Thoughts on life, learning and good leadership

 

EducationRoger Downer retired last year as president of the University of Limerick (UL) on health grounds.

In a vivid and deeply moving section of this book - a memoir of his period as president - he writes how the doctor broke the news that he had cancer to a fit, active, relatively young man.

The news came as quite a shock. "You have a type of cancer known as follicular lymphoma. It is widespread and not curable, however it is treatable." Later, Downer - who is 64 - writes about being impatient to begin the aggressive chemotherapy. "I cannot wait to get started and begin the process of shrinking those tumours and waging wars on those mutant cells."

This book is much more, however, than an account of his illness and his battle with it.

It ranges across Downer's eight years as president by reproducing his major speeches during that time. The approach is fraught with risk. In written form, a speech can often lack the colour and the change of tone that bring it to life in actual delivery. But surprisingly the format works well. Downer has compiled a highly readable account of his UL years and one that provides some insight into the recent transformation in third-level education in the Republic.

It helps that he writes with style, confidence and a great sense of mischief. Every speech is enlivened by a decent anecdote from his childhood years in Belfast or his 33 years of exile from Ireland in universities in North America and Asia.

This extract from an address to engineering graduates in 2001 is typical:

When I graduated from university over 30 years ago, chips were what I ate with fish, a megabyte was what I did to eat them and windows were what I cleaned to earn the pocket money to buy them.

Or this from a presentation marking the opening of an exhibition at the Ormeau Baths Gallery in Belfast:

It is about 50 years since I first stood in Ormeau Baths as a nervous shivering young person who was, quite literally, out of his depth. Now, half a century later, I stand as a nervous, shivering mature person, out of his depth in the pool of artistic cognoscenti present today.

DOWNER CLEARLY FELT at home in Limerick, a city in which "hard work and honest endeavour are valued more than prissified, foppish pretension'" as he points out in conferring an honorary degree to Munster rugby player Keith Wood. Downer is chairman of Munster rugby and his regard for the life-affirming force of sporting involvement is a feature of his book.

He also tracks the dramatic turnaround in the Government's approach to the third-level sector. Early on, he laments budgetary cutbacks and reminds graduates to remember the "sackcloth and ashes brigade at UL" when working in high-flown positions at home and abroad.

Later, he celebrates the growing realisation in government of how "universities are to the new economy what oil wells were to previous economies - a source of fuel that drives the new economic revolution".

Downer is also very good on the qualities of good leaders. He has provocative and striking views on the appalling state of the transport infrastructure, the overly competitive nature of the Leaving Certificate, and on the need to respond to change.

He regards his beloved UL as the "best kept secret" in third-level education. This book is clearly an attempt to record between two covers the huge strides - physical, managerial and academic - that have been achieved at the campus.

The hope must be that other university presidents - such as Hugh Brady of UCD or Gerry Wrixon, late of UCC - will also write their first-hand account of a turbulent period in Irish higher education. Downer's book may not be a definitive analysis of the seismic changes in the field, but it is readable, entertaining and thought-provoking.

Seán Flynn is Education Editor of The Irish Times

Reflections from the ShannonBy Roger Downer Wordwell, 196pp. €35