Posted tagged ‘Trinity College Dublin’


August 14, 2018

Almost exactly 40 years ago I was sitting my final undergraduate examinations in Trinity College Dublin. In those days the finals were in September, which made it really difficult for some who needed their results rather earlier when making job applications. Anyway, I had, very late in the day, decided to pursue an academic career, and from TCD went on to do a PhD in Cambridge. I then returned to Dublin and became a lecturer in Trinity College. And on from there.

Those of you who read the North-East Scotland media will already know that, with effect from the end of this month, I shall be leaving my position as Principal and Vice-Chancellor of Robert Gordon University, a post I have held since March 2011. In fact I have spent nearly half my academic career leading two universities consecutively. That’s probably long enough.

However, I shall not be losing interest in the academy, and am already doing work for two books I am intending to write. And this blog will continue. But as I look back, what perhaps strikes me most is that my career never followed a predictable path. I left school in 1972, not intending to go to university at all. After two years in employment, I changed my mind, and went to TCD, intending to be a barrister. As an academic, I expected to be a researcher (and was for a while), but became a university leader instead. There is no such thing as a reliable career plan, and indeed this is more true now than it was then. And for me, there may be one more opportunity to do something completely different. We’ll see.


Living with semesters

February 7, 2017

Most universities in the English-speaking world (though as we shall note, not all) organise their academic sessions into semesters.  A ‘semester’, just in case this needs to be explained, is according to the Oxford English Dictionary ‘a period or term of six months’. I point this out as a precaution to ward off those who might start talking about having three semesters in one year, a feat which could only be accomplished in another dimension in which a year had 18 months. And just to explain something else, a ‘trimester’ consists of three months, so that you could fit four (not just three) into a year.

If you were a student anywhere in these islands at about the same time as I was, then you would have been used to having your year split into ‘terms’. Generally universities would claim to have three terms in the year, but typically only two of these would be real functioning educational entities. The third would be for some sort of revision, updates and perhaps social revelry; it would in any case typically be shorter.

But even back then there was a different model of which many of us would have been aware. American universities had semesters (though not all), as had the Germans. But then we also heard about the then still quite new Stirling University and its use of modular programmes taught in semesters – an innovation which by the 1990s began to gain ground elsewhere in the UK. The University of Hull adopted semesterisation and modularisation in the mid 1990s while I worked there, and since then that is the only framework I have know, in the UK and Ireland.

The last university in Ireland to embrace semesters was Trinity College Dublin. Actually, ’embrace’ is too strong a word – it was more a stiff handshake. Semesters were introduced, but the College retained the old term-based nomenclature, and decided there would be no examinations of any kind at the end of the first semester. Now TCD is proposing to complete the change, but with some resistance from staff who, according to a report in the Examiner newspaper, think it will turn the university into a ‘second-rate polytechnic’.

I suspect some of the resistance is about a dislike of change and a wish to be seen in the same company as Oxford or Cambridge (which don’t have semesters). But it is worth asking whether the pedagogy of modular, semester-based programmes has been as much to the forefront of reform as it should have been. There is little doubt that any even modest attempt to pursue interdisciplinary formation is assisted by a modular structure; but this should be seen alongside a better understanding of what the real unit of knowledge should be in a contemporary university. Modules and semesters do give us the tools for modern learning and scholarship, but these tools are only useful if we know what we are building. Are we delivering bite-sized chunks of studying, or do we have a pedagogical concept of learning that underpins the structures? Many universities do have that concept, or vision, I think – but as a sector, I’m far less sure that we have ever explained this properly.

Brand new brilliant idea. Not.

December 17, 2014

Goodness, here we go again. A few months ago my former university, known throughout the world by everyone as Trinity College Dublin, thought it needed a new name, for reasons that baffled everyone except the consultants who had invoiced the college for coming up with the new brand. It was henceforth to be known as ‘Trinity College the University of Dublin’. Except that nobody thought this was a great idea, and so the college cut its losses (€100,000, reportedly) and kept the old identity.

Bad ideas are never killed off quite as easily as that, however. So now, another institution with a globally recognised brand and a huge reputation has decided that it, too, must pay someone (£300,000 this time, it is claimed) to come up with a daft new name. King’s College London, a genuinely renowned university, is to be called just ‘King’s London’. At least Dublin’s proposed TCTOUD would still have told you what kind of place it was. King’s London could be anything. And don’t even get me started on the grammatical implications.

The proposal sparked a rather amusing sequence of suggestions on Twitter for other name changes based on this model. But more seriously, nobody anywhere in the world needs to have it explained to them by way of a name change that King’s College or Trinity College are not some obscure secondary schools. Trust me on this. And that advice comes for free.

Trinity College Dublin

April 5, 2014

Having been rather critical of the proposal to change the name of Ireland’s oldest university, I thought I might balance that with a photo I took recently. This shows TCD’s chapel on the north side of the Front Square.

Trinity College chapel

Trinity College chapel

Eccentricity of the intellect

October 23, 2012

Anyone who, like me, has studied or worked in Trinity College Dublin over the past half century is familiar with the historian R.B. McDowell. Let me say right away that I’m not suggesting we all know anything, even in outline, of what McDowell taught or researched, but we know what he looked like and how he appeared on the campus.

Robert Brendan McDowell died just over a year ago, having very nearly reached the age of 100. He was instantly recognisable: in all weathers he crossed the campus wearing what looked like three or four layers of coats and a battered hat (all of which looked like they had seen better days). He was constantly talking or mumbling, even when nobody was with him. He always walked fast. At dinner he would wear an old gown that was stained and torn in several places. However, if you were sitting near him you would hear a never-ending flow of comments and anecdotes, many of them highly amusing.

About 25 years ago McDowell and another TCD Fellow wrote a history of the College. I remember sitting next to him at Commons (dinner) at the time he was writing this, and in explaining his work he remarked to me that one of the sad discoveries he had made that there were no longer any eccentrics in academic life. I bit my lip.

Of course to many in the outside world the academy is all about other-worldly eccentricity. To many observers this makes old professors endearing, but also emphasises their remoteness from ‘real life’: academics are thought sometimes to inhabit a world in which the normal laws and customs of human behaviour and relevance don’t need to apply. I confess I find this a difficult concept to address. Eccentrics are endearing, but more importantly, an eccentric approach to knowledge can open up new ways of thinking, or facilitate important discoveries. I understand the desire to protect and preserve this aspect of academic life. On the other hand, universities should not be presented chiefly as places in which harmless eccentrics pursue daft ideas, some of which may by some fluke turn out to be important.

Certainly academic freedom should, amongst other things, allow and nurture some degree of intellectual unorthodoxy, which may present to some as eccentricity. But universities are now increasingly institutions that need to answer some quite direct questions posed to them by society, and other-wordliness may not be the response primarily sought. This is a hard balance for universities to get right. But whatever your university might be, I do hope that there will still be some room in it for a person like R.B. McDowell.

Junior professing

January 20, 2012

So here we go, then. Trinity College Dublin is looking for some junior law lecturers. But that’s not what the College is saying: its announcement suggests they are looking for two ‘Assistant Professors’. Anyone studying the further particulars may get a sense that the successful candidate is likely to be nearer the beginning than the end of their career, but then again, there is no explicit statement in there to point out that these ‘professors’ are different from those that might work in other Irish universities.

Of course all this is a consequence of the College’s decision, mentioned here some time ago, that from now on all its lecturing staff will be ‘professors’ of one kind or another. While there are one or two other universities in these islands (Warwick and Nottingham specifically) that have adopted a similar practice, for now most have not. I confess I have no strong views in the matter one way or another, but believe that such changes should be made system-wide, not by individual institutions. No matter how good those institutions think they are. Bless them.


PS. A colleague commenting on this post on Twitter has drawn attention to something even more baffling. Leeds University is converting senior lecturers and Readers to ‘Associate Professors’, but is not allowing holders of these posts to call themselves by that title, internally or externally:

‘As part of this process existing Senior Lecturers or Readers will be allowed to retain their existing title or can choose to switch to the new title.  Grade 9 staff in research focused roles may be able to transfer to the Associate Professor title where they can demonstrate that they have made a sufficient contribution to learning and teaching and teaching focused staff may be able to transfer to the new title where they can demonstrate a sufficient contribution to research or scholarship.

The Associate Professor title is linked to the role and not an individual title.  Individuals will continue to be addressed as ‘Dr X’ or other appropriate title and would not be expected to present themselves as ‘Associate Professor X’ (or ‘Professor X’) internally or externally.’

So what  on earth is the point of that?

Trust and confidence: the new TCD Provost’s inaugural address

September 21, 2011

It was sometimes said in the past that universities have to deal with the issues and problems of the modern world, but find very little to say about them in public. While university heads are often found lamenting the lack of resources for higher education, they say little about pedagogy, educational values or the benefits of scholarship and research. Over recent years this has begun to change – and maybe I am arrogant enough to say that, in Ireland, I made my own contribution to that. In any case, others have followed suit, including my successor in DCU. And now the new Provost of Trinity College Dublin, Paddy Prendergast, has delivered a highly interesting inaugural speech on his university and its place in the world.

The Provost did address the issue of lack of funds, pointing out that TCD’s global ranking, with far fewer resources than its international competitors, was by no means an inadequate achievement; but that it could be much better with a greater investment on a par with what is the norm in other countries.

But perhaps the more interesting comments in his speech reflect on the relationship between public trust and regulation. Here is what he said, in more detail:

‘Increased regulation is inversely proportional to trust. We are currently suffering a chronic lack of trust, and so the Pavlovian response is to demand more regulation. But we’ve got to get trust back into the system. Ireland cannot prosper without it. Nothing flourishes in a climate of fear and suspicion. Trust is linked to accountability. Institutions worthy of trust are happy to be held accountable for their decisions.’

The Provost is clearly right in identifying this as one of the key issues in higher education today. For reasons that many in the sector don’t understand or appreciate, there is a visible lack of trust and confidence in the wider community that university decision-making is prudent, reasonable and transparent. Based on anecdotal evidence (and often not much more), there is also a lack of confidence in the willingness of academics to devote sufficient attention to students.

Paddy Prendergast is right in seeing this as a critical problem that needs to be addressed. The temptation for governments and their agencies has been to respond to criticism of universities by imposing new regulatory constraints and limiting their freedom of action, in the apparent belief that universities will then behave more rationally and that their activities will provide better value for money. This is far from obviously the case, but in order to avoid this response from becoming more emphatic universities need to address the issue of public confidence and to persuade the public that they are meeting their responsibilities effectively. Good communication is an important first step, and in this context the Provost’s inaugural address was well judged. It should be part of a new landscape of transparency and advocacy in the cause of higher education.

An egalitarian culture, or neglect of achievement?

August 22, 2011

It is sometimes said, with good reason, that universities are amongst the most hierarchical organisations of any in society. It may well be that in the general run of academic discourse, and in recognition of academic freedom, one opinion is as valued as another (though in fact that is arguable); but in terms of personal recognition, status, support, facilities and general terms, universities celebrate status and attach benefits to it in a way that many corporate business organisations have long left behind.

Perhaps the key to all this is the professoriate. In the British and Irish framework of university practice, very few academics make it to professorial status. Those that do are thereby recognised as having made exceptional contributions to the academy, particularly (often exclusively) in scholarly output. It is in fact sometimes claimed that professors, like football strikers, sometimes achieve celebrity status because they are selfish players, scoring off the groundwork laid down by others. Lest anyone assume that this is necessarily my view, I should add immediately that I know many professors who work selflessly in the interests of their colleagues. But I also know there are other cases.

Of course in the American tradition it is different, and all those with tenure tend to be styled professor, even those who are quite junior. This doesn’t mean that it is an egalitarian system, but it provides more status for the academic community as a whole, particularly in its dealings with the outside world. Some universities on this side of the Atlantic have been looking at this model, and the latest to do so is Trinity College Dublin, which decided to change to an ‘all-professor’ framework for academic staff at its board meeting of June 29. A lecturer will now be an ‘Assistant Professor’, a senior lecturer will be an ‘Associate Professor’, an existing Associate Professor will be a ‘Professor’, and existing professors will remain what they are.

What will this change bring about? Will it push other institutions, for reasons of comparability and to ensure that they can compete for staff, take the same decision? Should it in fact have been a sector-wide one? And will the new framework make the system less hierarchical? Will it suggest that scholarly achievement is no longer rewarded as clearly? Or will it all make no difference whatsoever?

Studia Generalia

July 15, 2011

In the history of European universities, the earlier prestigious universities licensed by the Holy Roman Empire based their programmes of study on an eclectic menu that involved students covering several branches of learning, mostly in the humanities. As knowledge became more specialised and disciplines began to operate more within strict boundaries this tradition was eroded and eventually disappeared.

However, when I was a student in Trinity College Dublin in the mid-1970s, the college still had a programme called ‘General Studies’ for which students could register and which followed the above traditional model. While the course was popular, the perception at the time was that it was selected typically by weaker students and that it lacked discipline-specific academic rigour. Despite strong student opposition it was eventually abolished.

Of course since the late 1970s our understanding of knowledge has shifted, and the growth of interdisciplinarity might suggest to some at least that a reconsideration of the case for General Studies (in any university) would make sense – though perhaps with more content from science and technology. The argument might be that we often force students to specialise before they are ready to make this kind of choice and before they are properly educated in what one might call general knowledge. It may be that the time is right for us to have another look at General Studies.