Memo to the Minister for Education - let's talk about my pay

 

PRESIDENT'S LOG:Despite all the problems we’re facing, anything seems possible at the start of a new academic year, writes FERDINAND VON PRONDZYNSKI

I can get a bit irritable at times, and one of the things that sets me off is when people ask me if DCU’s students have returned from their holidays and are back on the campus – the subtext being that this must be the time we also return from three months away and get back to work.

So, yes, the students are back. And no, nobody here has had three months off. In fact, I’d be look slightly quizzically at anyone who has been away for more than three weeks.

For all that, the return of the students is a pleasure. They liven up the place, and also make some noise at night. I hope it doesn’t deprive anyone of their sleep, but for me it’s a sign of life on the campus. And so this week I addressed the usual “orientation” meeting for the new students. They hear an introductory address from me and are given information about DCU and its services.

While there are many things we would want to get across to students at this event, for me one of the key messages is this: you’re not alone.

Across all the third-level institutions, there are new students arriving for whom the prospect of higher education is both exciting and daunting. It’s quite different from secondary school, far less regimented, and there are significant stretches of time when students are expected to work on their own. Most young people thrive in this environment, but for some it is disorienting and sometimes lonely.

One of my key messages at orientation is that nobody should ever need to feel that they can’t get help for a problem, whatever it may be. In DCU, as in other colleges, there are many people whose task it is to provide help and support. I tell new students where they can contact me via e-mail (president@dcu.ie) and invite them to talk to me whenever they want, even if it’s only about Newcastle United. (And, goodness knows, as a Newcastle fan I can use some consolation myself.)

Actually, I encourage an informal approach here. Nobody in DCU is allowed to address me as “President” unless they intentionally want to annoy me.

A while back I led a group of senior German academic visitors around the campus. When first a member of staff, and then a couple of students, greeted me by my first name, my visitors were so shocked that for a moment I thought they might need to sit down with a glass of water and some soothing music.

For them, it was inconceivable that I would be on first-name terms with anyone in the university and still retain some authority. They were shocked that I tolerated this and astounded that I actually encouraged it. No doubt it’s a matter of national culture, but I pointed out to them that personal informality can help instill a sense of mutual confidence and trust.

ANYWAY, IT’S BEEN A GOOD WEEK... and that helps, given some of the stuff in the news over the previous weekend.

I gather the Minister for Education, Batt O’Keeffe TD, is angry with me (and the other presidents) for not cutting my pay. I do have quite a lot of respect for the Minister, as he has been willing to take on some tricky issues.

But, really, this is a somewhat insulting way of handling this particular matter. The Minister has never asked me personally to do this, and indeed he has no idea what I may have been doing with my pay over the past year or so.

In any case, I expect university presidents will be benchmarked downwards shortly. If he wants to recalibrate university presidents’ pay (and there may be an argument for that right now), this isn’t the way to do it. There should be a proper process (which can be speedy), not public bullying. Less megaphone, more talking.

AT THE GLOBAL IRISH ECONOMIC FORUMin Farmleigh the other week, a professor from California, Martina Newell-McGloughlin, was reported as saying that Irish universities are just a “bunch of ivory towers”.

I wasn’t at the event (I wasn’t invited, in fact), so I don’t know the context of her comment, but it indicates that we still have work to do persuading our friends overseas that we are getting it right. But at least the reported address by the former CEO of Intel, Dr Craig Barrett, on the importance of RD, was encouraging.

Anyway, I shouldn’t be irritable. With new students all around, and with the sense of optimism and determination that the week always brings, I still have confidence that the great adventure of learning and scholarship and knowledge transfer will continue to thrive in this country.


Ferdinand von Prondzynski is president of Dublin City University