UCD has to appoint a new President after the previous incumbent left us prematurely to take up a position in Australia. This is a good moment to reflect on what one should look for in a university president in the early 21st century. In recent decades universities have been commercialised – they are now run like corporate companies, and managerial thinking and terminology pervade all its operations. We will need someone who is fully familiar with that world and speaks its language, yet more importantly, someone who is “multilingual” and understands that there is still much more to a university, someone with a vision and with at least some principles that are not negotiable. It would be nice if the new President agreed with Jonathan Grant who in his book The New Power University (2021) has described “pursuing the social good” as a new, third purpose of a university, which is to join the traditional functions of research and teaching.
University presidents should fight for space for blue-sky research at a time when grant applications seem to require one to already outline the outcome in detail before the research even starts. They should lead the fight for academic freedom (because no one else will), rather than trying to water it down in the interest of collaborations with institutions and regimes that don’t favour it – and just like freedom of speech in general, academic freedom is always measured by how positions inconvenient for the powers that be are engaged with. They should know that policies and regulations are important, yet that they alone can never be a sufficient response to any serious problem; changing a culture (not least by setting a personal example) is equally relevant. This is particularly obvious in relation to issues of equality, diversity and inclusion. Presidents need to care about the people on-campus – students and staff – just that bit more than about finances and rankings, and demonstrate their empathy in a credible way. They need to give staff the feeling that they are valued and students that they are much more than just cash cows. They need to make it clear that money is a means to an end yet not the end in itself – if it becomes the latter this would in fact mark the beginning of the end of UCD as a university. We don’t need someone who announces in weekly missives who has been awarded how much external funding yet who never announces what should really matter, namely what has been achieved with that money three or five years later. Presidents will have been active as academics in the (sometimes rather distant) past, so they should not behave as if they have forgotten virtually everything that relates to that world, such as being open to arguments and constructive critique (I have a fond memory of my student days when the President of my university in Germany – a theologian – still taught one course per year “on the side”, just to keep in touch with what’s happening on the ground). They should be interested in teaching as much as in research and care about its development in the post-Covid world. They need to understand that gaming the university rankings needs to be done nowadays, yet that ultimately this, too, is a means and never an end. They should operate on the basis that even in a world ruled by numbers not everything can be quantified.
All large institutions need technocrats who care about numbers, rankings and accounts, and UCD has lots of them. Yet someone who can’t think beyond that should never be in charge. Technocrats are indispensable and need to advise, yet not decide. We don’t just need to keep the train running, we need to decide where it should be heading – or we shall eventually fall off a cliff. I was once on an interview panel for a senior position in UCD and asked each candidate “Imagine you got the job, and your term is just over. What would you like to be remembered for?” One of them answered: “Increasing the number of Master’s students.” The mindset behind this statement is exactly what we don’t need. Of course, that number is important, but it’s not really a visionary outlook – it reveals in fact a distinctive lack of vision. Something like “making us a leader in this or that currently neglected field of research that I care about so that postgraduate students will want to come here to study it, academics will want to join us to contribute to it, and our findings will hopefully help to solve some urgent societal problems” would have been much better.
Maybe I’m naïve, and such a person doesn’t exist in today’s world anymore. The world would be poorer for it. In any case, UCD should aim high and keep looking for someone of that calibre when going through the process of appointing its next President.
Wolfgang Marx – Associate Professor, UCD School of Music. Elected member (non-professorial academic staff), UCD Governing Authority