University of Limerick head resigns over personal Covid-19 health concerns

UL president Dr Des Fitzgerald admits virus will curtail his interactions with students

 Des  Fitzgerald who will step down as president of the University of Limerick. Photograph: Alan Place

Des Fitzgerald who will step down as president of the University of Limerick. Photograph: Alan Place


University of Limerick president Dr Des Fitzgerald is to step down from the role after just three years in charge because of personal health concerns related to Covid-19.

A source within the university said the 67-year-old former heart surgeon was advised that the duties of being president, including meeting large groups of people, was “not the sensible thing to do” and he risked serious illness if he contracted the virus.

A statement from the university said he had taken the decision to resign “in the context of Covid 19”.

In a letter to UL chancellor, the former minister for health Mary Harney, Dr Fitzgerald said Covid-19 “will directly impact my ability to serve the university and limit my ability to fully engage once we get our community back onto the campus”.

Dr Fitzgerald was appointed as UL president in late 2016 and commenced his term of office in early 2017. Prior to his appointment, he was vice president for research and vice-president for Health Affairs at UCD.

Dr Fitzgerald warned that the Covid-19 crisis would shape the future of the university sector for the next decade and beyond: “Covid 19 will force universities across the world to re-examine both their business and academic models. Significant changes and investment will be required to support the sector.

“We also agreed an ambitious strategic plan for the university which in the context of Covid-19 will require some further review, but which remains an important vision of what UL can become in the years ahead.

“I am particularly proud of UL’s response to the Covid-19 crisis, in recognising its gravity early, in rapidly and successfully moving online and in contributing to the fight against the pandemic in our community.

“The university’s management showed great foresight in moving quickly and the academic and support staff have shown great skill in bringing a difficult year for them and our students to a successful end.”

He said it was vital that the new government protected the university sector in Ireland as it would play a crucial role in the economy’s recovery.

Meanwhile, the university’s governing body has recommended that students living in campus accommodation should be refunded because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Thousands of students had to leave their accommodation in March and have not been able to return to the university since. There are almost 3,000 beds in on-campus facilities. However, they have been required to pay full fees for their time at the university’s accommodation even while not living there.

The university was only one of the seven in the State that did not issue pro-rata refunds to students who vacated their student accommodation. Students normally pay up front for accommodation.

A subsidiary company - Plassey Campus Centre (PCC) - manages on campus accommodation.

Speaking in the Dáil last month, Minister for Education Joe McHugh said ULhad a “moral duty or obligation to refund those students who are not in their private rental accommodation today, who were not there last week or the week before and who will not be there next week. There is a duty to look at some form of pro-rata reimbursement.”

Independent Clare TD Michael McNamara, who raised the subject in the Dáil, said he welcomed the decision and that he would continue to maintain pressure on privately owned student accommodation providers to offer refunds to students in light of the closure of third level institutes in mid-March.

“When universities and colleges began giving lectures and tutorials remotely, it became clear that students who could do so would leave student accommodation to return home to their families,” he said.

“I contacted UL in early April and was advised that the matter of refunds to student residents was at that time under serious review by the UL governing authority. Today’s decision by the governing body will come as a welcome relief to students and their parents.”