Analysis: What we can learn from the last time Trinity elected a provost

With Patrick Prendergast’s term set to expire next year, we take a look at the 2011 election that saw him elected as Trinity’s 44th provost

Last week, applications opened for the position of Provost. The Provost’s term in office lasts ten years, and Patrick Prendergast’s tenure is set to expire early in 2021. Prendergast was elected in 2011, following a campaign process characterised by the issues most relevant to third level at the time.

The 2011 race was initially contested by six candidates, with one candidate – Robin Cunningham – dropping out of the race in early March. Of the five candidates on the ballot, only one came from outside of Trinity. Candidates for Provost relied on the votes of Trinity academics and had to publicly declare their wish to run for the position. These were cited as two key factors for the insularity of the race. The Irish Times Education Editor, Sean Flynn, argued that by not attracting more external candidates, Trinity was holding itself back: “By any standards, this is a ‘blue-chip’ educational appointment. It should draw the best and the brightest from Harvard, Cambridge, Oxford and the rest. Just don’t expect any of them to make it to No. 1 Grafton Street.” 

The five candidates who made it to election day were Patrick Prendergast, Jane Ohlmeyer, Colm Kearney, Des Fitzgerald, and John Boland. Their campaigns were, predictably, characterised by the most topical issues relating to Trinity in the 2010/11 academic year. These included the relationship between the government and Trinity, the crisis in funding, and the issue of academic freedom. A number of candidates sought to diversify Trinity’s income stream by attracting more international students, increasing fundraising, and introducing a student fee on top of the student contribution charge. Also relevant was the notion that Trinity had, in recent years, lost ground to University College Dublin (UCD) and needed to reassert itself as the dominant force in Irish academia.

Prendergast was the favourite for the position from the beginning. He was referred to as “the quintessential Trinity insider” by the Irish Times and it was not difficult to see why. His academic career began in Trinity in the 1980s when he completed an undergraduate degree in engineering, followed later by a PhD. As his career progressed, he became a key figure within Trinity’s administration, serving as chief academic officer, as well as vice-provost to John Hegarty. He was also a key figure in the “Innovation Alliance” research merger between Trinity and UCD. Prendergast’s manifesto emphasised the need for Trinity to distinguish itself among other institutions in Ireland, calling for the university’s status as a global representative to be recognised by the government. He also floated the idea of leaving the Irish Universities Association (IUA). This came after it was revealed that Trinity paid an annual subscription in excess of €250,000 to the IUA. Prendergast later walked back on these comments, saying that Irish universities would need to “pull together” to overcome present difficulties.

Jane Ohlmeyer, a professor of Modern History at Trinity, was running to become the first female head of a university in Ireland’s history (a milestone not reached until 2020 when Kerstin Mey was elected president of the University of Limerick). Dubbed “The Queen of the Humanities” by this newspaper at the time, Ohlmeyer was seen as popular among students and academics alike, but was at a disadvantage campaigning for a position that is characteristically dominated by STEM. As well as campaigning to defend academic freedom and put an end to “overly controlling” models of governance, Ohlmeyer emphasised the need to support students in financial difficulty, and increase the number of students from under-represented groups.

Colm Kearney, a professor of international business in Trinity, was ranked as the second favourite for the role of provost. A former economic advisor to the Australian Labour government, he ran an effective campaign, taking out ad space in Trinity News and The University Times. Like Prendergast, he raised concerns about the IUA, and described the model of all universities being treated as one sector as “Stalinist”. 

Des Fitzgerald, the then-vice president of research at UCD, was the only external candidate to appear on the ballot. He was, at the time, the highest paid academic in the state, with an annual salary of €264,602. This figure had originally been €409,000, but was reduced after UCD faced significant criticism. Fitzgerald advocated reducing the number of undergraduate students, and increasing the number of postgraduate and international students.

A late entry to the race, John Boland was seen as an outside candidate. He was a founder and director of the hugely successful CRANN nanoscience institute at Trinity, one of the leaders in its field.

The campaign process was largely friendly, with the Irish Times noting that all candidates ran very polite campaigns. The University Times reported that, at a debate hosted by RTÉ’s Brian Dobson in the GMB, each candidate suggested at one point or another that their opponents’ talking points would be better suited to the Harry Potter themed table quiz that was taking place upstairs.

Voting took place in April, with the electorate made up of full-time members of the academic staff, as well as members of the board and council. Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) had a total of 11 votes. Each of these votes went to Colm Kearney, after a separate election among students to decide who to vote for. 

The Graduate Students’ Union (GSU) was accused by some of ignoring students’ wishes when it announced that the four votes given to its sabbatical and faculty officers would be assigned based on a vote by the twelve members of the GSU executive.The executive planned to gather an impression of GSU members’ preferred candidate through meetings and emails. One member of the executive said that they could not run a poll similar to TCDSU because “postgrads just don’t turn up”.

Prendergast’s victory was a comfortable one, beating runner up Ohlmeyer by 70 votes in the final round. Ohlmeyer’s impressive performance was seen as an upset, as she received 175 votes in the first round. The Irish Times reported that around 570 of 700 eligible voters turned out to elect the Provost. 

The election to decide Trinity’s next provost will take place on 10 April 2021, and it is likely that the election will be dominated by the issue of Covid-19 and its fallout on staff and students, funding, research, and the wider landscape of higher education. The pandemic is set to deepen the crisis in third level funding that has characterised Prendergast’s tenure. Candidates will need to present an inventive and comprehensive plan to help Trinity to bounce back over the next ten years if they are to be in with a chance of success.

Patrick Coyle

Patrick Coyle is a News Analysis Editor for Trinity News, and a Junior Sophister student of English Literature and Spanish.