Arrival of the fittest


In Prof Terri Scott IT Sligo has a heavy hitter at the helm as the institute negotiates the choppy waters of economic downturn and a mooted third-level rationalisation, writes LORNA SIGGINS

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world ...

– WB Yeats, The Second Coming

THE apposite nature of Yeats’s words, penned in the chaotic aftermath of the first World War, may not have been foremost in Professor Terri Scott’s thoughts when she took up the post of new president of Institute of Technology, Sligo last autumn. However, her appreciation of the poet’s close connection with the north-west landscape is something that she has alluded to time and again, even as she embraces the challenge of guiding some 5,800 students and 600 staff through a deepening recession.

And “challenge” is a word that the Derry women prefers – for colleagues say that there are no “problems” or “difficulties” in her lexicon. Her distinguished academic career has spanned more than 20 years on several continents since her own education at Thornhill College and at the University of Ulster and Queen’s University, Belfast – where she studied economics and geography, and then informatics to postgraduate level.

Appointed to the University of Ulster’s school of computing and mathematics, Scott became its head and also served as dean at the college.

She has held visiting positions at Carnegie Mellon University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US.

Her CV charts extensive experience, developing partnerships with institutions across Europe and Asia, as she moved from the public to private sector – and then back again. Nine years ago, she became the first woman to be named “IT Professional of the Year” by the British Computer Society.

She was the founder and director of the Northern Ireland Centre for Entrepreneurship, and in 2002 she joined Invest Northern Ireland as managing director responsible for regional development, information and communications technology, biotechnology, food and property.

Latterly, she was chief executive of the DCU Ryan Academy of Enterpreneurship and has held a number of public appointments, including current board member of the Industrial Development Authority. Somewhere in the middle of all this, she reared three children with her husband Chris. Her youngest – an 18-year-old daughter – is just completing secondary school.

Interviewed recently for IT Sligo’s students’ union publication, SOS, Scott described how she grew up in a big family and how her mother, a primary school teacher, had inspired her interest in a career in education. Favourite song was John Lennon’s Imagine, she told the publication. Favourite film? One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

A cross-country runner at college, she is described by former colleagues as immensely able, energetic and direct. She earned respect early on in the North’s traditionally male-dominated business community, and in academic circles, and was a strong supporter of the Northern Ireland Science Park which currently employs some 1,500 people at Queen’s Island, Belfast.

Such is Scott’s enthusiasm for entrepreneurship that some say she “doesn’t know when to let up” on the subject, and her energy is such that “when everybody else is going home, she is planning to hold another meeting”.

She is already said to be well aware that her car spends far too many late hours in the college grounds. Indeed, there has been some degree of apprehension among staff, given her stated enthusiasm for “value for money”. Asked by the students’ publication to comment on the current review of third-level education, she said she believed that there was potential for IT Sligo to “form partnerships and collaborate with other institutes in the region, and at the moment we are exploring synergies”.

One of the options being considered, she told SOS, was the formation of a technological university system. “All public sector organisations have faced a budget cut, and IT Sligo has had to make adjustments and review priorities,” she continued. “We are also seeing an impact on the popularity of certain courses.” Return of third-level fees was “inevitable in the current economic climate”, she said, but she warned that it was vital that any such structure was accompanied by a strategy involving resources to encourage access, and practical financial support.

For all that, she has won the support of students. “Yes, she’s ruffled feathers among some staff,” one college source says, “but it’s a good thing as her priority appears to be the student experience here. She is progressive, refreshing, and she is really striving to put IT Sligo on the map during this current third-level review.”

Prior to her appointment, in succession to Dr Richard Thorn, the college had established an educational development unit. It is said to have made a positive contribution to staff-student relations – offering maths grinds for students, and administering regular retraining and upskilling for staff.

If she has a commitment to the student body, the “First Lady, Madam President”, as SOS identified her, also demonstrates a wider commitment to regional development, and to the potential of north-south co-operation, which she has an inside track on.

“To serve the students and the region, each third-level institution must be a crucible in which change takes place,” she said in her address at last year’s annual school of science conferring.

“Here at IT Sligo, we cannot wait on others to set the trend – we must forge ahead by entering into strategic alliances with other education providers, innovators and leaders in industry and commerce, with social partners and public representatives, with the professions and those working in the community. We have a central role to play in making this region economically competitive in the new technologically advanced world.”

Such talk is music to the ears of her counterpart at Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, Dr Marion Coy. Dr Coy, an academic who predicted that a certain Barack Obama was a man to watch back in 2004, believes Scott has the ability “to make hope and history rhyme, bounded by what one can actually do”. She is also delighted that Scott is the fourth woman appointed as president of an IT, highlighting again the absence of women in comparable positions in the State’s universities.

“The social noise now is dominated by talk of recession among those formerly talking of nothing but property,” Dr Coy says. “Our students deserve more than that – they need leaders who can formulate a policy, build a picture of the future and one that will enable us all to make the most of the resources we have.”

Indeed, Scott has spoken to her student body of her 21st definition of job security: it is being “employable”, rather than “employed”, with the requisite skills, ability and flexibility to adapt.

She is currently commuting from home across the Border, living five days in Sligo and spending weekends with family between Derry and Donegal. An enthusiastic sea swimmer, she has been known to take to the Atlantic all year around. She is said to be looking forward to climbing Ben Bulben again, having already done so several times as a student.

Yeats spoke of education as “not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire”, Scott has told her students. In the same address, she has also quoted Charles Darwin: “It is not the strongest of species that survive, or the most intelligent, but those most adaptable to change.”

IT Sligo at 40

Institute of Technology, Sligo, marks its 40th anniversary next year on its 70-acre campus at Ballinode.

With an asset base of €70 million and a €40 million annual income, it has three faculties - business and humanities, engineering and science.

It has already developed a cross-border partnership with South West College in Enniskillen, Fermanagh, with apprentices completing several later phases there.

The institute prides itself on meeting the training and skills needs of stakeholders, with industrial partners including Masonite, Coca-Cola, Abbott and a number of local authorities.

Public sector programmes include a higher certificate in science in fisheries management, which it developed with the Central Fisheries Board, and a higher certificate in arts in custodial care, developed with the Irish Prison Service.

The IT Sligo campus includes a business innovation centre. Several weeks ago, the business innovation centre hosted a mini version of Dragon's Den with Ireland's only "female dragon" and acquaintance of Prof Scott, millionaire Sarah Newman.