'I have quite a respect for Haughey'

 

THE SATURDAY INTERVIEW; FERDINAND VON PRONDZYNSKI:He stepped on a few toes as president of DCU, but Ferdinand von Prondzynski will be missed. What next for the unpredictable, unpronounceable professor? asks PAUL CULLEN

HE IS A socialist baron, a Labour-leaning university head with a soft spot for Bertie Ahern and Charlie Haughey, and an Irishman with a tricky German-Polish name. He has spent his working life in universities and served as the boss of one for the past decade but is blase about the need for parents to send their children to third level; indeed, his two sons haven’t take that route. He looks the part of the pointy-headed academic you might expect, but he is equally at ease discussing the finer points of AC/DC lyrics and Strictly Come Dancingor tweeting students a third his age. He is, finally, a lawyer who thinks Ireland has too many lawyers.

Prof Ferdinand von Prondzynski is a man of many parts, not all of them quite as predictable or uniform as you might think from his job. He is an eclecticist with many interests, immense energy and considerable focus who stepped down as president of Dublin City University last Tuesday.

Von Prondzynski – Von Prond, FvP and, simply, Ferdinand are the monikers of choice used by those who struggle with the full name – is the one university head people are able to identify by name, a situation that reflects in equal measure on him and on his more anonymous counterparts at the top of Irish third-level education.

With his popular blog, his Irish Timeseducation column and his frequent forthright statements on the crises in third level, he has achieved unrivalled visibility in the sector. On the back of this profile DCU has punched above its weight in comparison to bigger, better-known rivals, especially Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin.

His office in the college is a busy, book-filled place, not nearly as neat as you might expect.

He turned 56 in June, and the birthday cards are still on the shelf. A large camera bag rests by his desk – photography is his big hobby – and one of his black-and-white images adorns the wall. The tools of the techie are close at hand, notably a smartphone on the desk and an Apple Mac, into which he feeds his blog musings in the early hours of the morning.

He plans to take “a year off” once his term is over. Some year off: current plans include writing two books, resuming his newspaper column, upgrading the blog and serving on the boards of the IT company Skillsoft and the National Competitiveness Council.

The blog is a phenomenon in the third-level sector, with, he says, up to 10,000 readers a day. It skilfully mixes the weighty and the light-hearted, the long and the short, and covers a wide variety of often offbeat subjects beyond education – hats, for example, or the author’s love of Newcastle United.

On the morning we meet he has already posted a meaty think piece, “What makes a university great?” In lighter vein, a few days earlier he told readers about a PA announcement he heard at Los Angeles airport, advising passengers: “You are not required to give money to solicitors. This airport does not sponsor their activities.” Good advice for Ireland, he reckoned. The blog has been parodied and occasionally ridiculed but is extraordinarily popular. “There’s not an academic in the country who doesn’t check in on it at some time – though no one will admit to it,” says one informed source.

He is what marketeers call an early adopter, as he embraces new technology with geek-like enthusiasm; as far back as 1981 he typed up his PhD dissertation on a mainframe computer.

The blog was originally intended to communicate with DCU students and staff, and its success was unanticipated, he says. “I took a deliberate decision a little way into my presidency that I would be out there making my views known. If you want to be a change agent, you shouldn’t be doing that behind closed doors. You need to be out there explaining what you’re doing to anyone affected by it.”

Over the years this has involved stepping on a few toes, usually deliberately but sometimes accidentally. On one occasion in 1993 he had to apologise to the university’s chancellor after accidentally sending a late-night e-mail critical of her to the entire governing authority.

More often he has fixed his erudite aim on the Department of Education, or the points system, or Ireland’s failure to adequately fund research – all subjects you’d expect a third-level boss to bang on about, except that Von Prondzynski’s clarity of expression and essential fair-mindedness set him apart from more histrionic or jargon-ridden colleagues.

“He is despised and loathed by the other university presidents,” one source claims, “and some of this is down to jealousy.”

So has he experienced resentment? “There has been the occasional snide comment,” he replies, grinning.

The name has been a help rather than a hindrance, he says. “If I were called Smith or Murphy I would blend into the background more, but because of my name people tend to remember me more.”

He tells an anecdote involving Prof Iognaid Ó Muircheartaigh, the former president of NUI Galway: “We had a joke between us as to whether his name or mine would be more often misspelt. His theory was that his would be, because people wouldn’t know how to spell my name and would look it up. With his name people would think they either did or should know how to write it and would go ahead and get it wrong.”

Colleagues marvel at his energy and work rate. “Every year he delivers 10 speeches at conferrings, each one different and each one perfectly delivered without notes,” says one member of staff. “He’s not the sort of man to back-slap or glad-hand, and he doesn’t do small talk, but he’s there, he’s around, for staff and students,” says another.

The secret may lie in his ability to do without sleep. Like Margaret Thatcher, he needs only four or five hours of sleep a night.

Just as his blog can be personal without ever becoming confessional, there is a certain reserve to FvP in conversation. He is polite, forthcoming and engaging, and often humorous, but he doesn’t do eye contact; for most of the interview his eyes seem to be fixed on the wall above my head, as though we are concentrating on the importance of his words. You sense he understands people because he has studied them, not because he lives among them.

The outsider tag frequently applied because of his family origins in Germany is not one he accepts, and he says he has virtually never experienced racism in Ireland.

His family, he acknowledges, must have seemed exotic when they arrived in Co Westmeath in 1960. His great-great-great-grandfather was a general in the Prussian army, and his mother is a baroness; he adds quickly that he is “not a great one for aristocracy and titles myself”. The young Ferdinand was seven years of age and spoke only German on his arrival in Ireland. His father had stopped working in the cement business for health reasons and moved into farming, then came to Ireland “because land was cheaper here”.

Growing up near Mullingar in the 1960s was wonderful, he says, but after six years his father got bored with farming, and the family were shunted back to Germany. FvP did the German equivalent of the Leaving Cert and worked in a bank for two years before heading to Trinity and then Cambridge.

There is no trace now of a German accent, and his German passport has long since lapsed in favour of an Irish one. One enduring influence from his German years is an admiration for the country’s Social Democratic Party leader Willy Brandt. Von Prondzynski joined Brandt’s SDP party aged 16 and developed a passion for politics that has never left him.

An academic career took the young law and industrial-relations lecturer to Trinity and then Hull before he got the top job at DCU, in 1990. While at TCD he joined the Labour Party and even stood for the Trinity university seat in the Seanad elections of 1987, where he lost out to David Norris.

He also served on Labour working groups while in the UK and got to know Tony Blair, who remains a hero. Direct political engagement ended when he took up the job at DCU, but you sense it might be on the agenda again shortly if the right offer were to come in.

Notwithstanding his independence of expression, Von Prond is a stout defender of many sacred causes in the third-level sector. He constantly beats the drum for more spending on research, for example.

“We are not going to be a low-value economy; our future isn’t going to be in call centres and manufacturing. The people who make those investments aren’t going to make them here. If we want to be a vibrant, growing economy it’s going to be on the back of high-value, knowledge-intensive investment. None of that will happen unless we have the RD infrastructure to sustain that, and it’s not happening.”

What about salary levels in the colleges, particularly among university heads? “We have no control over that. Pay scales of university staff are tied to public-service scales, and we’re not even involved in the negotiations.” He says he now earns about €200,000 a year, down a third in two years because of the various cuts, but there’s also a nice house on campus that goes with the job.

Academic pay is higher here than in the UK or Germany, he admits, but often the colleges are competing for talent with the likes of Intel and Microsoft, which pay more.

But is this comparing like with like? What about the long holidays enjoyed by academic staff? “Most academics now work about 60 hours a week for 12 months of the year,” he responds, to some incredulity on my part, “and you don’t need to raise your eyebrows on that one – if someone here is gone for more than three weeks in the summer I’d be very surprised and in some cases I would want to know why.” He continues: “We’re not an institute of technology. We don’t close our doors in June.”

He is an outspoken critic of many aspects of our education system. The Leaving Cert is “no longer fit for purpose” and needs to be “re-booted”. The abolition of university fees was “the biggest disaster to hit Irish higher education in a generation”. “The narrative around free fees looks inclusive and rational and politically progressive, but the reality is the opposite. The middle classes and wealthy see higher education as their birthright and will always be there. Free fees put a significant chunk of money into their pockets.”

So free fees have benefited people who don’t need to save the money involved, while access rates in deprived areas have hardly increased at all. “It is the people in Ballymun who are funding middle-class children by paying VAT with their shopping. That is unsustainable and unethical.” He says he has tried to wean Labour, which abolished fees while in government in the 1990s, off the policy, but the party is “unmovable”. Meanwhile, the absence of fees is “asset stripping” the university system, he says, as equipment is not renewed, libraries are not restocked and campus buildings are not maintained and cleaned properly.

As he sees it, a combination of the points system and parental bias towards professional courses have damaged the fibre of the country. “The professions have been a disaster for this country. We have 30 per cent more lawyers than we should have. All the professions are seriously overstaffed except, perhaps, doctors. Going into business is seen as second best, and that’s been really bad for the country.”

He is “okay” with his own sons’ lack of interest in third level. “People expect me to be critical, but my view is that parents should lay off their kids. A substantial number of people are going to universities in this country only because of the ambition of their parents and not because of anything they particularly want to do. I think that is fundamentally wrong. Parents should be much more relaxed about what their children do, and happiness should play much more with them.”

Asked to list his achievements as president, he highlights DCU’s rise in the global ranking of universities. A ranking of 289th might not sound like much, but, as he points out, DCU is by far the newest university in the top 300. It has also secured some of the biggest research grants awarded in Ireland and pushed up student applications even as numbers decline.

Although the college is less indebted than others, the future remains uncertain. The Chuck Feeney money that helped build the Helix isn’t there any more, and parts of the now-crowded campus are showing their age. Von Prondzynski says he is disappointed by the slow progress towards establishing partnerships with other colleges, notably NUI Maynooth and the Royal College of Surgeons.

The feedback from staff about his 10-year reign is politely positive. One lecturer says he is leaving DCU better than he found it: “He was a good administrator, a pleasant individual and a credible intellectual who gave the university a sense of academic mission and bureaucratic competence.”

His heroes are visionaries such as Garret FitzGerald, Ruairí Quinn, Barack Obama, even Bertie Ahern and Charlie Haughey. “I have quite a respect for Charlie Haughey. He was a flawed individual, but he was a visionary and, more than anyone else, the architect of the Celtic Tiger.”

The end of his term brings a move to Ballsbridge; he says he’s not ready yet to retire to Co Westmeath. Ambition, the constant companion of any successful career, remains a constant, but a question about his reputed ambition to be provost of Trinity is parried politely.

“It’s one thing there on the horizon. I deliberately haven’t thought about it because I needed to give my full attention to DCU. Whatever I’ll do next, there’ll always be a little bit of DCU in me.”