Retirement celebration of Dr John Hegarty, Provost 2001-2011

Senior Common Room
Trinity College Dublin
28 February 2012

John Hegarty, on behalf of Trinity College, I'd like to pay tribute to you and thank you for your service to this university. We're here to recognise your outstanding academic career, and in particular the last ten years when you served with such distinction as Provost. You have left an important legacy, which it's my pleasure to talk about this evening.

But allow me first to welcome everyone here tonight and in particular Neasa, Ciaran, Cillian, and your friends and relatives, some of whom, I believe, have travelled from Kerry and Mayo.

When we speak of your legacy, we acknowledge Neasa's part in it. Whenever I'd meet both of you together, or when I'd visit the Provost's House, I always came away struck by what a wonderful team you made. I know how important her support was for the success of the provostship.

I've begun on a personal note - and I hope this audience won't mind me speaking personally, taking into consideration how long you and I have known each other - so before I proceed may I just say what a pleasure it was to serve as your Vice-Provost. Thanks for the confidence you placed in me. I still remember your phone call offering me the position. I was in Toronto and it was 3am in the morning - but I'm very glad I took the call!

Serving as Vice-Provost prepared me for the even greater honour of succeeding you as Provost. It also gave me valuable insight into your priorities and your way of doing things.

So when I speak today of your legacy and achievement, I'm not merely tabulating successes from your CV. I speak as one who had the privilege of working closely with you and one who was fortunate enough to participate in some of the great initiatives you brought about for this college.

Looking around us today, we can all see the architectural legacy of your provostship: the Lloyd Institute, the Naughton Institute, the Sports Centre, the Long Room Hub, the Trinity Biomedical Sciences Institute, the Science Gallery, and not forgetting TRIARC, which was, of course, imaginatively converted from the old stables of the Provost's House.

I must also add that my family and I very much appreciate the work which you and Neasa did in the Provost's House. Much time and thought was put into it - the work was sensitively carried out, as it had to be in such a historic house. From me, and my children, a very big thanks.

Collectively, your building projects represent a truly optimistic start for the 21st century! These buildings serve science, the arts, humanities, and sport, and have increased the accessibility of the College to the general public. You continued the great work - going back to Provosts Mitchell, Watts, Lyons, and McConnell, and beyond - of creating an infrastructure for the College to meet the challenges faced by each succeeding generation.

You listened to those critics who complained that Trinity had locked up its frontage on Pearse Street and turned it away from public access. The new gateway under the Naughton Institute, and especially the wonderful Science Gallery, have totally regenerated this corner of the city.

I know that you, like me, believe in continuity with our great past and traditions, and in constantly enhancing Trinity's legacy. I sincerely congratulate you on your success here.

A university is, of course, more than the sum of its buildings. It is the sum of its research, the sum of its people, the sum of its importance to, and connectivity with, wider world.

As Provost, you concentrated on research and interdisciplinarity, on forging partnerships with industry and creative leaders, and on creating alliances with other third level institutions. You focused on new hires and on organizing people so that they could work to the best of their ability. Your impetus has always been to make this university a top ranking one, and you have been consistent in your advocacy of the scholar-teacher approach as the model for third level education.

You came to the position of Provost from a most distinguished background of research and teaching. Your undergraduate and doctoral success brought you from Maynooth and Galway to the University of Wisconsin and from there to Bell Labs in New Jersey where you worked six years as a research scientist. Your work in fibre-optic communications, while at Bell Labs, set a world record in transmission speed over a single fibre. It was called one of the most innovative developments for that year, 1984, and it was cited by Time Magazine in 1995 as a milestone in the development of the information age.

In 1986 you returned to Ireland to take up your first post in Trinity - as Professor of Laser Physics. Two years later you founded Optronics Ireland, a ground-breaking research partnership between Irish universities and industry, which led to many patents and spin-out companies. A Trinity spin-out in 2001 was Eblana Photonics Ltd, which you co-founded.

You have thus been at the forefront of the drive to commercialise cutting-edge research. But you did not fall into the trap of believing that economic success is the only valid goal and direction for all research.

If I may quote from an address you gave to the Irish University Association Conference on the Humanities and Social Sciences in 2006, you said: “We must not forget that the sciences are as equally part of our culture as arts and the humanities, and should not be viewed in terms of their practical applications only, even if those applications are of central importance”.

Indeed, at a crucial time when over-emphasis on commercial viability was threatening certain disciplines, you were a champion for Trinity multidisciplinarity. You memorably listed the demands on universities as (I quote): “To help sustain a vibrant economy, find answers to pressing social questions, and develop a civil and wise society’’.

“All disciplines are needed in this endeavour,” you went on to say, “Arts, humanities and social sciences are the heart and soul of any civilisation. They enable us to make connections to the past and to other cultures, to appreciate the development of human thought and ideas, to cultivate creativity and the imagination, and to promote inclusion and justice”.

This had great impact, especially coming from a well-known scientist.

As an engineer, who, like you, is certain about the value of all disciplines, may I assure you that I will continue to uphold this core principle.

As Dean of Research from 1995 to 2000, you brought in more than IR£50 million in research funding from the Higher Education Authority. Emphasis on research was a hallmark of your provostship - and forms an important part of your legacy.

I know that you consider one of your major achievements to be our greatly increased citation rates for published research. Your pride in this shows the priorities of making Trinity a top-ranking university, and about our core commitment to cutting-edge, globally competitive research. Trinity is now in the top 1% in fifteen areas and in the top ten universities worldwide for Molecular Biology and Genetics, Materials Science, and Immunology.

Your prioritising and vision for Trinity also led you to take on the responsibility, not always easy, of restructuring and re-organising the College in order to make it run more smoothly and efficiently. You created two new important posts - the Dean of Students and the Community Liaison Officer. They are doing vital work, both extending the College's reach and deepening our focus.

Your own research drew on, and benefitted from, interdisciplinarity and connectivity generally, so it was no surprise to see you emphasising the importance of this as Provost. Your inclusive approach helped bring about the TCD-UCD Innovation Alliance and Academy, and Trinity Health Ireland with Tallaght and St James Hospitals. Such important inter-institutional collaboration, focussing on the greater good, is something that I - and I hope future incumbents of this office - will want to build upon.

And in my first six months as Provost two events have stood out: the launches of The Lir National Academy of Dramatic Art and of the Centre for Music Composition. These were occasions of optimism and dynamism, not only for the university but for the whole city and for Irish society generally. These centres will turn Trinity's stated aim of “fostering artistic creativity” into a reality - to the great benefit of all. These initiatives will begin to bear fruit, in terms of creative projects and people, in a few years. But let no-one forget that the groundwork was laid during your time.

Something I am beginning to understand is that taking on the responsibility of the Provostship means a shift, not necessarily in the amount of work one does - although it does increase, don't get me wrong! - but in the nature of the work. A Provost must live in the public eye, speak for the College as an institution, and representing it with confidence never accepting complacency - as one of Ireland's great institutions. That's a significant responsibility and of course, like all public offices, it becomes more difficult when the country is in crisis.

You enjoyed a fascinating provostship - you came to office during the boom years, and had the pleasure of seeing the work and vision of this great university rewarded as Trinity shot up the ranks, but towards the end of your tenure you had the sorrow of seeing us slip down the rankings - as indeed has unfortunately happened to most institutions and enterprises in this country during the current climate of austerity and insecurity. This has been a great shock, especially, coming as it did, after a period of growth and optimism. But in your public pronouncements and actions, both during boom and crisis, you remained calm - steely calm even - consistent, and unvarying in your message of what a university's role should be.

You remembered always the pleasure and honour of the Office of Provost, and bore it with dignity. You provided strength and leadership for the whole College, and indeed for the whole sector. In Trinity we are strong, we are the country's leading university, and we remain confident in our ability to play for Ireland on the world stage. 

‘In dreams’, as the poet said, ‘begin responsibilities’. I think what this means - or what it might mean - is that once you have a great dream or vision, then you have the responsibility to see it through, even when the burden - the bitterness even - of that responsibility becomes all too evident during one's waking hours. And we're certainly in those hours now! In Ireland our eyes have been opened wide.

And we can see the precariousness of our current world position. All the more important then, that we don’t lose sight of those things about which it is still possible - or rather about which it is still essential - to dream. True Leadership involves both dreaming the dream and shouldering the responsibility.

Or, if I may quote Michael Hartnett - because he's a particular favourite of mine and because I know that you and Neasa had a warm personal connection to him: “Though many live by logic, no man dies for it… what we die for are our dreams”. A testament of your true leadership John is maybe that you made visionary dreams seem perfectly logical.

So I thank you, John, on behalf of our College community, for growing and expanding this university, and for articulating a strong, visionary message which is helping steer us through the difficult times. And I thank you, personally, for the faith you placed in me and for providing an example of leadership to emulate.

Now as a tribute to John Hegarty's time as 43rd Provost I have two paintings to present.

The first is the formal College portrait of John which was painted by Conor Walton, a renowned Irish artist. I'm delighted to see Conor here tonight. Trinity has an incredible collection of portraits of College personae through the centuries, painted by artists from Thomas Gainsborough to James Barry. I would like to congratulate Conor on capturing John's stature as both the 43rd Provost of Trinity as well as an esteemed scientist.

The second painting is for John, Neasa, Ciaran and Cillian to take home with them. This painting is by Irish artist, Laura Fitzgerald. It's what's known as a memory landscape. After Laura spent time with each member of the family, she created a collection of vignettes reflecting their collective memories of life in the 18th century Provost's House which was their much loved home for over a decade. The concept of this painting was presented to the Hegartys in virtual format by Dr Claire Laudet last summer on behalf of all the academic and administrative officers who worked with John. It is my pleasure now to present the completed work to the Hegartys.

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