Unconventional wisdom

 

THE EDUCATION PROFILE Ferdinand Von Prondzynski, DCU president:As well-known for his Facebook and Bebo profiles as for his renegade attitude towards the education hierarchy and his committed assaults on many of Ireland's sacred cows, DCU president Ferdinand Von Prondzynski is about as untypical a university head as it is possible to be

WHEN Ferdinand Von Prondzynski was appointed director of DCU in 2000, a fellow university head is said to have quipped that the "Red Baron has gone to Ballymun". Prondzynski gained a profile as a socialist while lecturing and researching labour law. But the man is, as you might expect, more complex than the moniker.

Prondzynski is not your everyday Irish university president. He has turned his face to the public, firing regular salvos over the heads of the IUA (the group representing university presidents), and in the direction of the media, the government, the legal profession and particularly the Department of Education and Science. Three years into his tenure, he accused the department of being unfit for the purpose of managing universities: "The management of the third-level sector is all over the place," he complained.

Since then, the "renegade" president has become well-known for his enthusiastic assaults on many of Ireland's sacred cows. He has derided the notion of academic tradition: "For me, if something becomes a tradition in this university, then it is time to abolish it."

He has scorned the legal profession, telling lawyers that they are too numerous and not sufficiently experienced to serve their clients. He has attacked the Irish grá for the professions in general, urging more students to forget about law and medicine and to take on creative private-sector jobs that will contribute to economic development.

The Red Baron tag doesn't sit easily with the Professor's pro-market approach. In the eight years since he took up the presidency of DCU, he has driven closer collaborations between the university and industry, has argued for the return of fees and has criticised the government for dampening competition in the higher education sector through poor management. A close former colleague described him as more Tony Blair than Arthur Scargill.

"He has a very good sense of himself and is a great communicator," said the colleague. "He certainly has that in common with Blair."

The common touch is something that Prondzynski works hard to cultivate. He is visible around DCU's campus, casually dressed and known as Ferdinand. Those who have worked with him are struck by his boundless energy. By day, he ranges the physical ground of campus, boards, judging panels and media interviews; by night he can be found pacing in cyberspace.

"Ferdinand is a late night e-mailer," says one DCU employee. "It's not unusual to get messages from him at two in the morning." The president's online graveyard shifts have caused him some trouble. "One night he wrote an e-mail slagging off a very senior DCU figure. He intended it for two people — he sent it to everyone," one academic reveals.

The internet is the perfect medium for Prondzynki. It's democratic, 24-hour and it reaches the widest possible audience. The man has no fear of exposure — his personal blog treats students and the public to regular updates on his moods and musings, personal and political. It's not uncommon for him to update his blog twice a day. Current entries cover his observations on public drinking in Ballymun, his views on Newcastle United, the return to fees debate and an apology for online social networking. He is a member of Bebo, Facebook and MySpace.

This thoroughly modern man was born in Germany, but moved with his family to Ireland as a child. He went to the Headfort School in Kells, Co Meath, and then on to Trinity College Dublin. He left Ireland for Cambridge to take his PhD. Prondzynski lectured in industrial relations at the School of Business Studies at Trinity College before being appointed Professor of Law and Dean of the School of Social Sciences at the University of Hull in England. In 2000 — the same year he took up the presidency at DCU — the published Employment Law in Ireland, a definitive work on the topic.

His work output is breathtaking. He co-edited an EU publication on the subject of equality law in the EU member states. He has also been a director of the British-American Business Council, of Irish e-learning company Smartforce, and has worked for Dresdner Bank and Cadbury Schweppes Ltd. He has been a member of the European Industrial Relations Observatory and was Director of the Conference of Heads of Irish Universities (now the IUA) for a decade. He is currently working on his fourth book, on the subject of law as a market commodity — his research interest continues unabated.

He has been criticised for his unwillingness to shed any of his many roles. "His academic specialism is labour law, but when he became president, he should really have let that go," says one senior education figure. "He has taken an active role in some of the industrial-relations tangles at DCU, putting himself in the line of vocal criticism from dissenters. He can't help but get involved."

Prondynski has no fear of getting his hands dirty, and has won the respect of fellow academics for taking on the fractious issue of the return of university fees. "It's a difficult message that he has been trying to get across in the media," says one former colleague. "He's trying to prevent the government from reintroducing fees as an alternative to direct funding. The minister is directly linking the two; the professor is working hard to separate these issues in the media."

It's a lonely road — colleagues admit that he may have alienated other stakeholders by turning his face to the media. However, Prondynski is unbowed. He has never shown much reverence for the educational hierarchy, belittling the Higher Education Authority for its shortcomings: "Under current arrangements, its [the HEA] capacity to take decisions and make a real difference is limited."

"He lives in a different world," says one education figure who has worked with him. "He doesn't speak the language of politicians. He's interested in new ideas, he's charming and well-spoken. But he's not ruthless. He's not cost-driven. He's not like other university presidents. Ferdinand is Ferdinand."

His background is especially notable. He describes it best himself on his blog. "The Prondzynski family (or rather, I should say Pradzynski) had its origins in the Kasubian region of Poland, and my father's branch of it eventually migrated to the Opole region of Silesia (or as my father would have called it, Oppeln). There, they developed a strong profile as landowners, soldiers and industrialists, in what became a Prussian or German province. In the second World War, my father was a German army officer, and at the end of the war he was unable to return home (which had become part of Poland), and re-started his life in what became West Germany. Later, he and the family moved to Ireland."

He is married to novelist, lecturer and occasional Irishwoman's Diarist Dr Heather Ingman and they have two sons. They spend plenty of time in Prondzynski's family home, a 1,400 acre estate outside Mullingar, called the Castle. In term time, the president lives on campus in protected structure called "An

Grianán".

He has worked hard to explode DCU's reputation as a boring campus, pushing the sports angle and directing big money to facilities and scholarships for athletes (Derval O'Rourke is a DCU graduate). DCU is well-known for its strengths in the areas of engineering and computing, and has led the way in innovation programme delivery with the establishment of Oscail, DCU's distance learning arm. The university has attracted considerable research funding, especially to its Biomedical Diagnostics Institute and National Institute for Cellular Biotechnology. Even as student numbers have fallen nationally, DCU has succeeding in boosting its numbers on Prondzynski's watch.

No matter what is said of his media onslaughts or late-night indiscretions, everyone who has worked with Von Prondzynski speaks of him warmly. The beard and jacket, the first-name terms, the weakness for Newcastle — none of these is regarded as an affectation. "It's quite possible to disagree profoundly with him, while still finding him perfectly affable," says one former collaborator. "He's not interested in getting involved in cartels, he likes to speak as an individual."

At least one person who has worked directly under him enjoyed the experience. "I'm very fond of Ferdinand. He's comfortable with who he is. There's a lot of appeal in that."

Blog matters: Von Prondzynski online

On university fundingJust this Monday the Minister suggested that the government has generously funded the sector, increasing its funding - he suggests - by a third in three years. It is difficult to know what to make of that statement ... the grant and fees paid by the government for students has been in decline for a number of years.

On social networkingAbout two or three years ago, at a meeting in DCU, a colleague came up with a rather breathless denunciation of the social networking site Bebo. Apparently at that time several universities - not DCU - were banning access. I went from the meeting to have a look, and shortly afterwards signed up for Bebo, Facebook and MySpace. And I shall ask someone to do a review of how we can use social networking in a pedagogical context.

On Newcastle UnitedThe problem with Newcastle has been that its board has not understood how to manage the business in a way that also supported good football. So for the past few years, Newcastle United has been run in the most alarmingly amateurish way at board level ... Like most Newcastle fans, I want Kevin Keegan (pictured) back quickly, preferably under a new owner. Gosh, wouldn't it be easier to be a fan of Manchester United! But not as exciting.