‘It feels like being exiled at your own institution’

Opinion: Plans to close UCD’s member-run common room are drawing sharp opposition from academics

A new university club is set to replace the member-run common room at University College Dublin. Photograph: Alan Betson

A new university club is set to replace the member-run common room at University College Dublin. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

It has seen a number of taoisigh, tanaistí and government ministers, more than a few diplomats, and certainly a good number of academic visitors from around the world.

Many a book launch has been held there and numerous charity quizzes have challenged the brains of members and visitors alike; retired staff return to it regularly; the playwright Frank McGuinness has his lunch break there whenever he can, and on special evenings the sound of traditional Irish music emanates from inside its walls.

The UCD Common Room Club has facilitated inter- and cross-disciplinary encounters and served, and continues to serve, as a space where academic and non-academic conversations can be had, and where frank and free, and occasionally passionate, arguments can be exchanged – independent of status, rank, academic title or dress.

Its informal character and unique position somewhere between the public and the private sphere has facilitated free speech to an extent that one will rarely encounter in the more formal settings of universities, such as departmental gatherings, deans’ offices, governing authorities or larger faculty meetings.

Those who think this is one of the last remaining privileged watering holes in the country should think again.

It has been a place of healthy retreat for many academics, researchers, administrators, secretaries and PhD students, allowing for a break and drawing breath from an environment that usually doesn’t allow a moment away from public interaction and its continuous demands.

Since its inception almost 40 years ago, the member-run common room has been the envy of many from outside. More than once have visiting professors and researchers commented that they wished their home institution had a place like this.

It has been repeatedly hailed an intellectual heaven, a cultural treasure, the heart and soul of UCD, a sign that while relentless bureaucratic modernisation has killed the spirit of many a university, there still exists a sane place where sociability, communality and open exchange are taken seriously.

Those who think this is one of the last remaining privileged watering holes in the country should think again.

Over the years, UCD’s common room has not only provided a space that serves all the functions and pleasures mentioned above; it has also contributed seriously to immeasurable academic exchange and output.

Numerous are the books and journal articles either first conceived there, or whose arguments were first tried and tested out there in discussion (that applies perhaps primarily, but by no means exclusively, to humanities scholars and social scientists).

Such output might not least be explained by the unique community spirit of the common room, one certainly unmatched at the other college down the road, where visitors have noted the old furniture and the exclusive groups that enjoy the classy interior, but where newcomers or visitors are rarely encouraged to join the brass rail and the conversation.

A recent survey among the almost 900 UCD Common Room Club members confirmed that the overwhelming majority cherish the common room and want it to continue in its present form.

Big disappointment

However, these members may be in for a rather big disappointment. President Andrew Deeks announced in a recent newsletter that work for a new extension to the O’Reilly Hall has been given the official go-ahead.

The new University Club – modelled on the university club in Perth – would no longer be administered by elected representatives of the common members but would be under UCD management. But not only is its governance model a corporate one: the new club also aims at a very different public, with a combined membership from the new club, gym and sports centre.

In this new space it is envisaged that staff, alumni and donors, and other, perhaps specially invited people from outside – one can think here about anybody from sports stars, to other celebrities and politicians – will mingle and interact regularly.

The announcement of the new extension with an estimated budget of €11 million did not come as a complete surprise. In the weeks leading up to the decision, President Deeks and representatives of the existing Common Room Club had frank discussions about the university management’s future plans vis-à-vis the new club and what would happen to the existing common room.

The president seemed particularly keen on tapping into the human capital represented by the 900-strong membership of the existing common room. From his point of view, this constituted a generous proposal since it offered the common room a new “home from home”. However, for members it felt more like being exiled at one’s own institution.

At a well-attended emergency meeting recently, Common Room Club members agreed they would try to continue to engage with the president in relation to his plans to close the current venue once the new university club is up and running.

However, concerns were also raised about the dirigiste attitude and the poor pro-forma consultation. The current plans and actions also reveal that some of UCD’s top brass has little sense of how the collective memory at and of its own institution works.

When renowned UCD historian Michael Laffan floated the idea of eventually handing over his common room diaries and photos from years of memorable times to UCD Archives, he did not envision the common room’s demise any time soon. After all, and apart from the many needs that it continues to serve, the common room has been and remains a collective lieu de mèmoire.

It seems bizarre that the same institution that awarded a medal to the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, a person who has written extensively about the transformation of the public sphere, actively pursues the demise of a treasured social institution like the common room.

Serious doubts must remain whether such honours actually mean anything to the institutions that award them.

Andreas Hess is professor in sociology at UCD and a long-time member of the Common Room Club. Joe Humphreys’ ‘Unthinkable’ column returns next week