Memories from back in the day…

You are a graduate of SSE in Stockholm. What are your fondest memories of that time?

It was such a long time ago! In 2018, a relatively poorly written research book on SSE Stockholm was published. The book had a lot of confirmation bias - the author already knew what he wanted to write about the university. However, the book made me reflect on what the best things that happened to me during SSE were. 

Do I recall much of the studies? No, but I learned something. It was the way all students were together - I don’t recall there was much competition about the highest grades. It was more about people always willing to support each other.  I spent less time in the auditoriums and more time in the library studying together with my other coursemates. There was genuine support in terms of helping each other. The spirit and the atmosphere were probably the best memories of the time.

And the friends that you get at university are also for life.

Friends, of course, as well. You do not recall to detail whatever you learn but the university gives you the right approaches for solving problems. There was also a lot of teamwork, we very rarely had individual tasks besides exams. In fact, the curriculum as it is now at SSE Riga is very similar to what I had a long time ago.

What did you want to become in childhood? Did you ever think that you would end up in academia?

No, academia was never my aim. I cannot recall one exact plan from my childhood, but I remember one discussion with a friend of mine over lunch break in the sixth grade at school. We talked about future plans after graduating from secondary school. I said that I wanted to go and study at SSE. I don’t know how I knew about it but it sparked an interest in business and economics that apparently was already in me. And then I ended up at SSE. 

Did I know what I wanted to do afterward - no, I didn’t. I didn’t consider going into an academic career until the very end of the third study year when in one subject I produced a fairly decent report. The professor called me on a Friday asking me if I wanted to proceed my studies to another level by teaching others, I said I hadn’t thought about it and asked if I could think about it until Monday. 

So I thought about it until that Monday and signed up. It’s always better to say “yes” and then you can sign out rather than say “no” and wonder what your life would have been like had you said “yes”. I said “yes” and ended up in academia. I think I was always interested in obtaining a leadership role and the responsibility that comes with it. Therefore, I have found this a very interesting job for me.

What was your favorite course back in the day?

Programming. It’s not really useful anymore, but it was great back in the day. I learned programming, it was harder than now, and there were no PCs for the students at the time, so we had to go to the computer lab and work at the main computer they had. But the university could not serve all of us, so it was physically impossible to program much in a day. The course was running for a month and a half or two months, so I had to work overtime in the computer lab. That was great and fun because we went to McDonald’s, I think they closed at 1 a.m., we had our final meals, and programmed throughout the night. 

I don’t recall how we survived the rest of the lectures, because this was an elective, and other courses were also running in parallel. It was a great experience, there were around 20 of us so we got very close to each other, and ate a lot of junk food. It was interesting and useful because even though the particular programming language is not used anymore, we learned how to structure data.

The never-ending passion for teaching and academia

So at first, you were a professor and then gradually moved up the academic ladder?

Yes, at first I was a professor just like my colleagues here - teaching economics. But then I became more and more involved with SSE Riga. I was here even before SSE Riga was launched. Back in the winter of 1994, someone from SSE Stockholm was gathering people who would be interested in teaching in Riga and it seemed exciting to me. I thought it would be fun to see what the students are like. At that time SSE Riga was accepting only Latvian students. So I came here, I taught macroeconomics for some years, and then I got even more involved in the administration of the school.

Why did you choose to join the team of Riga professors?

Because it was an interesting challenge. It was a small but nevertheless important contribution to the development of the society here. It matched my values very well as such. It was so interesting to come here so early on and once you were here.

Has Riga changed a lot over the past 30 years?

It has changed tremendously. There were no shops that we would consider normal now, the streetlights were always off by 11 p.m. or midnight, except for the big intersections. So it was a totally different city. The only bad thing is that now there is much more traffic. (Laughs).

From your vast educational background, it seems that you have never stopped studying.

You learn something new every day. We also have some projects with our colleagues here at SSE Riga to which we contribute. When you do the research part, you also learn, which is rather fun.

How do you keep yourself interested and not get tired?

Coming back to the development of Riga, all of the things in Riga in comparison to Stockholm change so much faster. There is so much more development that it is more interesting and challenging to be here. There is always something new to encounter and learn about, and that keeps me interested.

Have you ever thought about where you would have ended up if you pursued a different career?

I had an opportunity to go to the IMF in Washington back in 1997 but I didn’t take it. Do I regret it? No, because I believe this is more fun. Would I prefer to have stayed solely in academia? It is fun to teach and do research but I think what I currently do has more impact. It always is about making an impact. In a sense, my contribution here definitely is bigger than it would have been if I stayed in Sweden to teach. I think I have found the right place for me.

All about Latvian soups

After living in Latvia for almost 30 years, are there some Latvian traditions that you have become fond of?

I very much like Latvian dark rye bread. When I’m going to Sweden, I make sure I bring some Latvian bread with me. It is a nice habit for me. In Riga in particular I  enjoy the city and the parks. Latvia itself is very much about the cultural experience, the Song and Dance Festival, and the literature. I love visiting the countryside. It might not be spectacular in the sense that there are no high mountains, but it is very beautiful as such. You have beautiful small villages full of history and culture. I do not celebrate Jāņi much but I love Lāčplēša diena because it has historical significance. It’s low profile, it is on the 11th of November when it is usually quite dark and misty, and I love to put the candles in front of the Riga palace. It enlightens the time of the year.

What is your relation with the cold beetroot soup?

I love it, I even sometimes make it myself. Sorrel soup is also very good. You also have a lot of dill which I like.

The secret code of an SSE Rigan

What are the main values of SSE Riga alumni that differentiate them from other alumni?

The ability to work hard when it really matters. The students here during a certain period of their studies have to work harder than the students in other universities. Not saying that the other students don’t, but SSE Riga students have more self-confidence - they know they are able to work hard. 

Additionally, SSE Riga students are better at working in teams. When the first SSE Riga classes graduated, there was hardly any teamwork in other universities in the region. The graduates today are a bit different in terms of teamwork, as the times and climate around them have changed. But teamwork helps digest a lot more information in a short period of time. We are lucky to be fairly selective when it comes to our students. On average, we have stronger students than in many other places. Therefore, the students can be pushed even further.

If there are some students who are struggling with their studies, they tend to give up. What would you tell them?

What we tell them is essentially that we are sure they have the intellectual capacity to tackle the university. That’s why we admitted the person in the first place. But it is not enough to have the intellectual capacity - one also needs the willingness and motivation to put the intellectual capacity into work and sometimes that’s quite painful. 

Then we try to sort out if they truly have the motivation. It is so easy to lie to yourself when you sit in the auditorium and tell yourself: “Of course I have the motivation” but at the end of the day you do not have the motivation and you simply like the environment that you are in and the friends. That’s not nearly enough. 

We try to do the sorting in a way that the students come back and can determine their level of motivation. In quite a few cases if we convince the students to suspend their studies and really think about this for a year or 10 months, they come back more motivated and they are more successful with their studies.

Another case, which is not that common, is when students sign out of SSE Riga and one day five years later they approach someone at SSE Riga and ask if there is any way to come back. Sometimes there might be a way and then they come back very motivated to do whatever subject is remaining for them. We have had some graduations for people who started more than 10 years ago. Many of those people just had a few courses left and they were not really motivated at the time or had very interesting job offers they could not refuse. The key thing is to have motivation.

Is there a perfect recipe for how a potential student can prepare for the admission interview?

No, no. We do not want the candidates to be someone they are not. There is no such thing as a perfect candidate, anyone can be stronger and weaker in different dimensions. The key is to be yourself. When an applicant comes to the interview, they have done the test… if we believe the tests, one has decent intellectual competence and we just need to check if the candidate has enough motivation or if they are here just because their best friends are applying as well.

Why are diversity and elective courses needed?

In 2024 SSE Riga is celebrating its 30th anniversary! Are there some plans?

On the 9th of November will be a grand celebration in Hanzas Perons. We will also see what plans the Alumni Association has. We plan to have several activities outside Latvia for alumni in Vilnius and Tallinn, maybe also in Moldova or London. Some people cannot travel here for the party, but we still want them to be able to participate in some activities. We also want to cooperate with some of the alumni in other countries to recruit potential students. More Lithuanians, Estonians, and Moldovans! We will maybe also have some conferences and knowledge-oriented parties.

What are the main future plans for SSE Riga besides the party?

The main future direction is to continue attracting the strongest students. We know that the birth rates, particularly in Latvia but also in other countries, are extremely low. There were like 12,000 or close to that Latvians born in 2023. This has been going downwards for several years and that means we should probably be more active in terms of attracting foreign students, just to keep the overall level high. 

A few years ago, the board of the school discussed that there should be around 50 local students and the remaining ones should be from abroad. The same distribution should be gender-wise. Due to Covid-19, now we have more and stronger Latvians because fewer are interested in going abroad. The UK is also not open anymore, and numerous other reasons cause strong Latvian students to remain here. Even Latvian students have been saying that there are too many Latvians this year! (Laughs) So we have to have a decent number of non-Latvian speaking students to make it truly international. 

For the upcoming years, we plan to increase recruitment outside Latvia. Back in the late 2010s, it was roughly ⅓ of foreign students and ⅔ Latvians. Now it’s more than 75% of Latvians. When we organize the group tasks, we divide the students in a way that all groups are international.

Back in the late 2010s, there were also students from Russia and Belarus, but now you are quite more limited with that.

Yes, but we have more Ukrainians now. What was interesting this year, we got some strong candidates from Central Asia. They are here thanks to the geopolitical situation. Many strong students from Central Asia used to go to Moscow for studies, but now they do not want to go to Moscow anymore. Now we have some students from Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, so they can help us to get more applicants from those countries as well.

Why is diversity both among students and lecturers important?

It’s extremely important because even though there are many similarities between Swedes and Latvians, Estonians, and Lithuanians, there are also many differences. Those differences are good in many ways because one can observe that people are different. Then one can start learning what it means to be a Latvian, a Swede, or an Estonian. The other important thing is the educational level that comes from the diversity. People bring in different aspects of their previous experience. 

If we talk about the importance of networking, if one comes from a small country, it is very good to have contacts in neighboring countries regardless of what the students going to do in their lives. The same thing also goes for the faculty- if we were to be international and have international students, we want to have a mix of diversity in our faculty as well.

Are there some new courses or collaborations planned soon?

There are more upcoming plans for the EMBA. For the Bachelor program, we might have an additional look at the specialization courses. The core Year 1 and Year 2 courses would remain roughly the same, but in specialization, where there is a bit more flexibility, we could change something. 

Electives can also be often upgraded and changed. We have some courses on global issues and challenges with several different universities, so we will see if we can do some more courses together with other universities. For example, we have this Project Management elective, run by Aivars Timofejevs. In the spring of this year, we had five students taking this course and they went to Iceland for a week to take the course. So more such things might come.

If you could add any imaginative elective course now, what would it be about?

Anything? It might be too abstract, but it would be something like corporate governance and how to work with a board of directors. You will be put on the board of directors right after graduation, but I think it would be great to have an understanding of how the company you work for operates at a higher level. Also, it would train the students for the presentations they might have to do for their bosses two to three levels up. These presentations are much more demanding than those for the initial direct supervisors; therefore, one must be more focused. 

This course would give the students an understanding of how an organization works and how to prepare to meet the people up there. Not to be among those people right away, but how to present for them.

Like an introduction of what happens after you survive your internship?

To some extent yes, something like that. That would be a good label.

The consequences of technology and Covid-19

What is your take on artificial intelligence?

It is here to stay. We know that students like anyone else want to get the maximum out with a minimum workload so there is no way we can essentially control it. That’s the way the world looks like. What can we do? There are a lot of risks, for example, chatGPT is risky because we cannot control the quality of what comes out of it. 

One thing we can do is put more emphasis on critical thinking. That will not only help in students’ academic lives but also in their professional lives because one will be in deep trouble if one presents a chatGPT-generated report to management and then the management sees from the report that the person hasn’t done their homework and hasn’t critically looked at it. So I think critical thinking is becoming more important. 

We also have to change the way we examine the students. Maybe not so many “take-home” assignments, but more assignments that require attendance and work in person, showing that one can compile or analyze a text. Artificial intelligence will be there so I think it is important to understand when and how it could be used and what the risks are. We tell students - “if chatGPT will be able to do it for you, nobody will employ you, because there is no need for you”. So everyone has to add value.

You have been here for almost 30 years. Would you say that the students have changed during this time?

They have changed, of course. Intellectually, they are as good as they have ever been. But they are different. You all grew up with your devices, it has both a positive and a negative impact. Then the students had Covid-19 period with remote online learning, which had an impact. The 2022 Year 1 students missed out on social interaction to some extent. So there are a lot of differences. Some of the differences are also technology-caused, such as a shorter attention span. It is a problem at the university, but it will also become a problem for the students once they start working. 

The school system in Latvia is also changing now, with the 12th-grade students having fewer courses. People do not have to study that much in the final years, so they come to the SSE Riga a bit lazy. There are a lot of changes and challenges to organize the studies in such a way that things work out. We might have to spend a bit more time on such courses as Study Skills so that the students better prepare for the university. If you go back 15 years, the main difference is that the students were more suited for higher education.

The rewarding feeling of being a rector

What has been the greatest thing you have achieved for the school during your tenure?

That we managed to continue after 2010. That was the original date when it should have been taken away. The building would have remained, but the brand wouldn’t have been here. The initial idea was that the building would be given to the University of Latvia in 2010. It said something like that in all these agreements between Latvian and Swedish governments, and the SSE in Stockholm, that by July 1 2010 the school should be transferred to the Latvian interests. They changed it because they realized what had been achieved in those 15-16 years would not survive if it was integrated into something else. Alumni also wouldn’t have been too happy if the university was closed down. You can imagine, you go to a job interview and the recruiters see SSE Riga and think they have never heard about it, it would not be a good thing to have on the CV. Now SSE Riga has a stable setup, there is this foundation that owns SSE Riga, and the foundation belongs to no one. So it is my biggest achievement.

How do you manage to stay connected with the student body and their and the alumni's needs and expectations?

The most interesting way I learn a lot is actually through the admission interviews. I interview around 25 students a year. That’s quite interesting because, from those interviews, you start understanding a bit about where the students come from. I meet students also while they are studying but it is usually in not-so-pleasant circumstances when the students are in trouble.

However, that way I also learn something about the students’  problems. I also interact with the Student Association, but I think the interviews provide the most insight.

What are the three most important characteristics to succeed in the rector’s position?

I think they are the same as they would be for any management position. One is that you have to be honest with yourself. If you pretend to be someone else, it is not going to work. 

Secondly, you should be able to have fun at work - if the work is not enjoyable, you will not succeed. 

The third one is what I always tell students when they have the Organization and Management course - if you want to become a manager, you have to understand that being in charge also means you sometimes have to be the bad guy. You have to be the one who says “no”. Forget about the examples you see in the movies where the managers always say “yes” and “fantastic idea” to everything. When you are a team leader, you can always delegate the idea to anyone else but it is more or less the same as rejecting the idea. In a nutshell, the three most important lessons are to be yourself, have fun, and understand that to manage is to make tough decisions.

What is your favorite aspect of your job?

I cannot really observe anyone on an individual basis because I am not that close to the students, but seeing the students develop is very beautiful. I attend a few thesis presentations annually. There I often see someone who was not that great three years ago but at the presentations, they show that they have produced this quality research. That is very rewarding. 

Also, I love to see people come into this office, whether it’s an issue with their studies or their academic performance, and then I can later see how they successfully go on with their studies and eventually graduate. I love to observe the personal development of students. 

However, I also like to see the growth and development of my colleagues, and the employees, both in faculty and administration. In faculty especially, it is very interesting to observe how they evolve in their teaching and research skills over the years. That is why it is very rewarding to be in academia - it is all about development and shaping people for the better.

The job is definitely quite stressful. How do you relax and unwind yourself after a long working day?

I sleep. (laughs). In the summertime, I also do early morning runs. But I have never had any sleep issues because of work, so that, of course, facilitates relaxation. However, I believe that physical activity in one way or another is also important to cope with it. That also applies to the students; therefore, it is great that the Sports committee organizes sports activities for them as well.

Skipping TV to read more books

What is your favorite book that you would encourage everyone to read?

Oh, I read so many books! I try to read roughly one book a week.

This is an awfully difficult question! (Laughs). The last one I read was fairly short - “Baumgartner” by an American author Paul Auster. The book was released this summer in the USA, so it is a fairly new one. It’s about a university professor who is around 70 years old and his wife has passed away. But what’s interesting, this author has around 20-something books and they all have links to each other. I have not read all of them yet. So I have been thinking of how I should read them all - should I read the books as sequels or are they all simply a part of a much bigger universe? To get the full message of the book, do I have to go back and look at the previous ones? The topics are completely different, but the same names occasionally reappear. Some characters have the same family names. I cannot say I fully understand the books, but I like the complexity. I like complex books altogether that challenge the reader. In some cases, I have to read the book a few additional times to fully get its meaning. But with these books, I always wonder if I should read them as a whole book or as a chapter of a bigger book.

Besides Auster, I also like reading Russian literature, both classic and some newer pieces of the late 20th century. There was also this Ukrainian author Anatoly Rybakov whom I like. He wrote books about his life, to some extent. The plot usually started in the 1930s and ended during World War II. All these books have a lot of reading and many characters, but I love the challenge. 

There is also one amazing Swedish book that follows a big group of people in the Swedish countryside from around 1933 to 1945. I like epic and complex stories where you follow a group of people, it could be a historical or a contemporary story. But my favorite book of all time most likely is by a Finnish author Kjell Westö. There is one book that starts around 1973 and follows a group of people for about 25 years. That book is probably my favorite because even though it is written in Finnish and takes place in Finland, it is so similar to Sweden! The protagonist of the book is born roughly the same year as I am, and there are so many similarities in the music and the culture. The overall experience of the main protagonist is very similar to my own past. That book has had a big impact on me - it makes me reflect on myself and my personal journey as such. 

But I read too many books. I read on paper only, that’s why there are books everywhere I go. I always want to have the hard copy and not borrow from the library, because I sometimes tend to go back to the book, so they take up quite a lot of space.

Surprising that you mostly opt for fiction books! I would have thought of you more as a non-fiction reader.

I have so much non-fiction stuff to read and go through professionally that I enjoy reading fiction. I essentially do not watch TV and do not stream anything on the Internet. I might watch some news while cooking, but that is it. If I look at myself 10 years ago, I spent a lot more time on the screens. I also do not have any social media, so I save a lot of time I can spend on reading.