch these topics," he said. "If someone researches childlessness, then no one will touch the subject for the next five years. They saw what happens when someone gets involved with it. It's a shame we're throwing something so important away together with these accusations."
Asked by a journalist whether this is a manifestation of the culture wars that have reached here from the U.S., whether this is a generational conflict or whether there are also politics at play, Eamets responded that he thinks all of those elements are involved in this case.
"When someone makes a mistake, they need to regret that," he said. "But I was doing the right thing — because such studies are needed — but I did it the wrong way."
Rector: Eamets chose not to resign himself
Speaking at a press conference held Monday afternoon, where he also echoed his comments released earlier that day, Asser said that Eamets believed that his resignation as dean would have been sufficient punishment.
"But since Eamets has decided now after a couple hours of thought not to resign himself, I've signed a letter to the Faculty of Social Sciences, and a no-confidence motion against him is on the faculty council's agenda for Thursday," he continued.
According to the TÜ rector, the university's leadership has no assurance that the labor dispute committee or courts won't reverse the university's decision, should Eamets challenge it there as promised.
He also added that until now, it hadn't been an issue that Eamets has been simultaneously serving on the supervisory board of Pere Sihtkapital and as dean of TÜ's Faculty of Social Sciences.
Responding to a question from the press, Asser said that he doesn't see one bit of political context involved in his decision to fire Eamets.
Editor: Aili Vahtla