Illustration: Ciar Gifford
An anonymous author close to the events surrounding the establishment of the Loyola Institute in this university writes about the unholy trinity of church, cash and college that led to it and its negative effects on degrees.
Earlier this year the webpage for the Loyola Institute, a new department in the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (FAHSS), came online. There was scant information to be gleaned from it, only that the department had emerged from a merger with the Milltown Institute (hitherto a Jesuit-administered theological college); that it would be offering a BA moderatorship in catholic theology beginning in 2012; and that there was only one member of staff currently employed: the institute’s inaugural director, Dr Cornelius J Casey.
For months this unassuming and fairly threadbare webpage, tucked away in a submenu of a submenu on the faculty’s website, was the only source of information on the new department. Significantly, there was no public announcement of its foundation on the part of College authorities. Anyone who may have stumbled across the webpage may have been puzzled by the notion of a department “dedicated to education and research in theology in the Catholic tradition” operating within Trinity, particularly considering the college’s fractious relationship with the Catholic church in the past.
Predictably, though, few people took notice; the page only came into being at the end of Hilary term, and the student body was in the midst of exams. In light of recently emerged documents it appears that the low-key nature of this revelation was deliberate, and with good reason.
As reported in the last issue of Trinity News, a section of the minutes from a meeting of the executive committee of the FAHSS, marked as a “reserved item”, reveals that there has been a large degree of resistance to this measure among academic staff. (It should be noted that its being marked as reserved suggests that the section was never intended to be published online.)
For months this unassuming and fairly threadbare webpage, tucked away in a submenu of a submenu on the faculty’s website, was the only source of information on the new department.
In a rare occurrence, the move has been met with near unanimous objection from heads of school in the faculty, and led to the resignation of the then-head of the School of Religions and Theology, Dr Anne Fitzpatrick, from her post.
The overwhelming consensus was that the very concept of a faith-based degree ran contrary to College’s equal opportunities policy, that it posed a “danger to academic freedom”, and that the endowment, which amounted to €15m, would not be able to cover the new department’s costs in the long term.
These are legitimate grievances and I will return to them, but one particularly pressing question needs addressing first. Why, if there has been such a degree of opposition to the move, have there been no official complaints made by members of the faculty?
Minutes from committee meetings as far back as February of 2011 register dissent among staff members over the move, yet there has been complete silence on the matter in the public sphere. In this context it is worth mentioning that the Milltown Institute originally approached University College Dublin with the proposal, but that the deal was eventually scrapped due to the continuous objections of members of staff. Significantly, the chief concern voiced by dissenters there was that a faith-based programme would compromise the secular ethos of the university.
The overwhelming consensus was that the very concept of a faith-based degree ran contrary to College’s equal opportunities policy, that it posed a “danger to academic freedom”.
The comparative silence here is telling: it suggests that a number of people with significant leverage have made a concerted effort to keep the transaction discreet, and that members of the faculty had little power to prevent it. Analysis of the minutes reveals that they were overridden by the college’s executive board and completely excluded from negotiations. Their concerns were ignored, the final deal “differed substantially” from what they had agreed to, and individual members felt “shabbily treated”.
Plainly, members of the Board had an entirely different agenda in mind: namely, the €15m endowment being offered as an incentive for the deal. It was also noted that the whole process was “deliberately” lending it an air of underhandedness that is further underlined by there being no indication given as to the source of the endowment.
Of course, it is no secret that College faces significant financial difficulties due to austerity measures; taking this into consideration, it is perfectly understandable that the executive board, who are responsible for the college’s finances, should seek alternative sources of revenue. In this context a more pragmatic view is worth considering. Moreover, it is hard to imagine it playing any more than a marginal role in the university, considering that it will only employ four lecturers full time.
Frankly, though, even thinking in these terms, the gains seem negligible in light of the attendant costs to the college. Documents in which the deal is alluded to indicate that the endowment is coming as a single lump sum. There are no guarantees of subsequent contributions, yet College is committed indefinitely to footing the costs of the new department. Administration, salaries, accommodation: these obligations won’t evaporate over time, but the money will.
The comparative silence… suggests that a number of people with significant leverage have made a concerted effort to keep the transaction discreet, and that members of the faculty had little power to prevent it.
This seems particularly rich considering profitable departments like English are being prevented from taking on new staff due to budgetary constraints. Moreover, if, as the dean of the FAHSS, Professor Michael Marsh, has reassured members of the faculty, the endowment is intended purely to “fund appointments” in the new department, how much does the college effectively stand to gain?
There is also a less tangible cost to the college. Trinity’s reputation for attracting the best and brightest irrespective of religious affiliation has been a cornerstone of its international reputation, and in this regard the notion of a faith-based degree is problematic. The commitment to hiring purely on the “basis of merit” above other considerations is a central tenet of College’s equality policy. Though being Catholic is not explicitly listed as a job requirement, the idea is enshrined in the very concept of a faith-based programme.
This is not just simply a matter of ethics; it is also about maintaining academic standards. As the policy states, “The concept of equality is central to the College’s ethos of academic and service excellence.” Given that there will hardly be many people clambering for a degree in Catholic theology given recent events, it seems likely that the entry requirements will have to be set extremely low in order for the department to have any students at all. This lapse in academic standards will only debase the Trinity name, a particularly pressing concern considering the college’s rankings in all three major university league tables have been sliding in recent years.
This is not just simply a matter of ethics; it is also about maintaining academic standards.
In spite of this, Trinity’s reputation – particularly overseas – has been its most important long-term asset: mortgaging it off so cheaply is short-sighted and sets a dangerous precedent for the future. In effect, the college is taking on a long term burden for a short term gain.
Overall, it seems clear that the potential benefits of the deal do not stack up against the costs College will accrue. What the church stands to gain is clear: given its diminished status in Ireland over the last few decades, it makes sense that they should opt to attach their name to an institution which is held in higher public regard. After all, a drowning man will cling onto a stronger swimmer to remain afloat.
The endowment may help balance the budget in the short term, but in exchange the college has been permanently encumbered. In the long-term struggle to stay afloat, this burden around College’s neck will only make it harder to keep its head above the water.