Trinity's big decision

 

THE OLD JIBE that academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small does not apply to the election battle for the provost’s job in Trinity College Dublin. For one thing, all five candidates have run polite campaigns. For another, the stakes could scarcely be higher.

A dominant theme of the campaign has been the sense that, for all its grandeur, Trinity is losing ground, especially to University College Dublin.

As one candidate puts it: “I can recall a time when Trinity was higher education in Ireland. But these days we sometimes feel like we are just another university. Trinity is a special place with very special people. The new provost, whoever he or she may be, must restore that old lustre.’’

The election is also important for Ireland Inc as the Government is looking to the universities as an engine of economic revival.

TCD, the highest ranked university in Ireland, will have a pivotal role in that process. The Government will be looking to the next provost to play a leading role in economic regeneration by delivering world-class research and innovation.

One candidate says: “This is a very serious election for Trinity College if it is to maintain its reputation alongside the world’s top institutions. But it is also a serious election for Ireland, as Trinity College is central to undergraduate and postgraduate education here and for Ireland’s reputation abroad for excellence in education, research and scholarship.’’

Remarkably, the election is largely an internal affair, despite its overall national importance.

Two external candidates made the shortlist, but one – Prof Robin Coningham of Durham University – has already dropped out.

The other, Prof Des Fitzgerald of UCD, is ranked as an outside bet, even though he is a much-lauded vice president of research at that institution and he has run an impressive election campaign.

By any standards, the position of provost of TCD is a “blue-chip” educational appointment. It should draw the best and the brightest from such universities as Harvard, Cambridge, Oxford. But there has not been an external appointment since the late FSL Lyons secured the post in 1974 – and he was a former TCD professor.

The key reason for this is that candidates, once they proceed to the election, have to declare themselves publicly. Few senior academics from other universities are prepared to take this risk.

Then there is the practical problem of running an election campaign targeting the 680 academics entitled to vote from another country. In announcing his withdrawal from the contest last week, Coningham said it had been impossible to contest the election while continuing as vice chancellor in Durham.

That said, a strong group of candidates will be assembled when the election takes place on Saturday week next in the dining hall.

Even at this late stage the result is difficult to call. One candidate said: “I really have no idea how I am doing. Academics are very unreliable when it comes to their voting intentions. They will promise to support you but you can’t be sure.’’

THE CONTENDERS

PATRICK PRENDERGAST Professor of Engineering, TCD

Prendergast, who stepped down as vice provost once the election began, is the long-time favourite for the post. Seen as the quintessential Trinity “insider”, he has held several key posts, including chief academic officer.

Prendergast, who is from Enniscorthy, Co Wexford, does not come from an academic family. His late father was a haulage contractor and his brother runs an art gallery in Dublin. Seen as very much in the mould of John Hegarty, the provost who steps down in July. Both are low-key, personable and immensely popular with colleagues.

Prendergast has the support of most senior academic figures across the college, reflecting his stature in College Green.

His campaign has been less colourful than some others; critics snipe that he “expects the apple to fall into his lap”. But he remains the clear favourite.

Prendergast is closely associated with the Hegarty era, which saw the implementation of widely unpopular changes at Trinity, but has sought to distance himself somewhat from the restructuring.

CAREER HIGHLIGHTS

Key figure in the research merger with UCD known as Innovation Alliance. As dean of graduate studies, he oversaw innovative changes to the structure of postgraduate programmes. A prolific scholar, Prendergast has written more than 160 papers, edited numerous books and journals, and picked up an assortment of awards throughout his career. He has been a visiting professor in Spain and Poland, and a founding member of the Trinity Centre for Bioengineering. He is closely associated with securing funding for Trinity’s Longitudinal Study of Ageing (TILDA).

PITCH

– Trinity represents Ireland on the world stage. It is not just another Irish university – it is the best and should be treated as such by policymakers.

– Differentiate Trinity from other Irish universities, possibly by breaking with the Irish Universities Association, which represents all seven Irish universities.

– Promote and defend academic freedom.

– Review student admission processes: the current Leaving Cert exam as a means of college entry needs to be changed, while Trinity should explore admission criteria beyond a CAO points-based mechanism.

– Significantly improve communications with the public.

– Restore a collegial decision-making process and ensure that Trinity schools have more say in their own futures.

MAIN BACKERS

Colm Ó Moráin, dean of health sciences; David Dickson, professor of history; and Hilary Biehler, barrister and professor of law; Prof Luke O’Neill of the School of Biochemistry and Immunology.

PROSPECTS OF SUCCESS

Prendergast is the clear frontrunner for the provost’s job. His odds have shortened significantly in the final weeks of the campaign. In the closing stages of the campaign, the job is his to lose.

CURRENT ODDS WITH PADDY POWER 8/11

COLM KEARNEY,  Professor of International, Business, TCD

Kearney has run the most vigorous campaign using Facebook and Twitter to spread the message. He has also placed ads in the student newspapers and generated a blog.

Critics say the campaign has been all style and little substance, and has already peaked. But the buzz around his candidacy has given his campaign real momentum. Has marketed himself as representing a “new Trinity’’ which is more modern, more open and more assertive. His message? Trinity needs to lead and not follow. Has tapped into concerns about restructuring, the new threats to academic freedom and the overall sense that the gap between Trinity and UCD has closed – with Belfield making more progress.

CAREER HIGHLIGHTS

Served as senior economic adviser to an Australian Labour government, and has also worked in universities in Canada and the UK. In TCD he has attracted significant philanthropic funds for the college, chaired several major conferences, and is widely published.

PITCH

– Support the principles of academic freedom and tenure, and ensure that academics have the autonomy to pursue their aspirations without interference from college administration.

– Diversify the college’s funding base, current system is unsustainable.

– Make promotion policies and procedures more equitable, transparent, and aligned with those in other leading universities.

– Review all non-core activities in response to short-term funding difficulties.

– Restore autonomy and authority for making academic decisions with heads of school.

– Greater outreach: work closely with the local community, other sectors and groups, research-intensive universities, international agencies and institutions of civil society.

MAIN BACKERS INCLUDE

Economist and media star Brian Lucey; Peter Humphries, professor of medical molecular genetics, and Cecily Begley, professor of nursing and midwifery.

PROSPECTS OF SUCCESS

After turning down the job of vice-provost, he may pick up support from staff concerned about the Hegarty era reforms. Will benefit from his strong opposition to new Higher Education Authority (HEA) controls on research. Currently second favourite for the job.

CURRENT ODDS 2/1

JANE OHLMEYER. Professor of Modern History, TCD

If elected, Ohlmeyer will be Trinity’s first female provost and the first female university leader in Ireland. Like Colm Kearney, she is battling against a recent tradition where university heads are drawn almost exclusively from the science/research area.

Hugely popular with students and with staff. Seen as a very approachable figure. After a slow start, her campaign has picked up real momentum in recent weeks – and appears to be still building.

CAREER HIGHLIGHTS

A historian with a strong international reputation, Ohlmeyer has published widely on a number of themes in early modern Irish and British history. Her work as leader of Trinity’s 1641 Depositions Project earned her respect and admiration.

Ohlmeyer was involved in TCD’s Creative Arts, Technology and Culture Initiative. She has a strong track record in securing humanities funding, securing over €20 million in the past five years.

PITCH

– Empower and renew Trinity community: promote a culture that is open and transparent in dealing with all college stakeholders.

– Defend academic freedom: support the principle of tenure.

– Reward academic excellence and prioritise the funding of promotions.

– Invest in students: decrease the staff/student ratio from 17:1 to at least 13:1, and renew the academic curriculum.

– Support students in financial difficulty.

– Increase the number of international students, and students from under-represented groups, on campus.

– Reinvigorate governance: move away from overly controlling models to forms of governance that are open, professional, transparent, and collegial.

– Improve communications with the media.

MAIN BACKERS

John O’Hagan, professor of economics; Jane Grimson, professor of health informatics and former vice-provost of TCD; and Margaret O’Mahony, professor of civil engineering.

PROSPECTS OF SUCCESS

Ohlmeyer has run an old-fashioned campaign, knocking on the doors of eligible voters seeking support – in line with a manifesto promise to increase face-to-face communication. Rated a rank outsider at the start of the campaign but will surprise with a good showing.

CURRENT ODDS 5/2

DES FITZGERALD Vice-president for research, UCD

Fitzgerald is the highest paid academic in the State, on a salary of €263,602. He will face a significant pay cut if he wins the race to be provost.

Headhunted by UCD from the Royal College of Surgeons, his appointment – and exceptional pay packet, then €409,000 – changed the rules of higher education recruitment in Ireland.

Critics say these huge salaries are inappropriate in an underfunded system. Supporters point out that he has more than tripled UCD’s research income.

Fitzgerald’s strong campaign is the main talking point of the election. His UCD background was thought to be a major disadvantage but his pitch – that TCD needs to raise its game – has made people sit up and take notice because of his stature.

CAREER HIGHLIGHTS

Like Prendergast, a key figure in UCD-TCD Innovation Alliance. Has been a major success in raising UCD’s performance in key research areas. A professor of molecular medicine, his research interests include vascular biology, with a particular focus on platelets and thrombosis. Fitzgerald has also founded two successful companies.

PITCH

– Central issue is autonomy, which is essential if the universities are to thrive.

– Universities must be free to attract top academics, free to choose their areas of teaching, scholarship and research, and free to invest in the development of the university. As a counterbalance, universities must beef up quality assurance.

– Reduce the number of undergraduate students, shift the balance to postgraduates, and attract a higher number of international students.

– Engage with the community and ensure that Trinity is the leading voice of intellectual leadership in Ireland and beyond.

– Overturn a cap on funding of researchers.

– Trinity should be seen as a “private” institution providing facilities to the State, negotiating for core State funding based on excellence in education and research.

MAIN BACKERS

Jane Farrar, professor of human molecular and medical genetics and director of a newly formed campus company Genable; barrister and law lecturer Brian Foley; Nicholas Grene, professor of English literature; and Kevin O’Rourke, professor of economics.

PROSPECTS OF SUCCESS

Fitzgerald has run an impressive, slick campaign with the assistance of Drury Communications, a high-profile PR company. His personal stature and reputation is having a huge impact on the debate. Set to benefit from current dispute between academics and the HEA over new “Stalinist” controls.

CURRENT ODDS 4/1

JOHN BOLAND, Director of the CRANN Nanoscience Institute at TCD

The rank outsider in the race, Boland has a lower profile than his competitors. Boland’s amenable manner, strong drive and success in the establishment of CRANN and the Science Gallery have made him popular among his colleagues. However, his late entry to the race has reduced his ability to make contact with the electorate.

CAREER HIGHLIGHTS

Boland is a founding member and director of the CRANN Nanoscience Institute, which quickly became one of the top five nanoscience institutes in the world. As director of CRANN, Boland was involved in the establishment of the Science Gallery.

PITCH

– Trinity needs to further develop its international reach and reputation, link in with its network of alumni and collaborators, and develop a philanthropic network.

– Rebuild the university’s relationship with government and the general public.

BACKERS

Prof David Grayson, head of the school of Chemistry. Philip Lane, professor of international economics; Shane O’Meara, professor of psychology, and Rose Anne Kenny, professor of geriatric medicine.

PROSPECT OF SUCCESS

Remote. The outsider in the race.

CURRENT ODDS 16/1