Editorial: A new provost is a chance for a new Trinity

The upcoming provost election could disrupt the college’s status quo for the better

We now have the likely field for the provost election. While Professors Linda Doyle, Linda Hogan and Jane Ohlmeyer still have to apply for candidacy, be accepted, and secure the necessary nominations, it seems highly probable they will, given their respective profiles and CVs. There is also a significant chance the eventual winner will be one of them. No other prominent Trinity academic has yet confirmed their intention to run – indeed, many have confirmed to Trinity News that they will not – and outsiders are always at a severe disadvantage in the final election.

With that in mind, Trinity seems near-certain to have its first female provost in more than four centuries. This would make us just the second university in Ireland to be led by a woman after Professor Kerstin Mey took over as Interim President of the University of Limerick in September. As academia and third level education continue to struggle with issues of systemic sexism and other kinds of discrimination, this would be a long-overdue marker of progress. No one is under the impression that this would immediately level the playing field or solve all of the problems in Trinity but it would serve as a symbolic victory and a signal of Trinity’s willingness to become a truly 21st-century institution.

The start of the electoral process for the new provost is not just a time to look to the future, but also to consider the past. It means Patrick Prendergast is approaching the end of his ten year term, and reflecting on his performance during that time yields many lessons on how the next occupant of 1 Grafton Street can do better.

Prendergast, since taking office in 2011, has very consciously tried to shape Trinity according to his vision of how a university should function. He has tried to promote a culture of “innovation” and, though publicly in favour of increased government funding for higher education, frequently opposed education as a universally accessible public good. For instance, he came out in favour of a student loan scheme last September after the Cassells report cited it as one of three options to deal with the funding gap in higher education. The two other options – part government funding and full government funding – placed significantly smaller financial burdens on individual students.

He also threatened, in response to the funding crisis, to cut the number of places Trinity offers to Irish students, effectively using students’ futures as a bargaining chip in a game of brinkmanship with the government. Meanwhile, he has focused much of College’s financial strategy around the intake of international students due to the higher fees they pay, but without paying any heed to their welfare. The extent to which international students have been ignored, misled and left in the dark during the pandemic demonstrates just how disposable College thinks they are as people.

Early on in his term, in 2013, Prendergast also indicated a preference for full privatisation of the university, citing the importance of third level “independence” from government oversight. On the surface this might seem like a good thing, but the Provost wasn’t referring to academic independence. In fact, he went on to bemoan Trinity’s inability to subject staff to forced redundancies, and to pay high-ranked academics even bigger salaries than they already receive. He may also be resentful about his own inability to draw a bigger paycheque; this year, an external audit concluded that his level of remuneration was significantly larger than that allowed by government regulations.

This antithesis to labour standards and desire for privatisation is a trend – Prendergast has also overseen systemic exploitation of teaching assistants by College, reported by this newspaper at least as far back as 2014. He also oversaw the outsourcing of jobs in areas such as catering and security.

Despite the lip-service paid to academic independence, Prendergast has also shown significant hostility to free press in the past. In 2018 he lashed out, without evidence, at reporting by student media on several issues, including the cost of his off-campus accommodation during Luas improvement works, College’s handling of Take Back Trinity, and allegations of sexual harassment against a candidate for SU president. Aside from his having been incorrect on every count, his opposition to a healthy journalistic culture at Trinity is, quite frankly, unbecoming.

More broadly, the Provost has overseen significant reductions in staff/student ratios and tutorial hours, at the same time as the college invested in a €80m business school and extensive and expensive “rebranding”, as well as rent increases in College accommodation. He would have introduced a €450 supplemental exam fee, but student activism forced him to back down.

At every turn, Prendergast has shown that he values cost saving and a “culture of entrepreneurship” far above student welfare. When challenged on this, his reaction inevitably lays bare the contempt and condescension with which he views the student population. We matter to him as sources of revenue and generators of good rankings, but not as people with needs and opinions.

The next provost, simply put, needs to do better. Trinity is not just a place for research and “innovation”; it’s also a centre of learning, and it’s unacceptable for its leader to have such an adversarial relationship with and dim view of those it teaches. A university should be led by someone not who wants to pull up the ladder and make the institution more exclusive, but who thinks that as many people as possible should be able to access the benefits of education. The new provost should care deeply about student welfare, amplify our voices, and seek to include us in discussions about the future of College.

Even that, however, will not be enough. The world will be a different place in 2021 than it was in 2011, and the newly-elected provost will face completely new challenges. The funding crisis not only remains unresolved, but with every passing day becomes more serious and more urgent. It is no longer possible or acceptable to sweep under the rug issues like systemic racism, and the general lack of diversity of voices and perspectives in academic spaces. Disruptive forces like climate change and the automation of labour will pose difficult questions which the wider world will expect universities to answer. A successful new provost will need to be prepared to tackle these issues with determination, compassion, and openness to change.

When the nomination process is completed and the election begins in earnest, we hope to see candidates willing to articulate a truly new vision for Trinity. The relentless commercialisation of the last decade has been a failure, and we need fresh thinking to guide us through the challenges that lie ahead. It’s time for a Trinity that truly serves its community.