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A Day in the Life of UCD President Andrew Deeks

The below story follows the President of UCD on an average day in the office. It should be noted that due to the current COVID-19 restrictions and university shutdown, the President’s day is vastly different, with much of his work done online and from home.

8am, March 9th, 2020 – I’ll be honest, when UCD President Andrew Deeks agreed to let me spend a day with him, I didn’t expect it to begin with him and his daughter manically running towards me down the driveway of the University Lodge. The President’s house is tucked away in the corner of Belfield campus near the UCD Bowl, right around the corner from the Teresian School. Deeks’ five-year old daughter, Pearl, is running as fast as she can to the gate. Following a quick hello to me, she hops on her scooter and begins her speedy journey to school. With a hurried greeting from the President before he starts jogging after her, I decide to roll with it and keep up with the early morning antics. Welcome to a day in the life of the UCD President.

I’m not sure what I should have expected to happen when following around Andrew Deeks for a day, but I certainly didn’t expect so much jogging this early in the morning. After a tiresome 10-minute trip to drop Pearl to her Mandarin class before school, we slow it down and walk back on ourselves towards campus, chatting along the way.

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What strikes me first about the President is how chatty he is about UCD stuff. He is happy to talk about any issues or topics I put to him, even the tough ones. We stroll to the Tierney Building and walk up to his third-floor office, which is spacious and stylish with a smooth, grey carpet that makes you want to roll around in it. His view of the lake is one of the best on campus. He tells me that former UCD President Michael Tierney enjoyed looking out and seeing what was going on in Belfield.

We settle down at a table by the window and do a couple of general interviews on his personal life, career background and his interests outside of UCD. You can find these interviews and plenty of info on Deeks’ origins as a young aspiring Aussie cricketer at the end of this piece.

We sat and chatted for a while before his 9:30 meeting. The President tells me some stories from his time here since he arrived in 2014. When he first came into the role, he tells me that Estate Services had a plan to “round off the edges” of the main UCD lake to make it look more like the other Belfield lakes. Apparently Deeks swiftly benched that one over how unnecessary it would be in a time of austerity.

He explains that when he came into office in 2014, he arranged a SWOT analysis of all of UCD’s facilities. Following the 2008 financial crash, higher education institutions became chronically underfunded by the government. Deeks explains that when he arrived in UCD, “it was about survival and rebuilding what was lost during austerity.”

He also goes into detail about the University’s ambitious new five-year strategy, something the Tribune criticised earlier this year for being “equivocal and imprecise.” In response to these statements, the President explains that the University can’t release detailed plans publicly, as their competitor universities could see them. He remains proud of the strategy and seems confident it will vastly improve the future state of UCD.

Talking briefly on the members-only University Club that has become subject of vocal student opposition, Deeks says it’s better that the issue is personalised with him, so whenever he leaves UCD, everybody can move on and benefit from the facility. Following the repayment of the Club loan through corporate events and club membership, the University Club is expected to bring in significant income for UCD.

It’s now coming up to 9:30am, and the President will soon have his first of many meetings today. He meets with Aoife Ahern, the College Principal and Dean of Engineering. She is the link between the President and the heads of schools, academics and staff in her faculty. They meet regularly to discuss the progress of UCD’s new Centre for Creativity. The Schools of Architecture and Civil Engineering are to move into the planned state-of-the-art building near the main entrance to UCD. They discuss the progress of the project, with Ahern boasting that “engineering is planning to grow quite significantly in terms of numbers,” calling for extensive meetings the President, the Bursar, Director of Estates and other key players surrounding the new development.

Ahern says generally that her meetings with the President are her “opportunity to say to him: ‘This is what’s happening in the College.’ Or if there’s an issue coming up, and generally there’s never anything majorly serious. But just to give him an idea of where Heads of Schools concerns [lie].”

Next in the day, Deeks meets with Marie O’Connor, Chair of UCD’s Governing Authority (GA). They meet together in advance of GA meetings to arrange the agenda. The GA is currently made up of staff, students, councillors and other interested parties in Dublin. The group meet throughout the year and tend to make the larger decisions in UCD. In his meeting with O’Connor today, Deeks arranges the agenda for the next GA meeting (now due to happen on March 26th via Zoom video conferencing). They agree on the necessary documents to be circulated to members in order for them to come to the meetings as informed decision-makers. O’Connor says with regards to COVID-19, “it mightn’t have been on our agenda a couple of months ago, but it’s definitely pretty high on our agenda now.” O’Connor also highlights the importance that the GA acts as a collective within UCD, “no one person should have unfettered decision-making powers.” O’Connor has the chair for a 5-year period, to coincide with the term of the GA. The current GA, known as the “6th Governing Authority” was appointed last year and is the most gender diverse group to serve in UCD so far.

While I run to the gent’s toilets by the President’s office, I notice a distinct lack of student graffiti on the cubicle walls. The staff admit that they don’t see a lot of students up on the third floor of the Tierney Building.

At 12:30, Deeks is scheduled in for a bi-annual dialogue meeting between UCD and Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI). Padraig Walsh, QQI’s Chief Executive, explains to me that QQI is “responsible for external quality assurance and regulation of the post-secondary system in Ireland.” Today’s meeting is a chance for each party to voice concerns regarding quality assessment within the university. The meeting comes on foot of a recent Annual Institutional Quality Report (AIQR) which QQI sends to the University. They also discuss a recent “institutional level evaluation” conducted on UCD. These meetings are also used to confidentially flag anything QQI or UCD thinks should be addressed. The dialogue meeting is followed by a working lunch. The highlights include classic triangle sandwiches and a large arrangement of fresh fruit.

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Next in his busy schedule for the day, Deeks meets with UCD’s Bursar David Kelly at 2:30. Kelly is the money guy in UCD, keeping tabs on the financials of the University. He meets with the President in a one-to-one meeting once a week. In today’s meeting, they discuss cash flow, capital projects, annual budgets, variances in income and expenditure and other smaller financial items. The University works with usually around €600m in income and €600m in expenditure each year, which means the Bursar and the President must plan long term for the annual and capital budgets. Within the meeting, Deeks and Kelly bounce back and forth financial issues brought to them by heads of schools and colleges, updating each other on how best to bring them to committee level. They also discuss some upcoming maintenance plans. During the summer, the concrete on the James Joyce Library and the Agricultural Science Building will be cleaned up, a project that the President has wanted done for some time. Kelly summarises his role, saying: “It’s basically trying to get the best value of the moneys we have and trying to deal with that.”

The President now has a short gap before his COVID-19 meeting at 3:30. He offers to show me around the University Club and grab a coffee. Having wanted to try the hot chocolate in the Club for a good while, I swiftly accept.

As we stroll over to the Club, we speak about the urban myth regarding UCD’s alleged “riot-proof” design with specialised steps and a lack of a central area to congregate. Deeks isn’t really sure about any truth to the story. When we walk into the Club, something peculiar and unexpected happens. Every staff member we meet warmly greets the President with genuine happiness. As a contentious figure amongst the student body, this experience is rather bizarre. Perhaps he is “seen as progressive by staff” and “holds a good reputation,” according to Niamh Horan of the Irish Independent.

Deeks kindly buys me a hot chocolate while he grabs a coffee, putting them both on an account which he pays back later. He shows me around the café, with its calm atmosphere and jazz playing in the background. Very fancy indeed. We move on to the restaurant, the bar and the Club’s many corporate conference rooms. Renting these rooms to corporates brings in a steady stream of income to the university. Deeks mentions PaddyPower as a frequent visitor to the conference rooms. We can’t stay for long, as the President has to get back for his urgent COVID-19 meeting.

While walking back, Deeks mentions he would probably vote for Biden over Sanders in the Democratic Primaries in the U.S. He says this is not due to politics, but because he met Biden once and likes him personally. When passing Ardmore House, currently under a €7.5m refurbishment project, Deeks says that it’s been delayed by a couple of months and is now scheduled to be completed in May. UCD’s Human Resources will then move from Roebuck back to the third floor of the Tierney Building, allowing for the President and his staff to move back to Ardmore house this coming summer.

Talking about how much leave he gets each year, Deeks says he gets five weeks off, usually taking a month during the summer but never while Deputy President Mark Rogers takes his month of holidays. They duo aim to leave at least one in charge of things at UCD.

The President now heads into a short-notice COVID-19 meeting. The meeting is confidential, but the general purpose is to prepare for a larger meeting at the end of the week (This meeting was eventually brought forward to Thursday at 12pm with very little notice following Taoiseach Varadkar’s decision to close all schools and universities until at least March 29th).

The President next meets with Nicole Black, the Director of Alumni Development and Alumni Relations Office, and the CEO of Conferences and Events at UCD. She works to garner the engagement of 300,000 UCD alumni around the world and with fundraising with alumni too. Black also looks after events at O’Reilly Hall, the University Club and large corporate bookings around campus. In the meeting they discuss contingency plans for Alumni events and activities amidst the looming threat of COVID-19 in Ireland. They also consider the potential effects on UCD alumni from the virus, and how to mitigate this as much as possible. They move on to examine plans for the UCD Festival in June which Black organises with her team at Alumni Relations. One of UCD’s biggest events of the year is sponsored largely by corporations, they also discuss the budgetary impact should a sponsor pull out. The President and the Director additionally discuss arrangements to begin paying back large amounts of the University Club loan by the end of this year.

Black says to me: “To be honest, I found the President has been incredibly supportive of everything we have done. Particularly with the alumni engagement and growing that as much as possible. So, we’ve never been in a situation where we weren’t on the same page.”

Following the President’s last meeting of the day we take a few photos in his office before starting off for the Teresian School to pick up Pearl. On the way, I figure this is my last chance to ask absolutely anything to the UCD President. So naturally, we talk about UCD myths. I ask him what he knows of the affectionately nicknamed “Old Man Belfield”, the rough looking man who has roamed about campus for years, receiving free food from the University. Deeks unfortunately doesn’t know the original story. I guess he’ll remain a mystery for now.

I also ask him about what’s down in the mysterious and extensive tunnel network beneath UCD. He suggested that the Polish architect who designed them probably came from a cold and snowy background, leading to the deep and extensive heating system and maintenance tunnels built beneath the surface.

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We arrive at Pearl’s school once again. While Deeks is signing her out, we play some peek-a-boo back and forth to amuse ourselves. Once I hand her the scooter, she whizzes away, leaving Deeks and I to catch up. Sometimes when Pearl gets tired, her Dad will pull her along on the scooter with a pink strap, not a bad deal for Pearl! Today she has plenty of energy and has us fools running after her all the way home.

I leave them at the gate of the University lodge at about half past five. Deeks, Pearl and his wife Linda have duck for dinner before the President packs his bags for an evening flight. At 7:50 he flies from Dublin to Birmingham with Ryanair. The President is to sit on a Universitas 21 interview panel and return to Dublin on Thursday.

And with that, my day with the President was over. It was certainly a surreal experience, being granted such intimate access to his daily life. It definitely shed light on who the man is and what he does all day. From what I’ve been told, it’s a fairly representative day for him.

Deeks said something to me earlier in the day, and I think I’ll leave you with that quote. There is definitely a strong perception amongst politically engaged UCD students that Deeks is the university villain, yet on closer inspection, although criticisms can be made on Deeks’ spending decisions, it’s evident that he’s a person just like the rest of us, and he’s trying to ensure the future growth and financial stability of UCD. Whether he does a good job of that is up to you…

I asked Deeks what his favourite part about UCD is. He responded: “The students, staff and faculty are fantastic. When you look at the talent that’s in the student body, when I hear the choral scholars or the Ad Astra musicians playing and see some of the accomplishments […] and see the great range of talents – not just the academic talents – but the broad talents that the student population [have] is just fantastic. Certainly, the people here, they’re willing to work hard, they’re willing to try new things, they’re willing to get engaged. Generally, it’s the people that make the university, and the people are fantastic.”


BONUS INTERVIEWS

Andrew’s Favourites: What’s your favourite…

Film: The Blues Brothers (original)

TV Show: Documentaries (Particularly Historical or Future-Looking Documentaries)

Food: The University Club Burger (Ground Beef, Smoked Cheddar, Smoked Bacon

Pickles and Fries – €16)

Drink: Whiskey (Irish, Bourbon or Scotch)

Meal to Cook: Christmas Dinner with all the trimmings

Band/Musical Artist: ACDC, Pink Floyd, Midnight Oil, Bon Jovi

Song: Imagine – John Lennon

Place: Durham, England

Dream Destination: Egypt to see the Pyramids

Sport: Cricket and Rugby League

Team to Support: Cricket – Australia, Rugby League – Manly Warringah Sea Eagles

Book: ‘Swallows and Amazons’ by Arthur Ransome

Hobby: Car Restoration

Way to Relax: Play Guitar, read a book, watch the news. 

Place to go in UCD: Belfield’s Woodland Walk


From Suburban Aussie Cricketer to UCD President

Andrew Deeks grew up in Perth, Western Australia during the early to late 1970s. According to Deeks, growing up in Perth, at the time Western Australia was a “long, long way from the rest of Australia. It had its own supermarkets, its own football league, its own TV stations; it was very much self-contained. […] It was a nice place to grow up, there was a lot of freedom. As kids you could go out and just find other kids to play with down at the local oval. At that time cricket was very big.” He grew up playing rugby league and cricket, “trying to emulate Dennis Lillee who was a famous Australian fast-bowler. I was pretty good but not good enough to be a professional.”

Recalling his childhood years, Deeks says “it was a good childhood. We weren’t pushed to go to grind schools or anything like that. We got to play a lot so that was good.”

Fast forward a few years, Deeks went to university in 1981 in Australia to study engineering. After he graduated, he worked for a couple of years in the industry. He found that “industry work tended to be a little bit repetitive and a little bit boring, which brought me back to the university where I undertook a Masters degree.” He enjoyed tutoring and researching which he felt had “more of an impact on people’s lives.” Although he tutored the same content each year, Deeks admitted that “each cohort of students is different. There are different personalities and that keeps it interesting.”

Deeks went on to work up through the academic ranks, explaining that “once you get to a certain level, then people say “Ah, we need someone to be the next head of school.” And so, I agreed to do a term as head of school.” When he came towards the end of a five-year term as head of the school of engineering, a collaborator at Durham University sent Deeks an email. The subject line of the email said, “Would you like a job at Durham?” The colleague attached the advertisement for the Provost Chancellor role in Durham. Deeks says he “applied and the rest as they say, ‘is history.’”

He went to Durham in 2009 and worked as Pro-Vice Chancellor for Science. Deeks worked there for four and a half years and said he “had a nice time there” recalling it as his favourite place to visit. He met his wife Linda when they were both working at Durham University.

While at Durham, he was given the opportunity to attend the Top Management Programme (TMP) which is a training programme for prospective presidents and vice-chancellors that’s run across the UK. The President recalls: “As a result of engaging in that, I felt that probably I had the necessary skillset to go to the next stage. Then the head-hunters came calling about the role here in UCD. Initially I was very sceptical, particularly when I looked at the history of the university and saw how integral UCD had been in the formation of the Irish State […] And every president since John Henry Newman had been an Irishman. So, I said to the head-hunters: “Are you sure you’re talking to the right person here? Are they going to look any further than Irish?” The head-hunter assured me “No, no, they’re absolutely open for it”.”

After a rigorous selection process, the final stage of which was a full day of interviews and engagement with stakeholder groups, Deeks was selected to be the next UCD President. He said, “it was a very intense process, but I was fortunate at the end of it to be appointed.”

His daughter Pearl was born in December 2014, not long after Deeks and his wife moved to Dublin, “She certainly keeps us busy! She’s a lively one.” Pearl is now five years old and attends The Teresian School, right around the corner from the University Lodge.

Deeks currently serves as President of UCD, with his 10-year fixed term due to finish in 2024. 

 

 

Conor Capplis – Editor 

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