On one of the final days of the campaign, the three candidates in the race to be Trinity’s next provost have engaged in their last debate ahead of voting this weekend.
Professors Linda Doyle, Linda Hogan and Jane Ohlmeyer faced a broad range of questions that picked up on some topics that have characterised the campaign and others that had not yet been publicly engaged with.
The candidates were asked about the impact of the pandemic on Trinity, how electing a woman as provost for the first time might shape the college, and how they would prevent Trinity from becoming too “woke”.
Journalist Shane Coleman moderated the debate, which was livestreamed from the Public Theatre in Trinity’s Exam Hall.
Asking the candidates how they would prevent Trinity from becoming “too woke”, Coleman cited recent debates over cultural issues in the UK and United States and posed a hypothetical situation of a right-wing student making a speech in one of the debating societies and being shouted down.
Doyle challenged the premise of the question, stating: “I don’t believe half of the hype about the cancel culture and the way they are talking about it in the media. I think some of this is just built up.” Doyle said that you “only have to look at some of the key debates in society that have gone past” to see that Trinity “has always done a very good job of embodying different attitudes”. She said that a “deep rooted fairness needs to underpin everything”, and that “from a fairness perspective, you don’t need to worry about being ‘too woke’ because that should just penetrate our systems from the beginning”, she added.
Taking a different view, Ohlmeyer said that she was concerned by what was happening in the UK, where she says historians are being regarded by the “right wing nationalists and the brexiteers as public enemy number one”. She said that it is “incumbent on us as academics to stand up to these bullies”. Ohlmeyer said it is important to “preserve freedom of speech and academic authomoy” and that “if you cannot have it in a university like Trinity, there is something terribly, terribly wrong”.
Hogan stated that “our universities have to be spaces of debate of interrogation”, adding that it is “essential that we have this forum where students can interrogate, investigate, and challenge but do it in an environment that is civil and respectful”. Hogan said that Trinity must be a space where “complex issues [are] discussed”, but said that “it must be done in a context where there is respect for individuals and civil debate”.
Coleman put to the candidates a further hypothetical of what they would do in a situation where they found out that one of the debating societies had cancelled the appearance of a speaker because of their views.
“A speaker can’t be given a carte blanche and not be challenged,” Doyle said, noting that it is “incumbent on us to ask questions” and push for evidence to back up statements, and that “that should be the situation” speakers who are invited to Trinity find themselves in. “I greatly respect our student organisations and I think it’s really important that they find their feet and plough their furrow,” Doyle said. “When they invite people they should be open to different views, but they should not let it go uncontested.”
Hogan said that the civility of a debate should be the “litmus test” for inviting speakers. She stated that she doesn’t believe that “universities should be intervening in the deliberations of student societies”, but that there should be “a set of principles that says if there are views on either side that are controversial they should not be uncontested and there must be commitment to language of respect and civility”.
Ohmeyer agreed Trinity should “always be looking for informed, respectful debate” but with a “a balance of opinions”. She said people need to be able to develop critical thinking skills and that the “key thing there is the autonomy to do that”. “I think we have to be extremely vigilant to issues of free speech,” Ohlmeyer said.
All three candidates were asked what electing a woman to the role of provost for the first time means to Trinity. Hogan outlined the “symbolic value” of electing the first female provost but noted that it’s “only the beginning not the end”. She believes that this symbol will be “vital for young women” in Ireland and emphasised the “different sensibility,” “different set of values” and “different way of working” a female provost can bring to Trinity.
“I am a historian and usually I write history, so it would be wonderful on Saturday to make it,” Ohlmeyer stated. “I’ve always been the first woman to do things,” she continued, saying she wishes to be a “role model” and a “mentor” for other women. However, she noted that being “a provost for all”, not only for women, “really really matters”.
Doyle believes that “there is something different you bring” as a woman. She drew on her experience as the first woman to run a Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) research centre, and said that women are “particularly good at creating a collaborative culture” in leadership roles.
The candidates were asked what they would do to ensure that Trinity remains distinctive, with Coleman having posited that Ireland had “caught up” to Trinity in terms of liberal values. Ohlmeyer said that it was about “ensuring that Trinity is accessible to as many people as possible” so that College can “reflect the diversity of Ireland”. Hogan said that climate change and global inequity are the “next frontier” and that Trinity must be a leader in these fields in regards to its research, education and practices. Doyle said that she is a strong believer in “social justice and climate justice” and that “we need to live by example”, noting that “if we want the world to be a different place, we have to exemplify that here first”.
Turning to how Trinity will be impacted by the pandemic, Ohlmeyer said that Covid-19 is “going to be a game changer” from how the pandemic has changed “the way we deliver education”. She said that she wants to see a return to campus, but that she “wouldn’t assume that it’s going to be business as usual” in September. She highlighted Trinity’s “exquisite campus”, saying she wants to “go back to capturing that bustle” and “vibrancy” of campus “as soon as possible” without forgetting what has been learned during the pandemic.
Doyle agreed with Ohlymeyer, saying “I definitely don’t think it’ll be full business as normal” in September and that “we do have to plan for all eventualities”. For Doyle, Covid-19 has “reconfirmed the value of place” and reasserted that “we don’t have to keep doing things the same way”. She pointed out potential changes to “how we run exams” and “how we organise ourselves”. She noted the “stress and anxiety” that students have been under over the course of the last year as a result of the pandemic.
Hogan recognised that “there have been really great stresses on students and staff over this pandemic” but noted that the pandemic presents “opportunities for growth and resilience”. “If we fail to highlight to our students the opportunities for growth and reliance from this pandemic then we will have failed in our leadership,” she continued. She stated that although face-to-face teaching “will always be fundamental,” a “hybrid form of education allows for a number of different things” such as “greater participation” and “allowing us to reduce our carbon footprint”.
On whether they would consider removing car parking from campus, the three candidates agreed that they would like to see a reduction in car use, but that a blanket ban would be inappropriate. Doyle pointed out that “we have people with disabilities that need access in a certain way” and said that she would put Healthy Trinity “at the centre of how we do things” to encourage climate-friendly transport. Ohlmeyer said that behaviours need to change in terms of sustainability and most staff already take public transport, but that “for people who have real need of a car, of course we are going to provide that”. Similarly, Hogan said that she would expect there to be only a “tiny percentage” of cars on campus and that most would be electric by the end of her provostship, but that “if there is a specific disability need for cars”, that “would be fine”.
The professors declined to answer a question on which of their fellow candidates they would hypothetically cast a ballot for. Ohlmeyer drew a laugh from those on the stage with a non-specific answer of “Linda”, while Doyle and Hogan also chose not to disclose their views. “I have great respect for my colleagues here,” Doyle said. “This is a private vote, and I would prefer not to say.” Similarly, Hogan said that “I agree we’ve had a really excellent campaign… and I have great respect for both colleagues.”
Voting in the election opens this weekend on Saturday, April 10. A winner is due to be announced around lunchtime after the 800-strong electorate cast their votes.
Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) is afforded six votes in the election, while the Graduate Students’ Union (GSU) has four.
TCDSU held a student wide poll last week to determine which candidate it would give its votes to, which was won by Professor Ohlmeyer. A poll of postgraduate students by the GSU is ongoing.