The New Rector of the University of Tartu is a Man of Action

Colleagues say that Toomas Asser, who was elected rector on 26 April, is a true Estonian in the best sense of the word: he says a lot in few words and does even more.

After the election results were announced, when 187 ballots out of the 212 in the ballot box were cast in favour of Asser in the second round of voting, the elected rector thanked the electoral council members for trusting him.

“I extend my thanks to those who voted for me and for those who voted for Margit. I am grateful to Margit for this long and complicated but extremely instructive period that we experienced together in the course of the election debates”, he said.

Toomas Asser. Photo: Andres Tennus

Asser admitted he did not expect such a result but said it gave him courage to think that his desire to cooperate would definitely come true. He expressed hope that by working together with all university members we could make the University of Tartu a better place.

In talking to Asser’s closest colleagues before the elections, it became clear that he is a really cooperative and reliable person. He does not speak much, but his words are always as valuable as his deeds.

Since the time Asser first came to the university as a student, he has been interested in neurology, says Eero Vasar, director of the Institute of Biomedicine and Translational Medicine, who was admitted to the Faculty of Medicine at the same time as Toomas Asser in 1973. Asser’s good friend Aadu Liivat shared his interest in neurology.

“We were interested in pharmacology and worked in the Old Anatomical Theatre, while they practised their surgical skills on rabbits in the old vivarium building behind the Biomeedikum”, Vasar recalls. Outside lectures, the friends usually met at the university’s stadium to do sports.

According to Vasar, Asser is an outstanding medical doctor who has followed in the footsteps of Ludvig Puusepp and other well-known neurosurgeons. He has reached such a high level through systematic work.

Man of action

“When we were young, everyone tried to commit as much as possible to the field of medicine in which they wanted to specialise. However, personal qualities were even more important. For example, you cannot become a surgeon like Toomas if you have shaky hands. You have to be calm and have spatial vision – otherwise there is no use in going to the operating theatre”, says Vasar.

He says Asser played an important part in taking the faculty to a higher technological level. Asser was the dean of the Faculty of Medicine for three terms of office in a row, and if he had not taken responsibility to the faculty for the self-financing of the Centre for Translational Medicine, then this unit, one of the world’s most modern specialised centres, would not exist today.

Many colleagues say that Asser has always been a straightforward, calm, and dignified person. His concreteness, accuracy, and willingness to work have helped him make the strong school of Tartu neurologists even better.

Professor Pille Taba, who was a neurology intern at the Neurology Clinic in the 1980s, first worked together with Asser on mobility-impaired patients. Years later, due to their common research interest in Parkinson’s disease, Taba became the first doctoral student supervised by Asser.

“Toomas has never been a man of too many words, but always a man of deeds – the best example of an Estonian man who says a lot in few words. Before a meeting, Toomas may have been up all night in the operating theatre, performing surgery on an aneurysm to make sure that a young person in a coma survives. Yet he does not complain about being tired in the morning; for him it is a natural part of life”, Taba says, as an example.

Asser carefully considers what he does and what he says. Doctors cannot always guarantee a good result, but in medicine it is necessary to make decisions even if there are no best results. You cannot go on without making decisions.

Associate Professor in Medical Microbiology Tõnis Karki met Toomas Asser while studying and working in the old building of the Neurology Clinic. When the director of the clinic at that time, Professor Ain-Elmar Kaasik, was unable to deliver a lecture to their group, he was replaced by Toomas Asser, an assistant then.

“He came in front of us and said very honestly, ‘Dear colleagues, silence, please. The topic is complex, I have little experience, but I have to cope with it.’ This was an introspective judgement of a certain tonality. I have noticed this tonality in him later, too – a kind of moment of truth. He speaks briefly, but everything he says is thoroughly considered”, says Karki, who later worked together with Asser in the Dean’s Office of the Faculty of Medicine.

He remembers a joke from the Soviet period. A doctor of internal medicine, a psychiatrist, a pathologist and a surgeon go hunting and see a duck flying. The doctor of internal medicine says, “Let us see if it is a duck. Can we shoot it?” The psychiatrist says, “We have to consider whether the duck feels it is a duck. Maybe it feels it is a goose? Let us study it”. The surgeon takes a gun, shoots, and says, “Pathologist, go and check whether it was a duck.”

This was a joke, but as a typical surgeon, Toomas is determined when it is necessary to pull the trigger. And a leader needs to make decisions without getting stuck in details.

Toomas Asser. Photo: Mari-Liis Pintson

From surgeon to rector

Director of the Institute of Clinical Medicine Joel Starkopf knows Toomas Asser both from running the faculty and from clinical work in the neurointensive care unit. According to him, Asser is always benevolent and respectful, whatever the circumstances.

“As rector, he will benefit from his good communication and listening skills, positive attitude, and long experience in solving very different complicated situations, be it managing the faculty or the clinic, or making hard clinical decisions about a patient”, says Starkopf.

He believes Asser is a suitable person to be the leader of the University of Tartu – one who balances, listens to, and draws people along with him. It is possible that medical education and experience as a practising surgeon gives the rector a broader view and the skill to differentiate between the important and the less important.

“I don’t know what the stereotype of surgeon is like according to public opinion – possibly, a stern, firm-handed, authoritarian person who cuts everything out. Toomas is not like that. Although calm, contemplative, and analytical, he is able and dares to make decisions. The latter is an inevitable part of a surgeon’s job”, says Starkopf.

He adds that Asser is charismatic, and that people listen to him and anticipate  his opinion. Asser wants to take responsibility and make decisions. At the same time, he is innovative and gives his subordinates free rein so they can work on innovative projects.

Additionally, other colleagues agree that Asser is not afraid to make decisions but he also lets others decide. Trusting one’s colleagues is very important in teamwork.

“Toomas is also a person who unites and balances. He has the ability to hear other people out. There are a lot of people at the university, and you have to stay calm even towards those who attack you. He can negotiate effectively and sort things out”, Vasar adds.

Human leader

In addition, Asser is able to create and maintain good relationships with colleagues and bring them together outside working hours. When he ran the Faculty of Medicine, members of the Dean’s Office went hiking and took boat trips together, but also gathered together at each other’s places, where they discussed a lot of other topics besides work.

“A top expert in a narrow specialism may have really broad horizons. It may seem that Toomas cannot have time for anything else besides work, yet he is a family man, goes to concerts, discusses literature and is very musical. At our events we have a neurosurgeons’ band, and he is a member”, says Taba.

Speaking of Asser, it is important to mention his benevolent and positive nature, which makes colleagues feel at home both at work and at his country home at Kääriku. He likes gardening and walking in the fresh air. This prevents excessive stress, which the leading position inevitably causes.

It has been a long time since a practising medical doctor was elected rector of the University of Tartu. A doctor has to perceive the prognosis, because it is much more difficult and expensive to treat complications than to prevent them. Hopefully, this kind of a fresh look will benefit the university, at least in the next five years.

Toomas Asser

  • Born 14 July 1954 in Jõhvi, in a family of doctors.
  • Graduated from Nõo Secondary School (1973) and the Faculty of Medicine of Tartu State University (TRÜ; 1979).
  • In 1987, he defended his candidate of medicine dissertation “Thermocauterisation of ventrolateral thalamus for the treatment of Parkinson’s disease: neuropathology, changes of local cerebral blood flow and clinical results” at Moscow N. Burdenko Institute of Neurosurgery.
  • In 1988, he participated in the USSR researcher exchange programme and spent nearly a year at Tōhoku University in Japan.
  • In 1989, he was elected TRÜ Associate Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery, since 1995 he has been Professor of Neurosurgery, and since 1996 Head of the Department of Neurology and Neurosurgery. In the years 2000–2009 he was Dean of the Faculty of Medicine.
  • Vice President of the Ludvig Puusepp Estonian Society of Neurologists and Neurosurgeons, member of the Estonian Academy of Sciences, member of the University of Tartu Council and President of the Baltic Neurosurgical Association.
  • In 2013, he was awarded the Order of the Estonian Red Cross, 1st class.


Results of rector elections


Toomas Asser – 120 votes

Margit Sutrop – 95 votes

There were 218 ballot papers in the ballot box, incl. 3 unmarked ballots.


Toomas Asser – 187 votes

There were 212 ballot papers in the ballot box, incl. 24 unmarked and 1 spoilt ballot.

Toomas Asser was elected the rector of the University of Tartu. The term of office of the rector starts on 1 August 2018.

The electoral council was formed with 263 members, of whom 218 voted in the election.

This article was written by Merylin Merisalu, the Head Editor of Universitas Tartuensis.

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