TCD: the next generation

So is the election in Trinity College Dublin of the next Provost an advertisement for, or a warning against, such a process? Probably a bit of both. The campaign was conducted by the candidates with a degree of energy, though as I suggested a day or so ago, the election of Paddy Prendergast tells us that the new social and online media are not influential in TCD. Also, winner and losers conducted themselves with some dignity at the outcome, and it is unlikely that any fences will need to be mended.

On the other hand, the process did not attract (as Trinity should have done) candidates who are really big players in the international academic world. A couple of years ago, for example, St Andrews University in Scotland (which is perhaps broadly comparable to TCD) appointed a key researcher and academic leader from Harvard University to be its new Principal (interestingly, an Irishwoman by birth). No field of this kind emerged for Trinity College. And of the two external candidates who participated, one felt he had to withdraw because success was impossible, and the other recorded the fewest votes on the day.

I am sure that Paddy Prendergast will be a successful Provost, but his election breaks no molds. TCD declined to elect its first woman Provost (though Jane Ohlmeyer performed very well, coming second in the poll).

Standing outside the College it is probably easy to under-estimate the feeling of satisfaction that surely many TCD staff now feel, and it is not my intention to suggest that Trinity did badly. Indeed, I wish Paddy Prendergast both success and happiness in the role, and I hope the College will go from strength to strength. Its success is important for the whole Irish higher education sector.

I also wish John Hegarty every happiness as he moves into the final phase of his term of office as Provost.

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12 Comments on “TCD: the next generation”

  1. otto Says:

    I appreciate the more measured tone here compared to some of the recent posts on the TCD election but I think on balance the argument is wrong. The post gives the reader the feeling that it is rather overimpressed with a thin glance at posh credentials. Anyone can like Louise Richardson and she may well be making a success of St Andrews, but it is a bit much to call her “a key researcher and academic leader from Harvard University” without pointing out that she didn’t meet the standards for tenure at Harvard (which are overwhelmingly based on research), which is why she moved into administration and eventually left. In other words LR, while fine, “ain’t all that”. One advantage of a proper election process is that minor players from the United States would not be foisted on a university without too much scrutiny under the mistaken belief that they are “really big players in the international academic world”.

  2. […] “So is the election in Trinity College Dublin of the next Provost an advertisement for, or a warning against, such a process? Probably a bit of both …” (more) […]

  3. padraigc Says:

    “…the election of Paddy Prendergast tells us that the new social and online media are not influential in TCD.”

    Perhaps a better conclusion would be that social media doesn’t have a role in a election with 700 voters.

  4. Ernie Ball Says:

    Others who were in similar position to Louise Richardson: Hugh Brady, who despite brandishing his Harvard credentials when landing the Conway Institute job, did not have tenure and was a year away at most from dismissal. Irish people in general are overly impressed with the words “Harvard professor”. All academics are “professors” in the US and junior, untenured professors at Harvard are no better than those anywhere else. The tenured staff there are another matter.

    Fact is: croneyism is alive and well at several Irish universities that don’t elect their president, so nobody is going to get recruited from outside. At least at Trinity, the sort of adversarial relationship that exists between president and staff is unlikely to develop, precisely because they chose him.

    • Vincent Says:

      why would the tenured staff bother

    • otto Says:


      But on this one point – “junior, untenured professors at Harvard are no better than those anywhere else” – perhaps you overstate just a little…

      • Ernie Ball Says:

        No, I don’t. In fact, there is every likelihood that the best candidates in any field in any given year will not take up junior positions at Harvard. This is because: 1) Harvard is one of only a handful of universities in the US that does not abide by the AAUP guidelines that say tenure is to be granted (or the professor dismissed) in the 7th year; at Harvard, you get a 5-year contract, renewable for another 5 and only then is a tenure decision made; 2) Harvard only grants tenure to the best of the best. Indeed, Harvard’s preferred method for tenuring staff is to hire them (poach them) from other places and tenure them immediately. It is extremely rare that junior staff at Harvard are tenured at Harvard.

        Because these facts are widely known, very talented junior professors will prefer to take their chances elsewhere, where they know they can get tenure. Then, if they play their career cards right, they can be hired to Harvard later with tenure.

        So I stand by my claim: junior, untenured professors at Harvard are no better than those anywhere else.

        • otto Says:

          It’s the ‘anywhere’ that is easiest to disagree with. Maybe no better than a (smallish) number of other places which regularly attract very talented junior professors …

          • Ernie Ball Says:

            The academic job market in the US (and really worldwide) is so tight that talented junior staff have to play things right and cannot risk going through the tenure process and getting denied. Getting tenure is the sine qua non of having a viable career. This means that a decidedly middle-of-the-road university like, say, Vanderbilt are well able to outcompete Harvard for junior staff.

            To take a junior position at Harvard is to commit yourself to going out on the job market again in 5 years’ time. Taking a job almost anywhere else is not.

  5. Alan Fekete Says:

    I don’t agree that a wide-ranging international search is a good sign for a leadership appointment. While an outsider can sometimes be wonderful by bringing wider insights or a new perspective, they can also be destructive and disruptive! I value more the awareness of (and respect for) the instituion’s specific character, and the interpersonal and implicit knowledge that a good insider could have. A news article which reports on a study in commercial settings to say that CEOs are better recruited internally, than from external origin. I think the same would apply to universities.

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