'Trinity College in the Second Decade of the 21st Century'
Address to the TCD London Dining Club
The Savile Club, London
24 May 2012
Looking back on the history of the TCD London Dining Club, I see that many remarkable people have addressed it over the years, and on colourful themes –
- Conor Cruise O'Brien, when editor of the Observer in 1981, gave a talk on “the three great men that Trinity contributed to London life – Jonathan Swift, Oliver Goldsmith, and Edmund Burke” – (one rather suspects that the Cruiser was inviting suggestions that he was the fourth such man, and why not?);
- In 1992 Brendan Kennelly gave a talk entitled ‘Trinity – an Occasion of Sin’;
- And Professor John Kelly spoke about W.B. Yeats’ fraught relationship with Trinity. You do know he applied for a chair of English Literature, but his letter of application had so many spelling mistakes, his application was rejected!
- What the late great R.B. McDowell spoke of, on the many occasions he addressed the Club, history does not record because he always spoke without notes, but we have it on authority that “he never failed to have the audience hanging on every word, rather like waiting for a Nicklaus putt to drop to win the Open.”1
Faced with these colourful figures and their colourful speeches, I rather feel I should be talking tonight about, say, the Trinity computer science student, and hacker, who the FBI has claimed is one of the five most wanted hackers in the world. That would certainly be colourful!
But I note one difference between me and the speakers I've just mentioned – they were not the newly elected Provost. In my current capacity I think there's really only one thing you want to hear from me, and only one thing that I want to talk about, and that's Trinity College and the direction it's taking in the second decade of the 21st Century.
It's an absolute pleasure to be addressing people who I know feel the same as I do about Trinity. You have proved, by your involvement in this Club and indeed through your fund-raising, the place that your alma mater holds in your lives and in your affections.
We are all, in this room, proud of what Trinity College has done over the generations and we want to see it excel further. How can we achieve this?
Before I look at our ‘grand designs’ for the future, I should start, I guess, by introducing myself.
I'm an engineer - BAI 1987 - from Wexford, from a small place called Oulart, known mainly to historians of the 1798 rebellion. My father was a haulage contractor and my mother a nurse at St Loman's Hospital Dublin until she married my father in 1965.
I've spent most of my career at Trinity, except for two periods working abroad, doing post-doctoral work in Bologna and the University of Nijmegan in the Netherlands. I've also held visiting professorships in Warsaw, Delft, and Barcelona.
My own research, since the late 1980s, has been in the area of medical devices. This has been most rewarding, not only because Trinity is at the forefront of next generation medical device research and such industries are the key to the economic recovery of Ireland, but also because this research is interdisciplinary, combining the strengths of engineering and medicine.
Interdisciplinarity is one of the key strengths and characteristics of the unique education which Trinity offers. I know there are those here who graduated decades ago and I think you would agree that your education was broad and wide-ranging, but in recent years the emphasis on interdisciplinarity has been deepened and formalised across all Schools. To give you three concrete examples:
- Neuroscience, bringing together medicine and psychology, physics and engineering, to better understand the brain, how it works and how to fix it when it doesn't;.
- Digital Humanities, a new and dynamic interdisciplinary field of study at the intersections of the humanities and computer science opening up possibilities for research and collaboration that could only have been dreamed about a generation ago, and opening up the treasures of Trinity's Library to the world;
- Nanotechnology, groundbreaking research on the scale of the atom which has the potential of enabling revolutionary development in both the information and communication technology and health care sectors.
These are three very exciting recent developments. Just over a year ago I put myself forward as Provost – having served as Vice-Provost & Chief Academic Officer. I put myself forward because I was excited about some of the great changes I saw in the College which pointed to what Trinity could achieve. I was also apprehensive about potentially less desirable outcomes.
These are difficult times in Ireland - but also times of potential radical change. People are often more inclined to take risks during crises because they've invested less in the status quo.
I don't have time tonight to look at all the challenges, dangers, and opportunities facing us, but let's look at a few.
The main challenge, it will come as no surprise for you to hear, is the financing issue.
Funding from the state is reducing year on year and Ireland's spend per student is now below the OECD average – as is our proportion of funding from private sources given that the government pays the undergraduate tuition fee – for everyone regardless of parental income.
The situation is, of course, related to the economic downturn, and to the current emphasis on austerity. Monsieur Hollande's election last month may change this thinking but for the moment it really is like ‘death by a thousand cuts’.
But, in Ireland, resistance to the idea of spending money on universities goes deeper than the immediate crisis.
Even at the height of the boom, the total spend on a student in an Irish university was below the EU average. The ratio of expenditure from private means declined from 30 percent in 1995 to just 15 percent in 2007. I think we are the only OECD country to decrease private contributions during the years of global expansion.
Investments made through private fees and public funds in many countries are currently greatly outpacing us, with, I'm afraid, predictable results: all Irish universities are falling down in the rankings. As a country we need to rethink the way we fund third level as a matter of urgency. In Trinity we need to switch back to what was perhaps an older mentality of relying on our own resources primarily to provide the distinctive Trinity education and research environment.
This funding crisis is particularly frustrating because we are in what I genuinely believe is a golden age of opportunity for universities.
The biggest change in university life since I was an undergraduate in the 1980s - and probably since many of you were students, is this emphasis on Innovation. Even fifteen years ago the term was hardly used.
This focus on entrepreneurship, and exploiting the economic and societal uses for research, promotes a wonderful sense of engagement, excitement, and responsibility - for staff and for students at all levels.
Our campus spin-outs range from Trimod Therapeutics, which is based on ground-breaking cancer immunology technology, to Havok which develops physics simulation software for computer games and films, and was sold to Intel for 110 million dollars in 2007. There are many more – 10 in the last calendar year.
But innovation goes beyond campus companies to education itself: our emphasis on critical-thinking, problem-solving, deep immersion in the subject, and learning leadership skills through the activities of our clubs and socities. This is what creates innovators.
We seek to educate for a life of active citizenship, rather than for the ‘first job’ necessarily, and innovation – finding solutions that society needs – is essential.
So on one hand we have this Golden Age of universities globally, with the world's leading universities literally being household names – and on the other hand, in Ireland, we have universities in this funding crisis.
There are all kinds of analogies I could make for this situation, and I could get very colourful. I could say that money is the oxygen or the rain without which we cannot breathe or grow, no matter how remarkable we are in all other aspects.
But I'll just say that we have to do something, and rapidly, especially because the competition is global; many Asian countries are now pouring money into their universities with electrifying results.
There are different ways to raise new revenue. Successful commercial activities using the College's assets of course provide a potentially great return.
Philanthropy is also an important arm – and I want to take this opportunity to thank this Dining Club on behalf of Trinity College. We do not forget – indeed, as you know, we have memorialised on a College plaque – your wonderful fund-raising drives, which saw substantial funds raised for Trinity's quatrecentenary in 1992, and an equally impressive amount contributed to the Trinity Access Programmes for disadvantaged students in 2000.
It is nothing short of remarkable that one Dining Club – even in such a flourishing city as London – can rise to such levels. I would say that we're in your debt but I don't think ‘debt’ is a suitable word between family members and certainly you, our active alumni, are part of the Trinity family.
Alumni networks are key to the success of the contemporary university.
American Ivy League colleges have led the way in this regard, and I am delighted to see Trinity alumni rise so enthusiastically to the challenge. I am also happy that the perception that one can only help one's alma mater by, say, endowing a building, is being temporised into something more realistic and sustainable – the ‘Obama model’ of fund-raising where giving is on the basis that every little helps; in fact, future generations are relying on it. Bequests are also a great means of helping Trinity.
These are great developments. However alumni philanthropy is of course only one part of raising revenue, and it should certainly not be required to carry the burden. Ultimately, we need to rebalance the mix of public and private funding to maintain and strengthen the quality of a Trinity education, and to fully establish its global reputation.
The way we have used our resources is, I think, exemplary, and is demonstrable in the very appearance of the College. The provostship of my predecessor, Dr John Hegarty, was notable for its building. Among the fine recent additions to the College are the Biomedical Sciences Institute, the Long Room Hub, the Sports Centre and the Naughton Institute.
This building programme is continuing – despite much reduced resources compared to five years ago. A most exciting development is the expansion of Trinity beyond its “island site”.
The walls around Pearse St, Nassau St and College Green are no longer constraining.
In December I opened the Lir Academy of Dramatic Art, which is, as many of you know, affiliated to RADA here in London. It's a purpose-built state of the art building located on Grand Canal Dock, at the start of what will be Trinity's “creative corridor” sweeping down Pearse Street from the Science Gallery.
Other buildings planned are the new Trinity Business School, the Central Services building, and the Loyola Institute. You may be aware that Google and Facebook both have their headquarters near Grand Canal Dock and that the whole area is gaining a reputation as the home of new technologies - the term ‘Silicon Dock’ has been coined!
Trinity is at the heart of this area's development. Indeed Google is an important donor to the Science Gallery giving a 1m euro gift to establish Science Gallery International. We are now looking forward to extending the Science Gallery network to cities such as Moscow, London, and Singapore.
Outside the city centre, we are developing an Institute of Population Health in Tallaght, and the Wellcome Trust Clinical Research Facility at St James's Hospital.
And just to prove we aren't forgetting the “island site”, a major new development in the south east corner of the College is planned. The old chemistry extension is to be replaced by a new engineering and natural sciences development. We will take the opportunity to develop this space into something as inspiring as Front Square. There is also a need for increased residences on campus and students in rooms.
* * *GLOBAL REACH***
As well as this important physical expansion, we are also looking to expand the College in terms of global reach. Developing global relations is another key aspiration, and indeed a promise, of my provostship.
Higher education is emerging as a globally traded and borderless activity. Trinity will not prosper unless we grasp this reality.
I want Trinity to be at the heart of this movement, not only because otherwise we get left behind, but because I believe in internationalisation. A quote I've always liked is Erasmus’: “Ego mundi civis esse cupio.” I long to be a citizen of the world.
At the same time I'm also very amused by that famous saying of Denis Burkitt's, the great Trinity medical alumnus. He's renowned for proclaiming that he was “Irish by birth, Trinity by the grace of God”. That gets across the local and the particular. If I can extend Burkitt to Erasmus… well, I'd like our students to be proud Trinity alumni and citizens of the world. Erasmus has given his name to student exchange programmes. I'd also like to see ‘Trinity’ become a byword for internationalisation.
In terms of internationalising staff, students, and research, we do already think strategically beyond our island site, and beyond the island of Ireland, but we must go much further.
Our research is global in its scope and impact, but we want to increase inter-institutional collaboration - to collaborate on more research projects with peer institutions round the world. We do have experience of such collaboration within Ireland but we want to move beyond national networks to global networks.
The various initiatives we're planning, though different, are related and require a coordinated response, involving the precise and targeted articulation of our core message.
What is our core message? Simply that our education and research are world-class and we want to share them.
I'm in no doubt about the high quality of what we have to offer in education and research. But I think we could be demonstrating that superiority in a more coordinated and strategic way that would bring students and research collaborators more directly to our door.
I think we've been relying too much on our 400 year old reputation, our beautiful campus, and our distinguished alumni. We've got a bit complacent about our message. Competition in the third level sector has become much more fierce and we must rise to it if we are to be one of the great universities on the world stage.
Aware of the need to coordinate and strategize, I've created an entirely new post: the Vice-Provost for Global Relations, to which I've appointed the Historian Professor Jane Ohlmeyer. Her goal is to improve our messaging abroad and build global relationships for Trinity. By creating such a post we are seeking to coordinate our activities towards the core aim of opening Trinity to the wider world.
One of the key ways in which I think we can help “sell” Trinity - and which I'm sure Professor Ohlmeyer is currently working on - is to enlist the support of our alumni.
We have close to 92,000 alumni living in 130 different countries. Most of them, like you, have a deep attachment to their alma mater and would be delighted to spread the message about their great education. It's a question of creating a platform which people can build on.
The reason why so many students from Asia come to Ireland to study medicine is because when the newly qualified doctors go back to their own countries, they spread the word. This happened organically and naturally over many decades. We want to replicate, but speed up and formalise, this process for other disciplines.
When it comes to articulating our core message, we need to realise just how extraordinary our education is and how much the world needs it. When I say with Erasmus, “I long to be a citizen of the world” I'm aware that so many Trinity thinkers already have claims in that direction. Our graduates are notable for the universalism of their thought. I'm thinking of people like Edmund Burke and Samuel Beckett in the arts and humanities, and Ernest Walton and William Rowan Hamilton in science and mathematics, and Mary Robinson in human rights law.
Articulating our mission will involve telling the story of Trinity's excellence in a vivid and accessible way, and telling it strategically in places where we most want to be heard, and where we can have most effect.
There's no question but that Trinity can be a force in the world, one of that small number of universities that are of global consequence.
* * *
Reading the history of your Club, I'm struck by many things – the wonderful dedication of a number of individuals, like Eric Lowry who acted as club secretary and chairman over two decades, and the Kurkjian brothers whose generosity seems to have been truly remarkable. I'm also struck by the quality and high-profile of your speakers, including Taoisigh, prime ministers, high court judges, ambassadors, Nobel Peace prize winners… A collection of the texts of speeches from this club would be quite something! Or maybe podcasts….
But what I really take away from the history of the Club is the sense of evolution, of growth within tradition, of change and expansion while remaining loyal to core principles, of determination held through times of difficulty. This Club has changed much from the one where male grandees dined in the 1890s. For a start the menu is much reduced! I guess Edward Carson, John Redmond, and W.E. Lecky would think our menu very paltry compared to their nine courses and eight different wines including champagne!
More fundamentally, women are now included as full members. This happened late – in 1993 – but it happened and without breaking the Club up. Today the chairman is Carol Leighton. The 1970s was a difficult period with declining membership, poor finances and on one occasion a bomb scare from the IRA, which meant everyone fled leaving unpaid dinner charges… But the Club survived.
On the last page of his history, Christopher Finlay writes of the “dynamic by which the Club continues to sustain itself through time” and then describes that dynamic as the “open-minded but discriminating acceptance of the inevitability of change, and a shared awareness of continuities with bygone eras that live on in the traditions of the Club.”
Finlay was writing of the Club, but he could have been writing of the College. Secure in our traditions and our sense of continuity to Trinity's great past, we launch this programme for change in the 21st century, that we may continue to sustain – and, indeed, excel.
And I hope that “open-minded and discriminating” continue to be the adjectives used to describe the Trinity graduate. I can think of no better attributes.
Thank you very much.