Posted tagged ‘Provost’

The TCD Provost election: so how was it for you?

April 1, 2011

Tomorrow the lecturing staff of Trinity College Dublin will be locked into a secure building and will pretend to be Roman Catholic Cardinals electing a pope. Unlike previous election campaigns in the college, this one entered the public consciousness, at least a little. In part this was because, for the first time, the internet and social networking became major tools for at least some of the candidates. If you want to get an impression, for example, of how the candidates handled Twitter you can read the exchanges under the hashtag #tcdprovost here.

Will this have made a difference to the outcome? It is impossible to say now, but when the result is known I’ll offer an assessment. If for example Colm Kearney wins, my conclusion will be that his very savvy internet campaign helped to swing it for him. Or if Paddy Prendergast wins, then you can conclude that the TCD electorate is immune to the internet.

In the course of the past month or two all the candidates ran interesting campaigns. The two most professional ones, though very different in nature, were those conducted by Colm Kearney and UCD Vice-President Des Fitzgerald. The campaign that picked up most momentum towards the end was that by Jane Olhmeyer. The most inscrutable one was John Boland’s.

There are some conclusions to be drawn from all this. The first is that TCD will under this system never appoint an external Provost, ever. Des Fitzgerald ran a smart campaign, but he won’t win. The other external candidate, Robin Conyngham, exited when it became clear to him he couldn’t make it. The college may feel that the democratic nature of the exercise makes this a price worth paying, but its international reputation may take a hit. Secondly, if it does want to continue with this method of appointment, it must extend the franchise to non-academic staff, who have as much of a stake in the outcome as lecturers. Thirdly, the nature of the campaign and some of the views expressed in it will either lead to a very tense relationship between TCD and the Irish Universities Association or will create a quick sense of disenchantment by staff with the winning candidate – so there will be interesting times ahead. And finally, we must presume the TCD-UCD Innovation Alliance is dead: it did not feature in the campaign at all.

So let us wait and see how it all ends.


October 24, 2010

In Ireland they are predicting that there will be election next spring, and that the outcome is entirely unpredictable. Quite so. Of course the election to which I am referring is that for the post of Provost of Trinity College Dublin. In early April 2011 the College’s academic staff (and members of the TCD Board and Council) will elect the new chief officer of TCD, who will succeed the present Provost, Dr John Hegarty.

However, this year there is a somewhat different process from the normal one. While the final decision will, as on previous occasions, be based on the outcome of the election, this is being preceded by a more ‘normal’ recruitment process, with an advertisement (appeared last Friday), nominations and interviews, and with the final shortlist then being out to the electorate after a brief campaign.

The College has also published a website for all of this, and this indicates that TCD is ‘committed to attracting a strong national and international field.’ In fact, they are very unlikely to get much of an international (or indeed domestic external) field: the requirement to make the candidacy public in the final stages will on the whole strongly deter external candidates, who will in any case be disadvantaged because they will have fewer connections and links with members of the electorate.

I know there is something attractive about a democratic process and an election, and many European universities also use this selection method. But whether it is an ideal way of finding a person to provide leadership in challenging times is perhaps debatable. Trinity College is a hugely important academic institution in Ireland, and the quality of its leadership is important. To secure that quality, the College needs a field of leading global academics to compete for the post, and its appointments process more more less rules that out. This ought to be the last time that this form of recruitment is used.

As a postscript, I should probably add that there had been much media and other speculation that I would be a candidate for the post, after I had stepped down as President of DCU. In fact I had never indicated to anyone that I would be, and of course I have accepted another appointment; but I might stress that the recruitment method is not the reason why I am not a candidate for the post of Provost of TCD. I say this solely so as to emphasise that my argument above is not based on any sense of personal interest in the matter.

Provosts and Presidents

January 23, 2009

Over the past week I have been reading the book by William Watts, A Memoir, which is the first autobiography by any Provost of Trinity College Dublin. Bill Watts led the College between 1981 and 1991, and for much of that time I was myself a rather bolshy junior lecturer there. The book describes his life and his tenure of the office of Provost, and it contains some interesting observations about the nature of university life and decision-making.

However, one of the curiosities of the book is that nowhere does Watts explain what the role of the Provost really is. The closest we get is in a passage under the heading ‘The Routine of Administration’, in which he writes as follows:

‘As Provost I was Chairman of the Board, the Council, the Site Development Committee, the Senior and Junior Promotions Committees and many others too numerous or ephemeral to mention. Decidedly the Provost is both by Statute and custom the College’s Chief executive. The buck stops with him and responsibilities are potentially heavy if things go wrong.’ (p. 101)

It is clear that Watts saw the main substance of his office to be in the chairing of committees, and he explains further that he saw it as his key objective to secure decisions on these by consensus. It is, I should add, the strong view of many associated with Trinity during this period that he performed this role very well, and the College experienced significant growth and development. Nevertheless, I suspect that not many current university heads in Ireland would quite describe their role in this way. In my own case, the mere thought of all those committees makes me wince; I am happy to say I chair only two, though I do attend some others when I can.

On the other hand, Bill Watts was Provost of Trinity before the Universities Act 1997 came into force. This statute provides in section 24 for a ‘chief officer’ (to be called ‘President’ or ‘Provost’ or such other title as the institution may choose), and Schedule 4 of the Act states:

‘The chief officer of a university shall, subject to this Act, manage and direct the university in its academic, administrative, financial, personnel and other activities and for those purposes has such powers as are necessary or expedient.’

There is in this, and other provisions of the Act, an understanding that the President has significant executive functions. Indeed the fairly wide definition of his or her powers in Schedule 4 has led some to argue that the Act runs counter to the traditional understanding of collegiate decision-making. One regular critic of the system, and indeed of the policies of a number of the current university heads, is Sean Barrett of Trinity College, who in 2007 wrote in a TCD student newspaper:

‘The heads contribute nothing to the academic success of Irish universities and their students. It is an appalling period in Irish universities. Those responsible are the heads.’

He, and others, have complained of growing ‘managerialism’ and centralisation of power through restructuring.

On the other hand, some external stakeholders of the university sector have suggested that reform and modernisation, initiated and supported by strong leadership, was an urgent necessity. Successive Ministers for Education have pushed this agenda.

Ultimately what is at issue here is probably not so much the function, power and role of university Presidents, but rather an understanding of what is expected of universities in these changing times and how the traditional academic ethos and culture should adapt. Universities are complex organisations that tend to work effectively only when space is given to collegiality and goodwill. On the other hand, traditional decision-making by a series of committees (as I have observed in a recent post) may no longer be responsive enough, so that the idea of the university head as a chairperson seeking consensus is unlikely to allow the institution to compete effectively in a high pressure environment. The trick is to provide decisive leadership while maintaining confidence and buy-in; a thoroughly difficult task, on the whole I believe more difficult than that facing most corporate CEOs.

The arguments and debates about structures and processes in universities during the current decade have revealed the faultlines in the system, and have perhaps been made more difficult by the absence of any forum in which a better understanding could be reached – and if possible shared – about how higher education institutions should be run. On the whole, I believe that the Irish universities are stronger and more agile than they were ten years ago; but they are also more tense and volatile places than they were. The reform processes, which I believe were necessary, probably still require a final phase in which a better understanding is reached of what in this new millennium constitutes a functionally effective, intellectually coherent and ethically sound higher education institution.