Posted tagged ‘TCD’

New TCD Provost: Paddy Prendergast

April 2, 2011

The academic electorate in TCD has spoken: Paddy Prendergast will be the new Provost. It is, one might assume, a vote for continuity in Trinity, and perhaps for a safe pair of hands in difficult times. More later – including some details of the voting (I hope). In the meantime, congratulations to the winner.

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.

Election!

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.

Would you like a ‘super-university’?

January 26, 2010

A couple of days ago I wrote on Peter Sutherland’s address at the Royal Irish Academy, in which he was reported to have asked whether Ireland could afford to maintain seven world class universities. It may be worth mentioning briefly his other, related, point (according to the report in the Sunday Independent): that Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin should merge. This is how the report quotes him:

‘Mr Sutherland also said that Trinity and UCD should combine to create a world-class institution. He added: “We would have a top-20 or even a top-10 player to compete in the big leagues and, if so, wouldn’t that be the best thing for Ireland?”‘

One must always allow for the possibility that the report was not totally accurate, and in any case it has to be said that Peter Sutherland, one Irish person with real standing internationally, often goes out of his way to make a case for Irish higher education more generally. In any case, what he is reported to have said has been said by others, and has since the 1960s and maybe before been a regular topic of conversation in Irish academic circles. In 1967 a merger between the two colleges was proposed by then then Minister for Education, Donagh O’Malley. It is interesting to reproduce more fully an account (published in an article by Thomas E. Nevin the journal Studies in 1985) of that proposal.

A Commission set up by the government had proposed that the NUI Colleges should become independent universities (this may sound familiar). But before this could be seriously considered the following took place:

‘The Provost of TCD and the President of UCD were called to the Department of Education by Mr O’Malley and told that he was rejecting the Commission recommendation. He told them that the Government proposed to establish a new single University of Dublin with UCD and TCD as Colleges; that there should be one University of Dublin to contain two Colleges each as far as possible complementary to the other, the University to own all the property of the Colleges; and that there should be no unnecessary duplication of staff, buildings or equipment.’

Asa we know it proved impossible to implement this proposal, but from time to time the idea is resurrected, and usually gets a fairly negative response in one or both colleges. Last year’s establishment by them of their ‘Innovation Alliance’ probably represents what for both college heads was the most that they could easily deliver. Whether Peter Sutherland’s comments will drive this agenda any further is, I imagine, doubtful. In the meantime, the suggestion itself must also serve to increase tensions between the two colleges in question and the rest of the Irish university sector.

But why do it anyway? What would a merger achieve that is unattainable by other means, such as a strategic partnership? Indeed, how would a planned merger overcome what is now known internationally to be the complex set of problems that accompany such initiatives and that have made many of them fail, often before they are fully implemented? Peter Sutherland is now mainly based in London, the place where the planned merger of Imperial College and University College London – which was intended to create the ‘world’s number one university’ – ultimately failed. University mergers require a convergence of institutional cultures and an acceptance by the communities of both institutions that they will gain from the initiative; in an academic environment this is very hard to achieve.

It is clear to me that the level of coordinated strategic cooperation between Irish universities – both sector-wide and in sub-groups – meeds to improve dramatically over the short to medium term. But ironically the chance of that succeeding will be impeded by pushing merger proposals and similar initiatives, which will if pursued divert energies from where they are now most urgently needed.

And in addition, as I noted in the previous post, it is far from clear that the size of a university makes a whole lot of difference. In the end it is quality that counts.

The TCD-UCD partnership

March 11, 2009

Since I wrote on this topic last week, there has been a lot of media coverage and a lot of discussion, and indeed a lot of anxiety, over the nature and shape of the proposed collaboration between Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin. The speculation, or at least most of it, has now ended with the formal announcement by the President of UCD and the Provost of Trinity, attended also by the Taoiseach, the Tanaiste, the Minister for Education and Science and the Minister for Finance. I hasten to say that I was invited to attend this, but for genuine reasons of conflicting engagements was unable to do so. I have however read the statements issued on the occasion.

It is right to state at the outset that we must all be aware that the country faces extraordinary challenges, and that universities have a particular opportunity and obligation to provide leadership and initiative in this current environment. It is also right to say that partnerships and alliances between universities must be the right thing to pursue. And finally, universities and other higher education institutions now have an obligation, in order to maintain public support, to demonstrate that what they do can generate economic activity, create jobs and help get us out of the recession. And in that spirit I welcome and applaud the initiative which the two colleges have taken.

I would go on to say that other institutions, including my own, must continue with and step up our efforts to make a difference and to help solve the country’s problems. DCU will be launching its new strategic plan within the next two months, and will be announcing its own initiatives – as well as those it proposes to take with Irish and with major international partners.

In the meantime however, we must also ensure that the institutions in Ireland do not fragment, and do not come to the view that they must take competing and perhaps incompatible initiatives aimed at gaining advantage over each other, rather than in pursuit of the national interest. Welcome though today’s announcement is, it was preceded by an element of secrecy which was not helpful and which could have sowed the seeds of serious distrust in the sector. It is our job now to overcome that and to reinstate national collaboration and mutual support.

Unitrin College Dublin?

March 6, 2009

According to reports in both the Irish Times and the Irish Independent today, Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin are in talks aimed at creating closer links, with a degree of integration of their research activities in particular. It is reported, and I imagine accurately, that the Department of the Taoiseach, and perhaps the Minister for Finance, were involved in discussions leading to this development.

Both newspapers indicate that the other five universities – including my own therefore, DCU – are likely to be ‘infuriated’ (Irish Independent), or set for a ‘furious reaction’ (Irish Times). Clearly I cannot speak for the other institutions, but I can announce here that I am much more relaxed than that. On a pro rata basis (i.e. per member of staff), DCU draws in more research funding than either of the two institutions who are the subject of the report, and we will cope with this development without too much fury or worry; it may even help us to put into relief the rather more innovative nature of DCU and the potential of its national and international linkages.

Nevertheless, what is a matter for concern is that the Government has established a strategic review process (launched yesterday, as reported in this blog), but at the same time appears to be running quite separate strategic decision-making processes that will create a whole list of faits accomplis before this review is even properly under way; and that the two colleges concerned seem to be going along with that. And furthermore, it needs to be stated emphatically that the Irish system of supporting and funding research has been built up carefully to ensure that all decisions on funding are based solely on the excellence of the proposal, in a transparent manner. If there were any deviation from this – for example, if there were any talk of ringfenced funding for this partnership – it would completely undermine that principle and with it the integrity of the system. I am assuming that this is not intended.

For all that, I wish the two colleges well – excellence in higher education is an objective we all share. But we need to ensure that we are not dividing the sector up into different groups, which will make national cooperation for the benefit of Ireland much more difficult. And we need to be vigilant that we are not fatally undermining the role of the Irish Universities Association in the process.

Interesting times ahead!