Fear and loathing in UCC

 

University College Cork starts the new academic year divided by a bitter feud. At its heart, the controversial leadership style of its president, Prof Gerry Wrixon

As the new academic year begins, any fresher starting college at University College Cork (UCC) could be forgiven for being blissfully unaware that underneath the surface, an increasingly vicious and personal battle is resuming.

At its core, the formidable figure of UCC president, Prof Gerry Wrixon.

To his supporters, Wrixon is the hard-nosed, no-nonsense figure who has propelled UCC to new heights. To his enemies, and there are many around the campus, Wrixon is an American-style, pro-business leader who has trampled on UCC's centuries-old traditions.

In recent weeks, The Irish Times has received a series of e-mails and phone calls from individuals linked to the college who are furious at the way the university's president conducts business in the college. He is, they say, peddling a particular pro-business vision of university life that leaves little room for dissent or alternative viewpoints.

This is a view that appeared to be reinforced in a leaked letter where the college bursar, Dr Michael Kelleher, complained of being subjected to a "tirade of vituperation" during discussions with the president on capital spending.

One e-mail to this newspaper estimated that the university spends an increasing amount of money on litigation, although the college says any litigation is not of its own making.

Wrixon is at the heart of this acrimonious dispute. A man who wields enormous influence within the college, he inspires loyalty and hatred in equal measures. Known for his tough, confrontational manner, even his supporters acknowledge that Wrixon does not suffer fools gladly. But they point to his belief that UCC needs to be reformed in order to continue to compete nationally and internationally.

His opponents in the college say Wrixon is a combative figure who rewards those who buy into his "vision" for the university, and can be less generous towards those who dare to disagree with him. And he is, they claim, always ready for a fight. As one critic puts it: "If there is a brick wall in front of Wrixon and a wicker door to the side, he will run through the wall before he'll open the gate."

There is little doubt that Wrixon is a man who is impatient to implement change. His allies point to the fact that since his appointment in 1999, UCC has excelled in attracting competitive funding because of this approach.

The college has secured more funding from the Programme for Research in Third-Level Institutions (PRTLI) than any other college in the State, frequently eclipsing larger universities such as TCD and UCD.

This year student applications to UCC rose by 10 per cent, despite the general downward trend in CAO applications.

But the Wrixon years have also coincided with several high-profile legal actions in the university.

One involves the head of the economics department, Prof Connell Fanning, who is alleged to have assaulted a college employee, Joan Buckley, in August 2001, by grabbing her round the neck and throat after he expressed concerns about her driving putting his dog at risk.

Prof Fanning, who is head of the university's Department of Economics, went to the High Court in July 2002 seeking an order blocking a UCC inquiry into the incident. He accused the UCC authorities of putting pressure on Buckley to pursue the matter as part of an ongoing attempt to undermine his reputation, authority and position.

UCC strongly rejected his claims, arguing that it was entitled to hold a disciplinary inquiry and denying any conspiracy against him.

Dismissing the case, Mr Justice Lavan said Prof Fanning had "not come to equity with clean hands" and he did not accept that his evidence had been given in a full and frank manner.

Prof Fanning appealed Mr Justice Lavan's ruling to the Supreme Court, and the Chief Justice, Mr Justice Keane, with Mr Justice Geoghegan and Mr Justice McCracken, ruled in Prof Fanning's favour in January 2003.

They returned the matter for a rehearing, and the case is now listed for the High Court in Dublin on October 26th next.

Last year, UCC's academic council indicated the strength of resistance to Wrixon when it strongly backed a motion expressing concern about the decision of the university's governing body to extend Wrixon's term of office.

At the time, eight senior professors criticised the extension, maintaining that it ran counter to the Universities Act. This allows a president to hold office for 10 years, but not if he reaches the age of 65 first. This led some observers to suggest that the situation might even have ended up in the courts.

Clearly, while Wrixon might be succeeding in improving UCC's performance, not everyone agrees with his methods of doing so.

Part of the resistance to Wrixon can be attributed to the internal civil wars that tend to dog much of academia. But there are also genuine concerns about the pace and type of change.

Wrixon is unapologetic. In a recent interview with The Irish Times, he accused some of engaging in a campaign against him . "If you are going to insist on people upping their game, there will be people who will take it all personally," he said.

He also accused a "small group" of running to the media instead of using the college structures to air grievances.

Wrixon's opponents believe there remains a fundamental lack of consultation on key priorities.

They say his recent commitment to an "open and broad consultation process" about the restructuring of the college is no more than a token effort.

The real decisions will be made by Wrixon and those around him, they believe. Others, such as the Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT), express concerns about the rights of temporary staff at the college, following the introduction of the Fixed Term Work Act in 2003. There may remain a minority of people in the university who are not being treated properly, it believes.

Students at the college also fear that the same approach which has been so successful in attracting funding to UCC may lead to a diminution in the standing of other important departments.

UCC's SU president, Frank Milling, warns there is a danger that areas such as science and engineering will benefit disproportionately from the allocation of resources.

"Small faculties (and departments) are vulnerable. They are open to aggressive action from the likes of science and engineering. They could swallow up funding," he says. "The answer for Wrixon is that those departments which are small and perceived to be 'vulnerable' would have to be strong. . . it is survival of the fittest." As a result, he says he intends to hold Wrixon to commitments he has made that the humanities side of the university will not be overlooked. "It is to the detriment of the whole college (if this happens). Science and engineering can only go so far. It neglects the whole culture and tradition of the college."

In recent weeks, the chasm between the pro- and anti-Wrixon camps has become even wider.

The Minister for Education, Noel Dempsey, has already sanctioned an extension for Wrixon that will allow him to remain at the helm until 2009, when he will be approaching his 70th birthday. But final approval for the extension is still awaited from the Department of Finance.

For Wrixon himself, the bitter internal feuding has taken some of the gloss off UCC's undoubted success in punching well above its weight in terms of research funding.

The question for Wrixon now is whether the expected five-year extension will close the book on a period of turmoil and division in UCC. This seems unlikely given the forces ranged against him.