Students in field

Bob Ubbelohde left a lasting mark

January 24, 2019

Bob Ubbelohde

This summer the Finlandia University community was devastated to learn former president Bob Ubbelohde had passed away at the age of 75.

The former president is still fondly remembered on campus, especially by employees walking behind the Hoover Center to the area where he was often found and available for the kind of casual conversation you just can’t have in a board room. While those memories are exciting, Ubbelohde will always be remembered for two incredible accomplishments – Advancing Suomi College from a two-year to a four-year institution and changing the name to Finlandia University.

“He felt, quite rightly, that it was the way to save the school,” said Donald Bays, who worked closely with Ubbelohde as the university’s lawyer before joining the board of trustees. “He led. He was intent and committed. To say that there was pressure was a gross understatement. He was under a ton of pressure.”

While Bays statement might seem extreme, the decision to move from a two-year to a four-year school was widely seen as a key strategic decision for the university that was far from optional if the university was going to move away from depending on endowments and donors for survival. It also wasn’t a new idea.

“At the 50-year anniversary of the school, the president at the time (Viljo K. Nikander) said in his writings that the school would have to become a four-year institution,” said Susan Ubbelohde, the late President’s wife. “If the school was going to survive long term it had to offer baccalaureate programs so people could start and finish.”

The undertaking was big, which is why presidents between that writing and Ubbelohde didn’t make the move. Ubbelohde was the person for the job.

“I found him to be a brilliant leader and a positive motivator,” said Norma Nominelli, a board of trustees member at the time.

That motivation was key.

“He worked to improve programs that were already strong like art & design and business, and it was vital to get nursing to a four-year program,” Susan said. “The people in those departments put in incredible amounts of work in to make it happen because they thought it was important too. It was a lot of work.

“He honestly felt for the school to survive it had to happen. In terms of a serious focus that he felt was absolutely necessary, that was it.”

When the school hosted its centennial celebration in 1996, Nikander’s writing was made true. Suomi College was granted accreditation as a baccalaureate degree-granting institution in February of that year.

While this change was seen as vital for the institution’s survival, the vision of Bob Ubbelohde for the name modification came from a different perspective.

“Most people we were trying to reach didn’t know what ‘Suomi’ was or meant,” said Mike Lahti, another longtime board member. “He thought Finlandia would resonate better. It was unanimous to do that, and the timing was good for us to change to university because we were moving to a four-year institution.”

The move was a peculiar one for many whose support of the university stemmed mostly from of its unique Finnish history.

“It was a rather bold step on his part,” Pauline Kiltinen said. Kiltinen and her husband John were longtime leaders of the Finnish Council in America, which was created to ensure that the university’s Finnish heritage is always celebrated. “All-in-all I think it was a good step, but very difficult.”

Some had confused Suomi for a Native American name. Many had trouble pronouncing it. All-in-all, research showed that many people not close to the university didn’t realize it had any ties to Finland. Outwardly showing that heritage was important to Ubbelohde.

“Once they got here the meaning of Suomi College could all be explained, but if you were at a college fair or somewhere else you had no way to know,” Susan said. “It was important that the name had a strong connection with Finland for people who didn’t know a lot about Finland or Finnish language.”

That was just a hint of the dedication to the Finnish heritage that Bob Ubbelohde had. In 2000 he helped bring the Finnish American Reporter to Finlandia. From 2003 to 2007 he served as the Honorary Consul for the Republic of Finland in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. In 2003 he was instrumental in bringing the sitting President of Finland Tarja Halonen to campus as the commencement speaker.

“He really loved Finland,” Nominelli said. “He was German, but he became a true Scandinavian during his time here.”

He was able to visit Finland more than 50 times during his 16 years as president, welcomed many Finnish visitors to Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula and maybe more importantly he lived the culture on campus.

“I knew nothing about Finland (before starting at Finlandia), but I was impressed seeing the history of that county and what an amazing country it is with design, high tech and education,” Susan said. “One of Robert’s things was trying to make the students particularly aware of that. For young people it was exciting. When I think back on it I had a lot of amazing experiences in my life that I never would have expected. Things like the Sibelius Music Festival, and having direct contacts with people at Sibelius Academy.”

Under the presidency of Bob Ubbelohde, he also brought back intercollegiate athletics and was a key person in the university’s acquisition of the Jutila Center, which was formerly a hospital. The list of accomplishments is long and there’s no doubt Ubbelohde left an unforgettable mark on Finlandia University. However, that wasn’t all that kept him motivated.

What Bob Ubbelohde cared about most was teaching.

“His greatest joy in his professional life was teaching,” Susan said. “That’s what he liked the most. While he was president, he always made sure he taught one class a year. Nothing could cancel that class. He felt that at Finlandia teaching students and that commitment to students was the strongest thing about the school.”

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