‘In terms of world profile, UCD is punching below its weight’

Six months into the top job at the university, Australian Andrew Deeks is thinking long-term funding, staff morale, the pursuit of excellence and a shot at the Top 100

Sat, Jul 5, 2014, 01:00

The phrase “world class” crops up in his speech a lot. “The research being done here is absolutely world class. . . In general, students have access to facilities, both for academic development and more holistic development that are world class. . . In many ways, I was coming into a university that, as I expected, was world class”.

However, he adds: “In terms of world profile, UCD is punching below its weight and there’s a lot of opportunity in that area.”

His predecessor Hugh Brady, whose modernising agenda carried a “pro-business” slant, had a fractious relationship with academic staff, and one of Deeks’s priorities has been rebuilding bridges. “In my experience, leading academics is very much a partnership process,” he says. “Working with a very bright and independent group of people can be very stimulating. When one takes on board the talent that one has around, then one can make progress quite significantly in many areas.”

Last month, he bussed the heads of schools and other key staff to Kilkenny for an overnight trip so they could brainstorm on UCD’s strategic plan, due for publication in the autumn. The off-campus get-together was something he trialled successfully at his two previous universities but before you can say “junket” he explains it was “two days of intensive meetings. I was in Kilkenny but I didn’t actually get to see Kilkenny.”

Deeks has also earned some goodwill from students by being a frequent attendee at campus events. Something of a workaholic, the Australian, who played rugby and cricket at school, admits he has little social life outside of Belfield. His wife Linda, who he met at Durham, is a researcher in intercultural studies, and on a rare, recent day off, he got to show her parents a bit of Dublin.

The president’s office overlooks UCD’s central, artificial lake where the din of drills can be heard from the nearby O’Brien Centre for Science, phase two of which has just been completed. Another building project on campus is the construction of a new Confucius Institute. Last month, Lui Yunshan, the Chinese Communist Party’s “number five”, was in town to turn the sod.

There are 450 such institutes internationally but it is the first time the Chinese government is funding a dedicated building anywhere in the world, says Deeks.

“It’s very significant in raising our profile within China”.

The institutes have attracted critics, especially in the US and Canada, where they are accused of dodging human rights issues, and of allowing an arm of the Chinese government a role in higher education.

Downplaying these concerns, Deeks says: “With the Americans – I wouldn’t want to hark back to McCarthy – but there is an element there that’s deeply suspicious of the Chinese and the Communist system. My personal experience of the Confucius Institutes is that they are very much just teaching Chinese language and traditional Chinese culture which doesn’t have any political overtones at all. The control over our Confucius Institute here is by a board which I, in fact, chair. We have a majority on the board so I don’t have any reservations about that all.

“I know there is some criticism about the courses using prescribed textbooks. The balance of that is the textbooks are delivered free by Hanban [the Beijing-based headquarters of the Confucius Institutes]. I have learned Chinese from those textbooks and I know they are harmless.”