Diary of a university president

 

Ferdinand Von Prondzynski, president of Dublin City University, has been blogging for a year and Diary of a University President, his quirky online take on life, has been drawing a crowd Here he explains why he blogs and we publish a selection of his posts

FERDINAND VON PRONDZYNSKI, president of Dublin City University, updates his blog, A University Blog: Diary of a University President, once a day, considering topics from university financing to Pete Doherty’s hats.

“There are plenty of university presidents in the US who keep blogs, but I may be unusual in the frequency of my posts,” says Prondzynski, who has headed up DCU for nine years. “I might freshen up the format soon – bring in a few guest bloggers or conduct some interviews. I’m getting plenty of feedback and I want to keep the readers interested.”

Von Prondzynski started the blog to try and draw students and the public into the world of the university. “I try to communicate everything and anything that crosses my path, to give people a better understanding of what a university president actually does,” he says. “I do it in part to counter the growing hostility towards universities that is fuelled by some politicians and the media. The blog gives me a chance to write about why university matters.”

It also gives him a chance to talk about the Eurovision Song Contest, his beloved Newcastle United, great bad poetry and trying, unsuccessfully, to pay his electricity bill.

WRITING SKILLS

Posted May 4, 2009

Recently I was at a dinner and was sitting at a table with several businesspeople – well, let’s be honest, they were all businessmen, but that’s another topic – and I asked them whether they believed that university standards in Ireland had dropped. There was some discussion and some differences of opinion, but then one man there made a comment with which pretty much all the others agreed. He said almost no graduate he employed just coming out of university could write grammatically correct English. There was a lot of nodding of heads when he said this. Jumping straight into defensive mode, I helpfully pointed out to him that in the statement in which he made this complaint he had split an infinitive and failed to use the subjunctive where it was required, but I don’t think this took him off his stride, alas.

AIRPORT BLUES

Posted May 9, 2009

Nowadays airports are a curious mixture of shopping centre, bureaucratic torture chamber and long distance walking arena. The worse-for-wear survivors of hen party weekends, talking somewhat too loudly, share the space with grumpy looking businessmen, backpackers from Sweden, and people heading for Malaga wearing totally ridiculous clothes. You have this constant sense of seeing all of humanity and discovering you really don’t like any of them.

And yet, carbon footprints and all, I wouldn’t want to go back to the days when a day trip to Butlins Holiday camp was the most exotic trip many might expect to have. Globalising the world through air travel has been a big gain, and so I’ll put up with the discomforts and horrors.

And if I meet you there, I’ll try to be nice.

DISCRIMINATORY FORMALITIES?

Posted May 6, 2009

Today someone brought an issue to my attention about which I have also long wondered – without ever doing anything about it. In DCU as in most (maybe even all) Irish universities, at graduation ceremonies the women graduands wear caps (mortar boards), while the men don’t. This seems to me to be a peculiarly Irish thing: in all UK universities I have experienced, both men and women wear mortar boards.

It seems to me that either we should ask all graduands to wear them, or else nobody should have to wear them; but to discriminate between men and women in this way seems hard to justify. However, I have to admit I have no idea how this came about in the first place, and despite the fact that I have observed this practice since my own student days, today is the first time that I have ever heard anyone comment on it.

Anyway, I am taking the matter to the relevant decision-making bodies here in DCU, and will recommend that we stop treating males and females differently for these purposes.

SPOT THE HATS

Posted May 2, 2009

I grew up in a household with a lot of hats. My parents both wore hats when I was a boy, and my father in particular almost never ventured out of doors without a hat. When we came to Ireland, virtually all men wore hats or caps, and if you wanted to inspect their hair you needed to catch them in church at Mass. At some point, almost without my noticing, hats disappeared. All of a sudden women only wore them for certain social occasions, and men hardly at all. And certain kinds of hat vanished completely: when can you remember last seeing a bowler hat? But all is not lost. Recently hats have started to creep into the picture again. Often they are worn by rock stars, such as Pete Doherty

HIGHER EDUCATION AND THE FLOW OF HISTORY

Posted April 28, 2009

While looking for a particular article in a multi-disciplinary German journal I came across an autobiographical piece by an Austrian scientist. He had been a professor in a university in Austria, and on one particular day in June 1914 he was due to deliver a farewell speech to a group of 52 graduating students. Just as he was entering the hall where the students were assembled a colleague whispered in his ear that the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Habsburg throne, had been assassinated in Sarajevo.

In this autobiographical article he wrote that he had an immediate sense of the likely terrible consequences of this act, but he continued to conduct the ceremony, and made a short speech in Latin on educational values. What he did not know then was that, of his 52 graduating students, 40 would die violently during the 1914-18 Great War. He himself (a Jew) would spend much of the second World War in a concentration camp (although he survived it), while one of the remaining surviving students would be tried for war crimes in 1945. The professor wrote of that day in 1914: “The waves and torrents of history were about to engulf us, and I knew it. But all I could do was to say a few platitudes about the civilising power of education.”

Maybe these were not platitudes. For those of us in education, while like everyone else we will witness disasters, injustices, wars, famines, corruption across the world, we must keep telling ourselves that what we do matters; and while we cannot instantly solve all these problems and right these wrongs, we are (I hope) passing on values of inquiry, tolerance, curiosity and respect.

FINDING TALENT

Posted April 23, 2009

If you haven’t heard of the singer Susan Boyle – and I must confess that until yesterday I hadn’t – you really need to watch the clip on YouTube which I will give you at the end of this post.

Susan Boyle appeared on a British television show, Britain’s Got Talent, and she wowed the audience and the judges to such an extent that they were giving her a standing ovation before she had even got to the third bar of her song. And from there she just took off, jetting from rural Scotland to the television studios of America and almost instant celebrity status.

So what is so amazing? Well, Susan Boyle is 47 years old. She has a wholly attractive and vivacious personality, but let us say her looks are not the looks of someone whom the editors would choose for the front page of your average fashion magazine. Some have called her “frumpy” ... So she stands in the limelight for all those who don’t have what someone decides are conventionally good looks, for all those who have talent, but who come up against the superficiality and prejudices of the rest of us. And that may be the end of the story, unless we learn to give everyone the chance they deserve on the basis of who they are. I hope she lights a fire.

YOUNG VISITORS

Posted April 12, 2009

I live on the campus, and as I walked across it earlier today it was eerily quiet, as staff and students are taking a break. But then as I turned a corner I ran into a little group of boys, mostly in the age group of eight to 12 I think. I won’t say what they were doing, except maybe to point out that they weren’t up to much good. I walked up to them, intending to suggest that they move on. However, one of them asked me what I did here, and I so I humoured them and told them a little about the university and my role in it.

It became quite a lively discussion, and from this it emerged that this group of young people had two key questions for us: they did not describe them this way, but the two questions were in essence about entrepreneurship and ethics. They wanted to know whether our programmes of study would make it easier for graduates to start businesses and become wealthy; and what would happen if our research was “dangerous” or “bad”.

It was extraordinary that, while these young people were in possession of intelligent insights into university issues, not one of them (when I asked) thought they would ever have the opportunity to study in one.

They all came from a disadvantaged area not far from the university, and while they were happy to mess around on the campus now, they did not believe there was any prospect for them that would allow them to become students here (or in any other higher education institution) later.

We are still failing the young people from these backgrounds. Not only have we as a society not provided the resources to make a university education a realistic prospect for them, we haven’t even managed to make them feel that they should at least aim for this outcome. Yet here was a group of young people who, from their questions and comments, immediately convinced me that they would have every chance of excelling here. I chatted with them for another while, and told them this was their university as well as mine, and gave them some suggestions as to how they could get the support needed to come here one day as students.

I don’t know if it will happen.

COMMUNICATING THE MESSAGE

Posted April 6, 2009

As I entered a meeting recently attended by a number of people from different Irish universities the sound of conversation suddenly stopped dead, and I was left wondering why I had had such an effect. It turns out that those present had been commenting, not necessarily positively, about DCU’s apparent obsession with getting itself and its stories into the media. As I had just appeared on television the night before, my arrival prompted a sudden silence. After I had managed to find out what was going on, an old friend of mine who was present suggested to me that the problem was that, in order to be intellectually respectable, universities should avoid trying to communicate in an accessible manner to the general public, as you could not do this without betraying the academic quality of what was being communicated.

As one of the smallest Irish universities we have a disproportionate presence in the newspapers and indeed in the broadcast media, and it is true that we make serious efforts to achieve this. So is this something that cheapens us in some way? I doubt it. Indeed, my own suspicion is that, between us all, we don’t do half enough of it.

THE AGE OF PLAGIARISM?

Posted April 5, 2009

Some years ago I was an external examiner at another university. One of my tasks was to consider the evaluation by the university’s own examiners of the students’ final year project work. One student had written a lengthy dissertation about the impact of the common law on trade union organisation. As I read this, it seemed very familiar to me; and rightly so, as I had written it myself. The student in question had lifted a whole chapter from a book I had written a few years earlier and had presented it as his work.

I had just been newly appointed as the external examiner, and the student probably had no idea that I would be reading his work. What amused me even more, though, was that the two internal examiners had not noticed the plagiarism and had given the student’s effort (in reality word for word my own work) a mark of 58 per cent. I was duly put in my place as regards the quality of my book; while the student was left to face the disciplinary process of the university.

A LOVELY INVITATION

Posted January 2009

Overheard this morning in a Dublin newsagent’s shop, a conversation between two elderly ladies.

Lady 1: “He’s such a lovely man, so athletic.”

Lady 2: “And so well spoken. He’s lovely.”

Lady 1: “And his lovely wife and two daughters, they looked so proud.”

Lady 2: “Yes, with all the world watching. They seem such a lovely family.”

Lady 1: “Pity about the oath, but who’d blame him, such pressures.”

Lady 2: “By the way, the committee have decided to invite him to open the new crafts shop.”

Lady 1: “Oh, that’s grand – it will make a lovely change for him.”

Remember, you heard it here first.

Prof Ferdinand von Prondzynski’s A University Blog: Diary of a University president is at

http://universitydiary.wordpress.com/