Address to Staff and Student Representatives

Edmund Burke Theatre

Monday 19th November 2018, 4.30pm


Good afternoon, everyone, and thank you for coming along.

This is the last time I’ll be making a formal ‘State-of-the-College’ address as Provost. In just two and a half years, my term will be completed. As I head into the home straight, so to speak, and as we start planning for the next Strategic Plan - which we’ll be launching next year – I think it’s useful to take a look at

  • where we’ve come from,
  • what we’ve achieved, and
  • our aspirations for the future.

Let’s look at our achievements and aspirations from the perspective of the college community, and from the perspective of our place in Irish society and in the global academic world.

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First and most importantly, this is my opportunity to say thank you for the incredible work that so many have put in to deliver goals and exceed expectations.

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While preparing for this talk, I read over my inaugural and mid-term addresses, to remember where we were, and what’s changed. Reading back, I’d say that the prevailing tone of my inaugural address was one of crisis and urgency. Boiled down to its essence, that speech said: ‘things are in a bad way; Trinity is standing firm by its mission and values, but our education and research are threatened by lack of funding and too much control and regulation’. That speech was delivered in September 2011 – not a comfortable time to remember!

The tone of the mid-term address, five years later, was somewhat more optimistic. Here’s what I said:
‘state funding is still a problem but we’ve been able to generate significant alternate sources of revenue, and we’re implementing exciting initiatives like the Business School and the Trinity Education Project.’

That was 2016 – and I think the note of cautious optimism was the right one. Today there is a sense of having come through a difficult period. The mood on campus is more confident.

That’s not to say there still aren’t clouds. The over-arching problem of inadequate investment in third level remains; that nettle has not been grasped, nationally. Political expediency has prevailed. However, in Trinity we’ve successfully completed several initiatives, and many more are in train. And we’re in a better position to plan for the future than we were seven years ago.

I’m fortunate that my provostship has gone in the direction it has – I say ‘fortunate’ because, of course, I’m not claiming all the credit for this.

I hope my leadership has helped, but much has to do with the national situation, the improvement in Ireland’s economy generally; and so much has to do with all of you, with the truly remarkable achievements of Trinity staff and students.

I was asked recently what it was like leading a university, and a specific metaphor was employed – I was asked if Trinity ran ‘like a well-oiled machine?’ Well, I thought about that and, as a mechanical engineer I do like well-oiled machines, but Trinity is not like a well-oiled machine. A machine has a single engine, one motive-force. A university is more like a series of machines – perhaps you might say it’s a flotilla.

Trinity has its departments, schools and faculties; it has the Library, the administrative divisions, support services, the Students’ Union, DUCAC, the CSC… I could go on. The College Board keeps a handle on the whole, but we’re dependent on each part of the College being motivated to achieve our common mission – on the flotilla moving in unison.

That’s why great thanks are in order. If our situation is improving, it’s because everyone took up the challenge. I believe the importance of our work - educating the next generation and delivering research that improves our way of being in the world – is a strong motivating factor for us all.

Trinity is the sum of its parts. Let’s take a moment to look at what’s been achieved in the last few years. I’m not going to give a roll-call of all the projects done, processing and pending. But as we plan for the future, it’s a good idea to take stock.

***Successful Initiatives***

We’ve enjoyed significant success with capital development projects, with education and research initiatives, and with transforming the campus with the work of, for instance, Global Relations and the commercial revenue unit, the CRU.

Since 2011 we’ve seen a growth of €15 million euro from international fees, and the same amount from commercial activities – and in both cases, this is annual recurrent revenue. That’s a signal achievement, bringing essential funds to the university. But we don’t measure success in terms of revenue alone.

I’m recently back from a two-week tour of Australia, Singapore and Malaysia and before that I was in Japan. Everywhere I went I saw evidence of Trinity’s increasing engagement – student exchanges, research collaborations and joint degree programmes, where ten years ago, we had no such partnerships at all.

In Singapore I took the opportunity to announce Stanley Quek as a new Pro-Chancellor of the university. Sheila Greene and Sean Barrett were also elected Pro-Chancellors at the same time.

Some of you know Stanley. He’s a graduate of our medical school, a Provost Council member, and one of Trinity’s most dedicated supporters. This is the first time in our history that Trinity will have a Pro-Chancellor from outside these islands, so it’s a seminal moment and it’s symbolic of the increased global connectivity of our university.

Trinity enjoys increasing brand recognition round the world, and our numbers of global student exchanges, research collaborations and industry partnerships are growing all the time, while our bonds with our global alumni are strengthening. For this we must pay tribute to the truly exceptional work done by Jane Ohlmeyer and Juliette Hussey and their teams in global relations, and to Kate Bond and her team in Trinity Development and Alumni.

The success of the Commercial Revenue Unit has also raised Trinity’s profile. Ten days ago, Cassie Clemans from the state of Oregon became the millionth visitor to the Book of Kells in 2018. She arrived with her husband, Andy, to celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary. The Irish Independent picked up on this because it was such a nice Dublin story. I think it’s great that Trinity is part of the ‘Dublin story’. With the improvements planned for the Old Library through the Philanthropic Campaign, visitor numbers will only grow and people will enjoy an even better experience.

Another initiative being successfully implemented is the Trinity Education Project - or TEP. It’s the most ambitious renewal of the undergraduate curriculum in a century, and it’s essential to prepare Trinity for far-reaching patterns of change in education and the workplace. In the last two and a half years, we’ve delivered on many aspects of TEP, including the new academic year structure, and we’re on track to see it fully launched in September 2020. This builds on digital projects; Genesis, FIS and transformation of administration under START & 21st Century Administration].

The Trinity Business School will open in six months’ time and will be co-located with Tangent, Trinity’s Ideas Workspace. And planning permission for the demolition works to begin E3 Learning Foundry has just been granted - it’s due for completion in 2022.

Both the Trinity Business School and the E3 Learning Foundry followed the same funding model: strong philanthropic benefaction allowing us to leverage state investment and raise loans. In the case of E3, this included the €25 million donation from the Naughton family, the largest single donation in the history of the state, and we thank them.

Here is a timeline laying out what I’ve talked about so far.

After the E3 Learning Foundry, we will build the E3 Research Institute as the centrepiece of our new campus at the Grand Canal Innovation District or GCID as we’re calling it. As you know, Trinity, DCU and UCD signed a memorandum of understanding at a public launch in July, agreeing to work together with government and key state agencies on developing a common innovation vision for Dublin and on the creation of GCID.

And not forgetting the student residences as part of the new Printing House Square. In its own way this is as essential as E3 or Trinity Business School. We have a long tradition of student residence in College – it’s part of what makes college years so memorable.

These capital developments will enable many more students to be educated, and they allow us to continue providing a transformative student experience.

There are of course other successful recent capital development projects that I could point to – such as the Trinity Centre for Literary and Cultural Translation at 36 Fenian Street – as well as many more initiatives across the university – like the PhD Project Awards, which have seen us bring 40 new funded PhD students to the university to work on vital fields of research. But as I’ve said, I don’t intend this speech as a roll-call of successes. We don’t have time and it’s not necessary, I think, to get across the substantive point, which is that we’ve delivered significantly on projects of serious ambition, leaving us in a strong position to plan for the future.

***The Rankings***

Before we turn to consider our future – and specifically the two major initiatives upcoming in my provostship, the Philanthropic Campaign and the new Strategic Plan – I’d like to address a paradox.

The paradox is that, after all I’ve said, Trinity has been falling, rather than rising, in the global rankings.

If things have really been progressing that well, shouldn’t we have seen a related rise in the rankings? Some years we go up, but mostly we go down.

There are a few possible reasons for this. Maybe, despite Trinity doing well; globally, other universities are doing even better?

There could be something in this – huge injections of state funding are making a big difference to universities in Asia, and private funding has transformed higher education in the USA and the UK - neither of these are seen much in Ireland.

But I don’t really think that other universities round the world are achieving so much as to over-shadow our achievements. Rather, I believe we are under-ranked – it’s taking time for the Rankings to catch up with all we’ve done.

This may sound like wishful thinking – maybe it is, only time will tell. But here’s the evidence: most notable to me is that last year, 2017, Trinity won €100.6 million in research funding. In 2013 that figure was €74 million so we’ve increased our research funding by a third, in under five years. That seems to me exceptional, and I don’t believe it’s been reflected in the rankings.

Our research success isn’t just exceptional compared to other Irish universities. Among LERU members – which is to say among the elite universities in Europe - we are placed 14th for winning European Research Council grants. Again, this has yet to be reflected in the rankings.

We’ve received many other benchmarks of success. For instance, our position as Europe’s best university for educating entrepreneurs seems unassailable – we’ve come out on top for five years and counting in Pitchbook’s evaluation.

The willingness of a top-ranked university like Columbia University in New York to enter into a dual BA programme with us speaks for itself, as does the eagerness of Oxford University to learn from us how to do Access Programmes.

And of course, there are all the distinctive honours to individuals. There are too many to name but, for instance, John Boland has just won SFI Researcher of the Year, with Tomás Ryan and Jane Farrar also being named among the eight winners nationally. And a fortnight ago Christine Casey, Professor in Architectural History, won the top British prize in her field, the Alice Davis Hitchcock Medallion for ‘outstanding contribution’.

And here:

this is, I promise! - a genuine photo of my bedtime reading: books by staff on history, literature, science and neuroscience; prizewinning novels and nonfiction by graduates; an essay by the Chancellor, and a memoir by one of our Senators. All published in the past few months! It’s not easy keeping on top of what Trinity people are doing!  

So, yes, I do think we’re undervalued in the Rankings and I’m confident that the Business School, E3, GCID and other stand-out initiatives are going to help to reverse the decline.

And I’d also say this: I’m not someone who goes around disparaging the importance of the rankings. The rankings are here to stay; they’re looked at closely by potential staff and students around the world; and they do provide a measurable benchmark.

However, they don’t measure, nor claim to measure, how a given university is delivering on its strategy. Trinity has a threefold mission, as detailed in the current Strategic Plan. Our three priorities are, I quote:

  • First, education and ‘a transformative student experience’;
  • Second, ‘research at the frontiers of disciplines which makes a catalysing impact on innovation and addresses global challenges’; and
  • Third, ‘advancing the cause of a pluralistic, just and sustainable society’


Now the rankings are well set up to measure research; they do that through opinion surveys and citations in journals. They’re less good at measuring education, but they’re getting better.

However, on the third part of our mission, ‘a pluralistic, just and sustainable society’, that is simply not measured by the rankings, which means that our vital initiatives in this sphere, including:

  • the Trinity Access Programme;
  • membership of the International Sustainable Campus Network;
  • the Dean’s Roll of Honour for Student Volunteering;
  • Community Liaison, and
  • all our public engagement and outreach projects including lectures, exhibitions, Science Gallery’s programmes with primary and secondary schools;
  • not to mention, the activism of our students…

All this, which takes considerable time, and is the true marker of a distinctive university, goes unnoticed in the Rankings.

By not even attempting to measure pluralism, sustainability, and active citizenship, the Rankings are sending out a message about what they believe the role of a university is. And frankly, I think their view of a university’s role is reductive and doesn’t allow for the transformative power which a great university can have on its region, and on its graduates.

On my trips abroad, I’ve seen, first hand, what can happen when a university focuses too relentlessly on the rankings – and to be honest, it isn’t something I’d like us to emulate here. Yes, such universities can deliver very many publications and can train students in subjects that the political system deems important. But so much that we consider central to the mission of a university in society is lost. As a result, their campuses often lack the societal engagement, the critical questing creativity, that we take for granted.

I don’t say I loved the student protests last year - I certainly didn’t love some of the tweets! But who could complain about students claiming Trinity as their own? Because it is. I don’t want to lead a university which doesn’t involve students in the way it’s run. Student protest is how the younger generation speaks to those in power. I don’t want to lead a university that encourages conformity.

There’s a cost involved in a university narrowing its mission to measurable outcomes – a cost to the region, to the intellectual and social formation of graduates, and ultimately, to the university itself. 

It’s important to make this argument because of what’s been happening politically in the world, over the past few years.

Let me say a bit more about this.

***Social Responsibility/Active Citizenship***

In Europe, and globally, we’re seeing a retreat from the post-war consensus around free trade, human rights, universal values and international institutions, and a move towards protectionism and illiberalism – and this is happening at a time of looming environmental threat when we really need to come together as a global community to agree ways to save the planet.

Does this have anything to do with universities? I think it does and I’m not the only one.

Universities play a huge role in shaping the ‘mental map’ of graduates. Who and how we educate determines what type of person enters leadership positions in politics, business, innovation, diplomacy, academia, and civil society. And, of course, who and how we educate ultimately determines what research we do. It could hardly be more important.

We have to contribute to shaping societies that promote openness, inclusivity, equality and the pursuit of knowledge. If we don’t, we will find that our activities contribute to society closing in on itself and failing to expand knowledge for the benefit if all.

In Trinity, social responsibility and active citizenship are intrinsic to our mission. It could hardly be otherwise. This is the university of Edmund Burke, Henry Grattan, Wolfe Tone, Robert Emmet, Thomas Davis, Oscar Wilde, Douglas Hyde, Edward Carson, John Redmond, Mary Robinson, David Norris, Mary McAleese… I could go on. In Ireland and beyond, the political and social narrative has been greatly shaped by Trinity people.

We’re proud of this tradition; we seek actively to strengthen it. As an example, immediately after this talk, I’ll be going along to the Dining Hall to meet this year’s Entrance Exhibitioners and their parents and teachers. It’s an annual event, but this year is the start of something different because we’ve changed the criteria: previously students with the highest CAO points in the country became Entrance Exhibitioners. But now we’re awarding each student who gets top points in his or her school - provided they have gained 500 points or more. 

This is a real shift of emphasis to promote inclusivity. Under the previous system, a small number of schools were predominant. This year there are 379 Schools represented from all 32 counties. I’m already hearing, informally, that this is a big deal for the individual schools.

Tweaking the criteria for entrance exhibitioners is a small change that will have a big social impact. I am proud that Trinity is leading on this, as we have led on Access, outreach and public engagement, both in Ireland and globally.

***Upcoming initiatives: Philanthropic Campaign & Strategic Plan***

Now I’d like to talk a bit about two major initiatives we’re working on this academic year: the Philanthropic Campaign and the new Strategic Plan.

In Trinity we’ve achieved significantly in research, education and social responsibility, as I’ve described here.

Keeping these successes in mind, let’s turn to the new Strategic Plan and the Philanthropic Campaign, which we’ll be launching next year. Both are far-reaching and will run well into the next provostship. Ideally, each will reinforce the other.

With both, we’re asking the essential questions:

  • What is Trinity for?
  • Why is it unique?
  • And why is it worth supporting?

That’s support in the broadest sense:

  • Why is Trinity worth studying in, if you’re a student?
  • And why is it worth teaching and researching in, if you’re an academic?
  • Or working in, if you’re professional staff?
  • Or staying connected to, if you’re an alumnus?
  • Or donating to, if you’re a benefactor?

If, as a community, we can agree these questions with one voice, then we will run a very successful Philanthropic Campaign and we will articulate a transformational Strategic Plan.

I hope, in what I’ve been saying today, that I’ve got across why Trinity is worth supporting: it’s because we are able to demonstrate success in so many different spheres.

The Philanthropic Campaign reflects the multifaceted approach of the university – shown here in green.

 it’s focussing on key capital development projects across the three faculties - including E3, the Library, the Trinity St James’ Cancer Institute; the Law School - in addition the philanthropic campaign will focus on people, on TAP and on talent acquisition through scholarships.

With the Philanthropic Campaign, we’re asking support for a university that, over the past few years, has taken control of its destiny and proved itself.

This confidence in the university and its achievement will also be manifest in our new Strategic Plan.

I’m proud of the current Plan – of its logic and coherency, its ambitious yet realistic targets. All the same, the next Strategic Plan will probably be quite different, and that’s how it should be – five years is time enough to progress. With the next Plan, we can be even stronger, bolder, more vivid and inspiring.

The current Strategic Plan is very focused on numbers and financial targets – it had to be; it was devised during a crisis. We needed to focus on revenue. Thanks to that focus – in particular to the huge growth in revenue from CRU, global relations and, shortly, from philanthropy – we’re in a position, with this Strategic Plan, to think more strategically about how to build capacity in terms of people and space.

The Vice-Provost/CAO will lead on this, and one of the things I’ve learnt from Chris is the importance of narrative. The Strategic Plan is a narrative, a narrative addressed to a wide audience, and it paints a picture of what we want the next five years to look like.

A university is about people and, ultimately, about relationships. For this Strategic Plan, I’d like us to think in terms of stories, themes, connections. I’d like the Plan to get across the excitement and dynamism of a great university, and the transformative effect such a university has on all those who pass through it, and on its region, and on the world-wide network of research and scholarship that we are part of.

Rather than just giving the Plan years and dates, I’d like a title for this Plan. I want to name it with proper nouns, with a title that conveys our thematic priorities. We’re still in discussion around a title, but the working title is ‘Community and Connection’.

Let me explain the thinking behind this:

‘Community’ is hardly a new word on campus – we use it a lot, and I hope by ‘community’ we all mean the same thing – Trinity students, staff and alumni.

Over the past years, we’ve put strong emphasis on our global community – to great effect. We’ve placed alumni at the heart of the global relations strategy. On each of my trips abroad, I meet with alumni groups – this past year alone I’ve been in 15 cities – all of them have alumni branches! Juliette, and other college officers have had similar meetings, and the Schools and Departments are in touch with their own graduates.

The Trinity Global Graduate Forum of 2013, and now the Provost’s Council and other advisory Boards, are the direct results of this engagement with alumni. Ours is a mutually enforcing relationship. I know how willing graduates are to be called upon, and I thank them for their great contribution – it’s making a serious difference.

So, when we talk about a globally connected Trinity community, we can stand over that claim. It means something. It exists.

Community is global, yes, but it’s also distinct, specific, and local. The internal Trinity community, or the ‘campus community’, is the community of students, and academic and professional staff, on campus in the here and now.

This has, traditionally, been a very strong and connected community, thanks to our collegiate traditions, such as Fellowship, the Senior Common Room, the residential College & Trinity Hall, and a democratic tradition of elections for all manner of positions, including the Provost and Board.

Elections help to coalesce community and to encourage a sense of ownership and buy-in. I believe that Trinity’s collegiate, democratic culture has been a source of strength through the ages. It’s part of what we are. Of course, it entails responsibility, and I think we all have a responsibility - Fellows, staff and students - to step up, show leadership and act in the best interests of the college community.

This is particularly important in a changing era. Today, staff and student numbers are larger than ever before, with competition for students becoming a global activity; the staff population, both academic and professional, is more mobile, with more people tending to move around with their careers.

None of these changes are bad in themselves, but collectively they could serve to loosen the bonds of community.

The challenge for us is to maintain and strengthen what is essential in our traditions, what works for us, whilst remaining flexible and adaptive to the changes that are happening.

In this Strategic Plan we want to be proactive and creative. We want people to draw strength from community, to build confidence to do great research by seeing it go on around them

There are a few ways to do this:

  • The Estates Strategy, which the Bursar Veronica Campbell has delivered and will launch shortly, is about making better use of space. Space is essential to community, as any architect will tell you, and indeed in Trinity our sense of community comes so much from sharing this beautiful campus. Better management of space will improve connectivity across the university. And the building of new transformative spaces, like the E3 Learning Foundry, will enable new approaches in teaching.
  • The Estates Strategy is being complemented by an ambitious Digital Transformation – this is about making sure we’re using new technology developments to personalise and enhance the Trinity experience. Just as we seek to make optimal use of our physical infrastructure, it follows that we need to link up and coordinate our digital infrastructure for admin, finance, HR, and the rest.

The Dean of Research Linda Doyle is currently finalizing the Research Excellence Strategy. The strategy is based on a set of values - values such as respecting diversity of research, nurturing a supportive research environment, using our collective expertise for the greater good and standing up for research. The research excellence strategy will ensure we use the resources we have to maximize our research potential. 

  • And philanthropy is being embedded in the college. The Campaign is being launched 4th April 2019. This is not a one-off initiative. We’re transmitting philanthropy to our DNA - connecting alumni and friends to Trinity’s story, inspiring them through the entirety of our mission in education, research and public engagement.


Through these and other initiatives, the new Strategic Plan will put emphasis on community and connection. It will build capacity where it’s needed and create relationships across faculties and disciplines. A strengthened internal community will connect to a more engaged global community.


Now, coming back to these books on my bedside table.

I have to admit that I haven’t read all of them. In fairness, there are a lot of them, and I don’t claim to be a speed reader. I’ve been dipping in and out. What I find striking, so far, are the thematic resemblances between them.

These books are on very different subjects: on climate change, transhumanism, Michael Collins, neuroscience, popular science, growing up in Dublin. Very different subjects. What joins them is, I think, a sense of optimism.

In no case, is it a facile sense of optimism. All these books touch on difficult issues – Luke O’Neill writes about the immune system ‘going rogue’ and causing Alzheimers and Parkinson’s; Lynne Ruane writes about dropping out of school and teenage pregnancy; Kevin Mitchell looks at neural disorders like schizophrenia and epilepsy; Caitriona Lally explores mental illness and marginalisation; Mary Robinson looks at what we’ve done to the planet. Hardly cheerful subjects!

And yet, to read these books is to feel optimistic – about scholarship and research which seeks and finds solutions, and about those two words which I see as central to our next Strategic Plan: Community and Connection.

If these books share a message, it’s that the worse thing we can do as individuals, universities, regions and countries is to isolate ourselves. In these books, the moment of grace and salvation comes through people making connections - whether that’s connection through a research team, or through an adult education programme, or through governments agreeing climate accords, or through interpersonal relations, love and friendship. In these books, people save people, and outward-looking, inclusive, connected institutions and programmes save people.

All these books are wonderfully written – no way will our new Strategic Plan be so readable, unfortunately! But I hope it will share with these books their sense of hard-won optimism, of surmounting challenges through focus on what’s important.

It’s been great working with you on our journey thus far. I look forward to us launching a great Philanthropic Campaign and Strategic Plan to bring Trinity to its next phase of scholarship, research, education and active citizenship.

Thank you.

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