On the use of “zero tolerance”: Institutional responses to discrimination based on gender and race in Finnish universities

Anaïs Duong-Pedica

Under the Act on Equality between Women and Men, Finnish universities must aim to “prevent discrimination based on gender, to promote equality between women and men, and thus to improve the status of women, particularly in working life”.  Since 2014, under the same Act, universities must also work to prevent “discrimination based on gender identity or gender expression”. Finnish universities are also obliged to conform to the Non-Discrimination Act for which the aims are “to foster and safeguard equality and enhance the protection provided by law to those who have been discriminated against in cases of discrimination”.  Discriminatory treatment based on “age, ethnic or national origin, nationality, language, religion, belief, opinion, health, disability, sexual orientation or other personal characteristics” fall under the scope of the Act. While there currently is little research written in English on racism in Finnish academia, cases of institutional and individual racism in universities have been documented in Finnish media. Contrastingly, there has been more interest in investigating sexual harassment in Finnish universities. The research shows that sexual harassment is a serious, common but covert phenomenon in Finnish universities[i]. This text examines the public responses Finnish universities provide following complaints of racism and sexual harassment being made public.  Especially, I wish to uncover the work that “zero tolerance” statements do. Such statements are made by the university or university officials and are published on university websites or in the media. For example, in February this year, we learnt that University of Turku had hired Christian Ott, an American astrophysicist who had resigned from the American university CalTech after being accused and found guilty of sexual harassment. The case was well-known in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields in the USA so that a simple search of his name brings up many reports. University of Turku was not only aware of his history of sexual harassment and bullying before they offered him a position as a researcher, they also justified the reasoning behind hiring him in an official statement that read the following:

“Reason for Dr Christian Ott’s recruitment to the University of Turku has been the strong evidence of his scientific merits of which several statements were received. Dr Ott will be working as a senior researcher without teaching or supervising responsibilities.”

This statement clearly suggests that the university was aware of the risks that Ott posed for students but was willing to close its eyes on it for his research potential. It is worth noting however, that it did not consider that Ott could also be a risk for his colleagues. In this same statement, one can read ‘The University of Turku has a policy of “zero tolerance” towards harassment and bullying’. A few days later, we learnt that Ott’s appointment had been cancelled, probably due to the negative press and a public statement written by Finnish astronomers and astrophysicists on harassment that was signed by academics based in Finland and abroad.

A few weeks later, three student groups at University of Jyväskylä, the student organisation Stimulus (psychology students), Abakus (special education students) and Pedago (primary school teacher students) were reported as having showed up in Blackface and sang racist songs at a sistsfest. Although the story got significantly less attention than University of Turku’s hiring of Christian Ott, all three student groups issued statements of apology. Similarly, the board of the University of Jyväskylä Student Union denounced the racism of its students in an official statement that read Ehe University of Jyväskylä student association has “zero tolerance” for racist or discriminatory behaviour during its activities”.

Finnish universities and discrimination in the media

First, it is worth noting that these two instances are not the only instances in which Finnish universities have been in a middle of controversies on sexual harassment and racism. They are not even the most recent. In fact, at the beginning of April, students at Åbo Akademi University were found to have attended a party on the theme of “Africa” in Blackface.

Going a few years back, in 2000, a teacher at the University of Tampere was accused of sexual harassment by his students. The teacher went on to work at a school in Helsinki where he was again accused of sexual harassment. Seemingly, this could have been prevented if sexual harassment had been taken seriously, and indeed, not tolerated. Following a recent article published about the case at the beginning of this year, the university released an official statement that opened with: “The University of Tampere has “zero tolerance” for sexual harassment”.

In 2012, again at the University of Tampere, a Nigerian student, Emmanuel Eneh, and a former professor, Tero Autio, accused the university of racism for its discriminatory treatment of the student. In 2013, researchers at the University of Eastern Finland reported receiving threats for their work on racism and multiculturalism. Two years later, students and staff at the University of Eastern Finland started finding islamophobic notes in their library books, but also in several university buildings, at information desks, brochure racks and beside library printers. Some of these notes targeted a university researcher who had been involved in activities in support of immigrants, much like the racist threats to researchers in 2013. This continued in 2016. While institutions and organisations do not always release official “zero tolerance” statements, in this specific case, the rector of the university assured that the university “does not tolerate any political or racist propaganda on campus”. Still in 2016, the student union at the University of Oulu released a statement to emphasize that they were “against racism in all its forms” following Sámi students reporting racism at student events. In Autumn 2017, the Business students at Aalto University organized an office crawl for their employees on the theme of “The Empire of Britain and colonial times” using racist jokes at checkpoints. These examples show that racial and sexual discrimination are indeed prevalent in Finnish universities.

The use and origins of “zero tolerance”

“Zero tolerance” is not only used in official statements, it is also found in university Equality Plans such as the ones of Oulu University of Applied Sciences, University of Helsinki, Aalto University, Åbo Akademi University, Aalto University, the Hanken School of Economics, and Uniarts Helsinki (other universities may use the language of tolerance but not specifically “zero tolerance”). Equality Plans are the documents created by universities in compliance with the Equality Act. They aim to attain a goal of non-discrimination in university operations, as prescribed in the Non-discrimination Act.

The language of “zero tolerance” originates from the USA and, more specifically, from “zero tolerance” policies. These policies were first used as legal deterrent in drug trafficking cases[ii]. Their ultimate aim is ‘order maintenance’ and deterrence of serious offenses[iii]. In this context, “zero tolerance” is ‘one strike – you are out’. By the end of the 1980s, “zero tolerance” policies started spreading in schools which transformed educational institutions from places of learning to places of punishment (ibid.). This particularly affected Black students who ended up suspended and incarcerated at higher rates and for longer periods than white students[iv]. Not only have “zero tolerance” policies been showed to be racist, they have also not solved the issue of violent crime in the USA, including in educational institutions.

The racist history and use of “zero tolerance” policies should make us question the reasoning behind adopting this language in Finnish university policies. In the 1990s, Anglo-American terms started to replace Finnish vocabulary in organisational policymaking including equality politics[v]. This transnationalisation of equality strategies has been showed to be problematic since it works on the assumption that equality politics are universal and therefore ignores the situatedness and cultural specificities of the organization[vi].

Evidently, “zero tolerance” statements have so far been used by Finnish universities to show that they take discrimination seriously. However, many Finnish universities do not actually have strong disciplinary processes in place at least for cases of racism, nor do they have much information available online about racism at university.

Most Equality and Non-Discrimination Plans do not contain much on the topic of racism (the word “racism” almost never appears in such plans). Most plans do not include guidelines for the prevention of racism or how to respond more effectively to racism when it occurs. Most plans paraphrase the wordings of the Non-Discrimination Act without necessarily providing any detailed information on how they will ensure that the aims are reached. For example, the University of Jyväskylä offers no action plan when it comes to tackling racism. Aalto University’s sole action when it comes to discrimination on the basis of race reads as follows: “Aalto University marketing material and communications must be aimed equally at all without consideration of gender or ethnic background”. Lappeenranta University of Technology states that “a person’s ethnic origin or nationality should not affect his or her studies or work at LUT” without explaining how they will ensure that this is the case. While the Student Association of the University of Oulu claimed to be “against racism in all its forms” in the statement mentioned above, and specifies that ethnic background and nationality are the second most common reasons for students experiencing “inappropriate behaviour” according to a  survey, the University’s guide to prevent bullying and harassment dedicates a third of its content to sexual and gender-related harassment (including a section on “liabilities and sanctions”) and none on racism or racially motivated harassment and bullying. Thus, we are not informed of the possible sanctions, if there are any, in a case of racially motivated harassment. What’s more, while gender is mentioned 25 times in the guide, “ethnic background” appears once under the sub-heading “the individual’s reputation or social position is insulted”.  Therefore, even if the use and implementation of “zero tolerance” policies were not problematic given their history in the USA, most Finnish universities are in no position to grasp or enforce them based on the information provided in their official documents.

Here we could be reminded of what Sara Ahmed calls the tick box approach to diversity, “when institutions can ‘show’ that they are following procedures but are not really ‘behind’ them (showing can be a way of not committing)”[vii]. Sara Ahmed also writes about “the politics of admissions”, “where institutions as well as individuals ‘admit’ to forms of bad practice, and where such ‘admissions’ are valued as a form of good practice”[viii]. Ahmed analyses such utterances as non-performative in that they do not do what they say. “Zero tolerance” statements are non-performative in the sense that very little seems to be done to tackle discrimination in some universities and such statements do not give any information on whether investigations are carried out and sanctions are put in place.

However, I would not go as far as reading “zero tolerance” statements as being “admissions” of bad practice. Rather, they are part of a defensive strategy on the part of the institution that contributes to the overall image or brand management of the institution.  These statements act as assurance that the institution’s values are not questionable and, therefore, advocate for the institution’s (and by association, the individuals who work and study within it) respectability despite the presence of discrimination. For an institution to state that they have “zero tolerance” for any kind of discrimination is not an admission that they have been at fault. The statement made by the University of Turku against sexual harassment exemplified this since it justifies the hiring of an individual who has sexually harassed in the past while at the same time claiming that the university has a “a policy of zero tolerance towards harassment and bullying”. No admission there. At best, it is a performance of “political correctness” in the way that a seeming embracement of equality and diversity is displayed and (re)iterated. To use Sara Ahmed’s term, “zero tolerance” statements are “statements of commitments”. They declare a commitment not to tolerate sexual harassment, racism, or discrimination more generally. Ahmed writes that “a commitment does necessarily commit the institution to anything or to doing anything”.

The problem with “zero tolerance”

“Zero tolerance” statements re-emphasize that racism and gender discrimination do not belong in the university community. But while it may be claimed that they do not belong there, they still are very much present. These statements are made after negative media portrayals of the university or after students and/or staff complaints are made public. Universities and student groups are then backed in a corner. They have little choice but to publically show that they do not tolerate discrimination, despite their actions (or lack thereof) showing the contrary. In fact, all these instances of sexual harassment and racism show that these issues are pervasive in Finnish academic and student culture, and that they are indeed tolerated and to some extent encouraged (until the media publishes about it). For example, for someone to be hired by a university despite their public history of sexual harassment shows that the institution in question tolerates sexual harassment at least in specific contexts.

Not taking sexual harassment complaints seriously is also evidence of a tolerance for sexual harassment. Likewise, the fact that students are comfortable showing up to student events in Blackface and chanting racist songs demonstrates that anti-Black racism is indeed tolerated in such spaces.

The fact that these acts are within the realm of students and staff imagination (eg. hiring a researcher with history of sexual harassment, chanting racist songs…), shows that they are acceptable acts in such contexts and is evidence of how tolerated they are.  Therefore, if we were to quantify or measure these universities’ tolerance for sexual harassment and racism, it is unlikely that it would be zero.

“Zero tolerance” has become the go-to response to any discriminatory case that becomes public. It works like a magic phrase, like “Abracadabra!” Say or write “zero tolerance” to x for y to magically disappear! But is it that easy? The reality is that racism, sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination are not brushed away as easily as accusations of discriminatory behaviour are when institutions claim they have “zero tolerance” for them. Discrimination demands active preventative work and disciplinary policies to be put in place when issues occur (and not only when they become public). In light of the events that happened at the beginning of the year at the Universities of Turku and Jyväskylä, we could ask:

  • Has the hiring process at University of Turku been investigated following the Christian Ott debacle? What has been put in place to train or “discipline” those who have suggested or agreed to the hiring of a known sexual harasser so that they learn what it truly means to not tolerate sexual harassment?
  • What has been done at University of Jyväskylä to educate students about racism? What has been done to educate students about the way in which songs, jokes, outfits, Blackface contribute to perpetuating and normalising racism, and especially anti-Black racism?
  • What specialist support and legal services are in place for students and staff who are victimized by the frequent occurrences of sexual harassment and racism in Finnish universities and student groups?
  • What does it mean to pledge “zero tolerance” for sexual harassment in a national context where over half of Finns think that sexual harassment could just be a misunderstanding?
  • What does it mean to pledge “zero tolerance” for racism in one of the most discriminatory country in the EU towards people of colour and immigrants?

Here I’m attempting to move past what is essentially a performance of care and trying to sketch what an actual and practical involvement in tackling sexual harassment and racism in Finnish universities could look like.

I am imagining a Finnish university that could hold itself accountable past “zero tolerance” statements, a Finnish university where staff and students weight in on the risks of enabling and/or perpetrating discrimination and are instantly discouraged because they know their university and peers take these issues seriously. Even better, I dare to imagine a university where staff and students cannot even imagine perpetrating discriminatory acts because it would seem abnormal to them.

This is a feminist as well as an antiracist project. bell hooks writes that “visionary feminism offers us hope for the future”[ix]. Similarly, “the gains of antiracism lie in the knowing and in the hope of a better future. The knowing here refers to the fact that antiracism sees in everyday society a potential for that society to do better than it is doing”[x].

“I’m not a racist”

In 2014, the student union of Åbo Akademi University made a Facebook post about old stickers that the union had made in the past. They had been recently found and were being distributed for students who were interested. The stickers translate from Swedish “I do not support discriminatory songs” (see picture).


Such statements, much like claims to “zero tolerance”, work as a way to make those who wear it free from accusations of racism or discrimination. In fact, while they appear to show support to people not racialized as white, they primarily aim to show that one is not racist. In that sense, they are defensive. In fact, claiming that one does not support or disagrees with racist songs is a reaction to the assumption that most people do not have a problem with racist songs.  Aside from the fact that claiming one “does not support racism” does not make someone not racist, this approach views discrimination as an individual problem rather than a cultural issue. If the way we are dealing with discrimination is to announce that we do not support it, we are not engaging with the complexity with which discriminatory beliefs and practices are propagated in Finnish culture as well as academic culture. Yet, this does not mean that it is not also an individual issue. Indeed, there is no institutional racism without individual racism, much like sexual harassment at university does not happen without sexual harassers being tolerated (or, indeed, invited) in the institution.

However, in the words of activist and scholar Angela Davis: ”In a racist society it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be antiracist”[xi]. Therefore, it is not enough for universities, student unions and the individuals in these institutions to claim that they are not racist, that they do not tolerate sexual harassment or that they do not support racist songs.

Being “against” or “anti-“ racist songs is not the same as “not support[ing] discriminatory songs”. First, the problem is precisely named. Second, being against or anti- suggests one is actively doing something about it, rather than distancing oneself by passively “not supporting”.  These statements only serve to absolve individuals and institutions of any wrongdoing and rid those who write them of (white Finnish) guilt. They act as a way to make an individual feel good about themselves (‘I’m wearing an “anti-racism” sticker, therefore I am not part of the problem’) or serve as a smokescreen for universities to reassure the public that they are fair and ethical places to work and study at.


“Zero tolerance” statements can therefore be seen as pretended care for institutional racism and sexism in that they give the  impression that a problem is taken seriously when it is in fact not addressed substantively nor effectively. “Zero tolerance” statements are the institutional equivalent of an individual saying “I’m not a racist” when it is suggested that they are. Both these statements are defense mechanisms used by institutions and individuals to preserve the good image they have of themselves and their (white) innocence. In the case of sexual harassment, it is used as a way to mask the existence of gender discrimination in Finnish universities, which contributes to the culture of violence against women that pervades in Finland.

While institutions pretend not to tolerate discrimination in their official statements and Equality Plans, it is women, immigrant, racialized, Roma and Sámi students and staff who have to endure discrimination. It seems universities care more about their image than tackling those issues. Finnish universities have to put in the work and invest time and money in educating individuals who work and study within these institutions. They also need to reform the frameworks that allow for racism, sexual harassment, transphobia and other types of discrimination to occur and be tolerated indeed.

[i] Husu, L. (2001). Sexism, support and survival in academia: Academic women and hidden discrimination in Finland. Social psychological studies 6. Helsinki: University of Helsinki, Department of Social Psychology.

[ii] Skiba, R. & Knesting, K. (2001). Zero Tolerance, Zero Evidence: An Analysis of School Disciplinary Practice. New Directions for Mental Health Services, 92, 17-43.

[iii] Bell, C. (2015). The Hidden Side of Zero Tolerance Policies: the African American perspective. Sociology Compass, 9(1), 14-22.

[iv] Bell, C. (2015). The Hidden Side of Zero Tolerance Policies: the African American perspective. Sociology Compass, 9(1), 14-22.

Hoffman, S. (2014). Zero Benefit: Estimating the Effect of Zero Tolerance Discipline Policies on Racial Disparities in School Discipline. Educational Policy, 28(1), 69-95.

Giroux, H. (2003). Racial Injustice and Disposable Youth in the Age of Zero Tolerance. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 16(4), 553-565.

[v] Lätti, J. (2017). Individualized sex equality in transforming Finnish academia. European Educational Research Journal, 16(2-3), Special Issue: Gender and Work/Life Interferences in Scientific Careers, 258–276.

[vi] Narotzky, S. (2007). The project in the model. Reciprocity, social capital and the politics of ethnographic realism. Current Anthropology, 48(3), 403–424.

[vii] Ahmed, S. (2012). On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

[viii] Ahmed, S. (2004). The Non-Performativity of Anti-racism. Paper presented at Centre LGS Colloquium Text and Terrains: Legalities in Gender and Sexuality, University of Kent, September 25th. Available at https://www.kent.ac.uk/clgs/documents/pdfs/Ahmed_sarah_clgscolloq25-09-04.pdf

[ix] hooks, b. (2000). Feminism is For Everybody: Passionate Politics. Cambridge: South End Press.

[x]  Alemanji, A.A. & Seikkula, M. (2018). What, Why and How Do We Do What We Do?. In A.A. Alemanji (Ed), Antiracism Education In and Out of Schools. Helsinki: Palgrave, pp. 171-193.

[xi] For a related discussion see Allred 2017.


Anaïs Duong-Pedica does research on “mixed race” identity in Kanaky/New Caledonia. She is a doctoral candidate in Gender Studies and Minority Research at Åbo Akademi University.