Aalto University Conferences Cumulus Design

Cumulus: “to be, or not to be”

I have been serving the last three years in the Executive Board of the Cumulus Association — the leading global association of art and design education and research. We have over 350 Member institutions in 63 countries.

The Executive Board is elected by the Members. When I decided to stand as a candidate in 2019, I made some promises for the voting Members. I will list them in here.

(I) Improve the Governance of the Association

I think any community is only as good as its governance. This is the case with all human systems. The model of governance defines how fair the system is. When a system grows and have more diversity it needs more governance. Still a good governance can be lean, based on trust among people, where we assume good faith from everyone.

I made the promise to improve the governance of the association, because there were rumours of peculiar practises of favouring some Members over others. Not necessary corruptions as a such, but a culture that is not necessary according to all the principles of good governance.

Therefore, one of the first things we did in the Board was an Executive Board Handbook, that defines how do we in the Board, and in the Association in general, practice good governance. When the basic operational principles were defined, the Board ended-up to work very efficiently. Some people, actually told us that we are doing too much.

When serving in the Board, I also realised that our “association” is actually not a legal person — a registered association under any legal system. With a significant annual turnover and reserves, I felt very uneasy.

As a joke I started to call us a motorcycle gang or mafia, especially when there was talk about “Cumulus-family”. From the legal point of view being a motorcycle gang was not exactly true, as our book keeping and general administration was in the hands of my employer, Aalto University. Nothing we did was illegal. So, if we were not a motorcycle gang, we were a friendly mafia operating under the protection of my employer. When this was realised in the Board, we started to work on to register the association. I consider this to be the most important thing to improve the governance of the association.

In the Board, especially thanks to the President Mariana Amatullo‘s leadership, in the beginning of the term, we also released our Strategic Plan 2019–2022.

As a Board member, I was happy to get many of those issues I felt strong about also to the strategic plan, in addition to the aim to improve the governance. I’ll explain in the following the three other promises I made for the Members. I see them all interlinked. They are also present in our strategic plan.

(II) Make Cumulus Less Eurocentric and More Global

When founded in 1990, Cumulus was a network of couple of European art and design universities and colleagues. That time it was a platform to foster student and faculty mobility within the European Union Erasmus programme. As an organisation it served the rectors, deans and officers of international affairs to agree on number of practicalities and to lobby on the importance of art and design education and research in Europe. This was very important for Europe and the European art and design schools.

I got to know Cumulus in late 1990’s as my University was one of the founding Members. For faculty and students Cumulus didn’t offer much. By students and faculty, at least in our University, it was seen as a a club of the leadership and administrators. This was more or less the situation for the first 15 years of the Cumulus. In 2006 Cumulus started to accept Members outside of Europe. It was growing and collecting more membership fees.

Now we are over 350 Member institutions almost all around the world. In the last couple of years, some Members outside of Europe have asked what are the benefits of being a Member? Everyone pays membership fees, but it easily looks that the European Members are those who get the benefits.

Most of the Board members felt that to stay relevant we must serve better all our Member — to find ways that all the Members will benefit from Cumulus a bit more than a logo in their website. All the Members should not pay the bills of the European club.

Therefore, in the Board we started to look for opportunities to offer scholarships for faculty and students coming from Member schools in the Global South. We also started to work on a solidarity model, that could be used to lower the membership fees for those Member institutions who really can’t afford it. These initiatives are not ready yet, but they were started.

(III) Make Cumulus Student and Faculty Centred

I also promised that in the Board I would focus on developing services for students and faculty. I wanted Cumulus to offer our students opportunities to learn from other (art and design) cultures and expand their world views. For faculty in our Member institutions, I wanted to develop forums to discuss about the art and design education, to share the best practice and to learn from each other.

Again, in the Board most of us thought similarly. In the Board we discussed that to stay relevant, we should focus on the students and faculty and less the people in the administration of our Members institutions.

My colleagues in the Board started to renew the Cumulus Working groups. The aim was to offer the working groups an online platform to initiate and have conversations on matters they mostly care. This was piloted and the plan is that in the next stage these tools will be integrated to out website. This related to the last promise I made.

in line with the plan to focus on students and faculty we also launched the Cumulus for Ukraine initiative to support Ukrainian art and design students and faculty displaced by the invasion. We started to collect information of the programs in our Member schools and opened a “helpdesk” for individuals looking for a place to continue their studies or to become a faculty member in one of our Member institutions. I think this is something we should continue doing also in the future, around the world.

(IV) Make Cumulus Digital First

When applying to the Board I felt that this is the area where I can contribute most. The Cumulus website was terrible. We hardly were present in the social media, in addition to emails we didn’t have any collaboration tools for the Members. We didn’t have an entry in the Wikipedia or page in the LinkedIn. Now we do. We still do not have a system for member relationship management.

For many years the main mode of collaboration in Cumulus has been to get together somewhere in the world, twice a year in the Cumulus conference. Conferences are important and we still need them, but is it necessary to meet two times a year. Who really can afford it? I felt that this is terrible waste of resources, both our Members and the nature. With digital tools we should be able to provide more opportunities for our Members to collaborate and also to get together more locally.

My Board colleagues did an excellent job to redesign and renew the website. We also started to develop the tools for online collaboration, to reconsider the Cumulus conferences, to plan online conferences etc. The pandemic naturally was an additional factor in here. Somehow I was so busy with other things that I didn’t contribute much to this. Luckily there were other Board members with vision, wisdom and capacity to do it.

I think in this area, in the last three years, we have made a great progress. Thanks to the commitment by some of the Board members.

Related to the “Digital First”, I also have worked to design a system where the Member institutions could offer online course to each other students. This is a wicked design problem with thousands of factors affecting in it, but I am still convinced that this is precisely what we should and can do in the Cumulus.


The three years Board term is coming to the end. Soon it is a time to have a Board Election.

In the last couple of months, the Board’s proposal to register the association has raised concerns among some European Members and their friends. The Board, elected by all the Members has, however, been 10 favouring the registration and the new Statues with the necessary amendment. One Board member has opposed the renewal. I call this process a transition from being a motorcycle gang to become a global association. “To be, or not to be.”

I should now decide whatever I run for a second term in the Board. Somehow, I would like to run and maybe have a change to complete the good initiatives we have launched in the last three years.

On the other hand, if we do not register Cumulus association before the new Board starts, I must admit that I have failed.

I have not failed only personally, but I have also failed the Members who voted me to the Board. I was not able to Improve the Governance of the Association — the most important promise I made.

Writing all this makes me peaceful. I did my best. I am sorry if it was not enough.

I am still going to work for the last months of the Board’s term to advance the values I believe in.

“Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low.” Sayre’s law

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s