Taltech rector: Institution hardly flawless, but lessons can be learned

Taltech rector Jaak Aaviksoo.
Taltech rector Jaak Aaviksoo. Source: Edmond Mäll, TTÜ

Tallinn University of Technology (TTÜ, known internationally as Taltech) rector Jaak Aaviksoo said Friday that while the institution is hardly as pure as the driven snow, it will make public the nature of what he called mistakes brought to light recently by a whistleblower, ERR's Estonian online news reports. Aaviksoo also cleared himself of any wrongdoing in either engaging in a cover-up, or providing false information, concerning the revelations.

Speaking on commercial radio station Kuku raadio's Nädala tegija broadcast on Friday, Aavikso said an internal audit of Taltech to be published Monday is not the last word in the story, with a final audit, as well as the prosecutor's office's own investigation into allegations of irregularities in the use of EU funds, due later.

"The university will announce the results of its internal investigation on Monday. It is unfortunate but at the same time I'm pleased to say that while I can't claim to be as clean as a whistle, we have no reason as of now to suspect anyone of a crime," Aaviksoo said on the broadcast.

Late last week, an article in daily Postimees claimed information had been provided to the European Commission which artificially inflated working hours at Taltech, as well as money being paid as wages to individuals who did not work on the relevant project, primarily at the Ragnar Nurkse Department of Innovation and Governance (RNI), part of Taltech.

In a concrete example from 2016, the European Commission allocated €267,500 from the Horizon 2020 (H2020) program to RNI in connection with the OpenGovIntelligence (OGI) project. Some of these funds had been misused, it was claimed.

The Postimees article followed an approach to the daily by a whistleblower, soon after named in the media as Keegan McBride, a PhD student and former RNI employee. McBride said that he had approached Aaviksoo with his information in March and that, while the latter expressed concern about the revelations, nothing concrete seemed to have been done between that time and taking his story to the media.

The prosecutor's office announced early this week that it was launching a criminal investigation into the matter. Aaviksoo had said shortly before the announcement that he was planning to take the case to the prosecutor's office in any case; the latter said Aaviksoo's actions here had no bearing on its decision to open the investigation, a decision solely arising from media reports starting with the original Postimees piece.

"As a result [of the interim audit due Monday] we will hopefully become smarter as well as more transparent," Aaviksoo continued.

"However, the lessons learned are more wide-ranging," he added.

Aaviksoo went on to say that his biggest oversight had been not giving adequate feedback to McBride following the latter's approach, adding that he was not angry with McBride.

Aaviksoo also praised the existence of whistleblowers in society as a whole.

Aaviksoo also said that his initial internal investigation into McBride's concerns checked only documents, which were found to be in order, and not people.

He also said that since he did not want a "witch hunt" atmosphere to emerge at the university.

A crisis of trust was the most serious outcome of controversy which erupted at RNI, Aaviksoo said, noting this overshadowed any actual wrongdoing.

"I hope the day will come when I will be able to say what was at fault in the whistleblower's hasty defense. I have not engaged in dishonest activity," Aaviksoo continued.

Aaviksoo also said that McBride need not feel insecure at Taltech, where he continues to work, since he had proven himself academically, as evidenced by the fact he is ready to defend his doctoral thesis ahead of the usual five-year timeframe.

Aaviksoo did however claim there were relations within RNI which needed healing as a result of the recent controversy, with many of its personnel now wary of speaking on the record.

Aaviksoo concluded that the events helped demarcate the boundaries of what is acceptable and unacceptable in science. This included avoiding "creative" workers, who Aaviksoo said despise bureaucracy, taking on a management role within their work in areas they are not fully familiar with, adding that conclusions will be drawn in Brussels as well as locally in Tallinn.

The full Taltech internal audit is due in about a month, and the prosecutor's office criminal investigation is still pending.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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