IN MEMORIAM. Professor Volli Kalm, Rector of the University of Tartu (10 February 1953 – 23 December 2017)

Professor Volli Kalm, Rector of the University of Tartu (10 February 1953 – 23 December 2017)

On Saturday, 23 December, bright Christmas lights adorning the white columns of the University of Tartu main building went out. A candle with a black ribbon tied around it was lit under the clock in the foyer of the main building. Suddenly and unexpectedly, the University has lost its dignified leader, Estonian science and higher education its bold and wise spokesman, and Estonian nation its nationally-inclined intellectual of international stature – Rector Professor Volli Kalm.

Volli Kalm was born on 10 February 1953 in Vändra. After finishing secondary school in Vändra, he enrolled in the University of Tartu from which he graduated with a diploma in geology in 1976. He then did his graduate studies at the Institute of Geology of the Estonian Academy of Sciences. In 1984, he obtained his doctorate in geology and joined the staff of the University of Tartu as a lecturer at the Institute of Geology of the Faculty of Biology and Geography. In 1988, he spent a period at the University of Alberta as a postdoctoral scholar. He was elected professor of applied geology at the University of Tartu in 1992. Volli Kalm’s main fields of research were palaeoclimate, palaeogeography and chronology of glaciations, sedimentology and geoarchaeology.

Between 1998 and 2003, he served as Vice-Rector for Academic Affairs of the University of Tartu. In 2012, he was elected Rector of the University of Tartu. In summer 2017, when beginning his second term of office as the Rector, he could note with satisfaction that the University of Tartu has strengthened its position as Estonia’s national university and international research university, has achieved better integration of teaching and research activities with entrepreneurship training, and increased interdisciplinary cooperation. Under Volli Kalm’s leadership, the University of Tartu improved its position in international rankings by 200 places. He was far from ascribing this honour to himself alone; rather, he emphasised that the University’s success is the result of the dedicated work by all its employees and wise decisions made in the past.

Volli Kalm attached great importance to developing the University’s international links and raising its international profile. Under his leadership, the University of Tartu became a member of the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities at its public launch in November 2016. In June this year, he was elected Treasurer and Member of the Board. He was confident that partnering up with the world’s top universities will enable the University of Tartu to participate in the shaping of Europe’s research policy. In their tributes, rectors and presidents of The Guild’s member universities hail him as a visionary leader for the network of Europe’s best research universities. In November this year Volli Kalm received an honorary doctorate from Tbilisi State University, Georgia.

He regarded the University of Tartu’s mission to serve its nation with the equal sense of responsibility. “Climbing higher in international university rankings cannot be the sole development goal of this University, since as a national university we have been entrusted with tasks much broader than those taken into account in the rankings, for example the development of Estonian-language higher education and scientific terminology, advancing Estonian national sciences and culture, and rearing new generations of Estonian intellectuals,” Kalm remarked in a recent interview to the cultural weekly Sirp.

During rector’s elections in spring, Volli Kalm was asked what he regards as his greatest achievement. This was his response: “The greatest achievement of my life are my sons and my contribution to the University leadership at its many different levels. My greatest research achievement is determining the temporal and spatial extent of glaciations in north-eastern Europe along with the related climate cycles, as well as supervising seven defended doctoral theses.”

As a leader, Volli Kalm was demanding and straightforward. Always a visionary with long-time goals, he undertook some sweeping reforms and planned far-reaching changes. Volli Kalm contributed to the reorganization of Estonia’s research funding system. He helped to establish the Estonian Research Council and served as its first chair. In his position as the Rector, he steered to completion the long-planned governance and structural reform of the University. His opinions carried a lot of weight with the Universitas Estonia (Estonian Rectors’ Conference). His contribution was highly valued in various advisory and decision-making bodies of Estonia.

Under his direction, the University has redesigned its curricula and become the largest development partner to businesses and public sector in the Baltics. He also fought for the consolidation of Estonian research institutions – a process set to receive a new impetus with the merger of Tartu Observatory and Estonian Biocenter with the University of Tartu, scheduled for the nearest future.

Being himself the son of a teacher, he attached great importance to teacher education. Every spring, when handing out diplomas to graduates, he never failed to emphasise the importance of the role of future schoolteachers. Each year, Volli Kalm’s personal donation helps to support the studies of one student training to become a teacher.

He regarded introducing a new academic career model to be one of the most important tasks of his second term of office. This process was ushered in with the adoption of new job descriptions of academic employees in December. Another topic of concern, which was important to him, was ensuring a decent income for doctoral students and dignified old-age pensions for the meritorious employees of the University. One project that remained unfinished was the construction of the Delta building – the University of Tartu’s centre for IT and entrepreneurship education.

Rector Volli Kalm’s devotion, consistency, and work ethic were exemplary. “We will remember him as an honest and demanding man whose position was always clear, who had a straightforward manner of expression, and a thorough knowledge of and caring attention to all of the University’s faculties. He was someone you could rely on,“ recalls one of his colleagues. “Volli’s entire working life can be summarized in one sentence: Straight way is the shortest way between two points and this way was laid down with precision and vigour. However, in his moments of leisure that Volli shared with his students and colleagues – be it while climbing in the mountains or hiking in the bogs near his summer cottage –, he forgot all his straightforwardness,“ recalls another close colleague of the late Rector.

Volli is said to have got his name from her mother Leida’s favourite brother Voldemar, who was called „Volli“ at home. Uncle was deported to Siberia where he froze to death because he gave his overcoat to someone who seemed to be freezing even more than he did. Volli Kalm spoke of his uncle’s compassion with respect and admiration. There is something symbolic in the fact that Volli Kalm passed away on his uncle Voldemar’s 115th anniversary.

Volli Kalm’s life was cut unfairly short. However, he managed to achieve a lot in his lifetime, among other things to be a loving father and husband to his family. We feel a deep sense of gratitude for the great services Professor Kalm as a scientist and Rector rendered to the University and to Estonian higher education, science and society.

Volli Kalm’s funeral will take place on Saturday, 30 December at 11am in the University Assembly Hall. The doors of the Assembly Hall will be opened from 10.30am. The funeral service will be followed by the interment in the Raadi cemetery and commemorative meeting in the White Hall of the University History Museum. Commemorative messages can be written in a book of remembrance in the foyer of the University Main Building, this can also be done on the University web page at:

We bow our heads in grief and respect to mourn the passing or our Rector, and extend our condolences to his family and friends.

The University of Tartu