Provost election: Jane Ohlmeyer says a provost “really needs to listen to the students and staff”

Ohlmeyer has placed an emphasis on communication in her efforts to improve Trinity’s global reputation as she campaigns for the position of provost

Professor Jane Ohlmeyer, former head of Trinity’s Long Room Hub and current chair of the Irish Research Council (IRC), has put saving a Trinity that she coins as “drowning in bureaucracy” at the head of her campaign for provost. In an interview with Trinity News, Ohlmeyer detailed a series of policies that she plans to put in place over a ten-year period if elected provost in April 2021. 

Ohlmeyer’s first priority would be to deal with the bureaucracy of Trinity, further scrutinising the Academic Registry (AR) and Human Resources (HR) departments and identifying the problems within. She emphasised that, although she did not wish to criticise the people working in these departments, “there are clearly major issues: the combination of tech, systems not working effectively, and just the volume of applications has increased so largely without a corresponding investment of people”. 

Additionally, Ohlmeyer has prioritised promotions as one of the key factors of her campaign. “It’s about making colleagues feel valued”, she claimed, including “supporting them throughout their whole career cycle at Trinity”.

A third issue that Ohlmeyer believes is “terribly important” is something she claims only the provost can lead: “Engagement with government, the state, and with the philanthropic community about how we’re going to fund all this”.

Ohlmeyer has capitalised on her past engagement with philanthropy as a major tenet of her campaign, and continually relates how significant she believes philanthropic donations are in bettering the college community: “That is probably the most significant income stream under our control”. 

After commending the sitting provost, Patrick Prendergast, for having laid “very good foundations” for engagement with philanthropic efforts, Ohlmeyer laid out that, from the current €30-40 million per year in philanthropic income, she’d like to see this number “increasing very significantly indeed” to achieve her admittedly “ambitious targets”. 

Additionally, Ohlmeyer would turn to other organisations to derive financial support, particularly lobbying government. As chair of the IRC, she has helped to lobby the government for a 20% increase in the budget for research funding. 

In terms of spending the money received, Ohlmeyer admits that “there’s no escaping” the fact that part of Trinity’s income must be spent on further commercialisation and internationalisation. However, she has repeatedly affirmed that “we’re not a tourist attraction, we’re a university”, so there is a fine line in “making sure that balance is right”. 

She has said that currently, “international students are paying what the government should be paying for all students”. For example, she mentioned the roughly €10,000 per student that the government pays for the medical fields where the actual cost might be €40,000, the price that international students must pay to attend Trinity. 

Throughout a series of hustings among the candidates, Ohlmeyer has been perhaps most adamant of the three candidates about her bid to increase Trinity’s stance on world ranking lists. “Ireland needs at least one university, and ideally more than one, in the top 100 of the rankings, and I think Trinity is probably best placed to achieve that,” she stated. 

Her plan for increased economic engagement would feed directly into this reputation, she believes, especially investing in education and research, which has been “chronically underinvested in for the better part of a decade”. 

Another potential improvement that she has capitalised on is the bid to drive down the staff-student ratio to between 1:12 and 1:14. “What it’s currently at, which is 1:18, is not where a research-intensive university should be,” she stressed. Other candidates have taken a more conservative approach, with Professor Linda Hogan proposing a goal of 1:16. However, Ohlmeyer has affirmed she has “a business plan” for her proposals, which further employs increased funding. 

“We can either reduce the number of students,” she said, or source “increased investment from the state” to achieve the additional €50 million per year that she estimates as necessary to accommodate the current plans for increasing the number of student places over the next ten years to 21,000. Again, she emphasised the importance of both government funding and philanthropic sources to achieve this financial goal. 

“My sense of where we’re at with philanthropy is that we’re well-placed now to embark on a very ambitious philanthropic campaign,” she reaffirmed. 

For Ohlmeyer, then, her plans for securing Trinity’s ranking on a global scale would not just improve its reputation, but its academics would simultaneously improve. “The rankings should never be the determining strategy here…what really matters is the quality of experience, and that brings us back to the quality of education and learning environment”. 

When speaking about more specific issues that she hopes to address if elected provost, Ohlmeyer stated that she believes her plans for climate action are “the most ambitious but yet most concrete”. 

Last month, the Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) launched a petition for students to lobby the incoming provost to place climate action at the forefront of her campaign, and all three candidates have expressed their support for the proposal. “I’m just so delighted that the students are leading on this,” said Ohlmeyer. 

If elected, she has made clear that she would like Trinity to “approach climate action with the same urgency that we’re approaching Covid”. For now, she has stated that she believes that other universities in Ireland and globally are “leading in this space”. 

Referencing a personal visit to the University of British Columbia, which she sees as a current example of a climate-forward university, she recalled that she’s “seen first-hand just how impressive it is when universities do get behind this”. She would ensure that sustainability is “at the heart of everything we do…not just one or two buildings, but the entire campus”. 

“I hope that one of the hallmarks of my provostship will be that in a decade’s time, we are leading, not just in Ireland, but in Europe, and maybe even internationally in this space because we have a fabulous opportunity to do something very meaningful here, and at the moment, sadly, lots of potential, but we haven’t nailed it yet,” she concluded. 

Ohlmeyer’s manifesto contains a statement about developing a policy against bullying in Trinity, similar to the gender campaign she helped the IRC develop. She related how the IRC were “the first funding agency to develop a gender strategy in 2015”, following which the proportion of successful female applicants to Trinity increased significantly in all disciplines. 

The IRC had developed a policy around bullying and harassment even prior to recent tension and the call by the government for “zero tolerance” regarding sexual harassment, and she hopes that the new policy will be launched “very soon indeed”. 

She drew on personal experience with bullying and harassment, referencing an op-ed that she authored for the Irish Times this summer, which she claims to have generated “misogyny” and “extremism” in response. “Bullying…threatens academic freedom, and I think it’s very important that we stand up to it wherever we see it, and call it out, and do something about it”. 

As provost, she would aim to implement an anti-bullying campaign in Trinity in line with the IRC proposal because, based on first-hand experience, she feels that “it’s just not right” for anyone to deal with. 

Ohlmeyer’s opponents have proposed the possible expansion of places offered to postgraduate students in upcoming years, and while she believes her work with the IRC demonstrates her commitment to early career researchers, she stated that “we may want to increase the numbers, but let’s make sure that we take good care of the ones that we’ve got”. 

In response to the pandemic and other underlying factors, many graduate students have expressed distress in financial situations and in losing access to many of Trinity’s research facilities. 

Ohlmeyer commended the Graduate Students’ Union (GSU), particularly President Gisèle Scanlon, for having “done an extraordinary job” under “very, very difficult circumstances”. However, she stressed the importance of addressing the mental health impact on students working from home before increasing the number of graduate and postgraduate students.

Again, she referenced  her desire to source additional funding that would in turn be used for research resources: “It’s about the quality of the experience versus the quantity of it. So let’s get that right, and then scale it up”. 

Ohlmeyer also laid out in her manifesto that “Trinity has a role to play” in the debate about preserving the Leaving Certificate for entry to colleges. 

When asked about her plans regarding this issue, Ohlmeyer emphasised that at first, “I would be taking advice from my colleagues in the School of Education”. She stressed the importance “that a provost is there to listen, and to lead by listening”. 

“It’s a fabulous opportunity post-Covid to look at it and to come up with something much more innovative that allows us to actually attract the best students, not just the students who are able to cram for exams,” she said. She believes that a reformed system might also help “enormously” for students from less-privileged backgrounds. “I’d definitely want to be leading in pushing that conversation, but doing so in an informed way,” she concluded. 

Regarding the stress that the pandemic has placed on students, Ohlmeyer recognises the mental effects that isolation and online education have had on students over the past year. However, she stated that although Trinity is, to her, a “face-to-face university”, she can see where “online learning has a place”.

“Where it can be useful is, for example, in some of our internationalisation efforts…rather than people flying all over the place, we can use technology for online learning,” she suggested. Additionally, she stated that “for some smaller subjects that maybe struggle to get enough students in a classroom face-to-face, actually being able to supplement that with online students may be the salvation of their discipline”.

She emphasised the importance that College and its internal organisations should “constantly be checking in with our students…we need to be constantly talking and asking questions, and then we need to be monitoring that”. 

When asked about the ongoing impact that the pandemic might have on students, she affirmed that “I think it could be weeks, months, before we actually can fully assess the impact that it’s had”. She considered the possibility that Trinity might have decided to make an earlier decision regarding in-person teaching, but concluded only that “hindsight’s a wonderful thing”. 

Ohlmeyer claimed that she is proud to acknowledge her connection with Trinity when thinking of the students “on the front line in the hospitals” and those working at the contact tracing unit in Tangent, but “in other things, we were just overwhelmed by it, and it took a bit of time to get things back together”.

Ohlmeyer acknowledged the fact that students have a relatively low number of votes in the electorate for the provostorial elections, but emphasised that she would be “reaching out to students over the course of the campaign”. 

“Students may not have a lot of votes, but you’ve got very strong voices, and certainly votes that I take very seriously,” she said. “Just because these cohorts do not have votes doesn’t mean that they do not matter…because you are our future. You will become alumni and go out into the world and be our ambassadors”. 

Ohlmeyer realises that many of her proposals might require “a lot of thinking, a lot of talking, a lot of number-crunching”, but highlighted that, in her view, “it’s very important that we as a community are very ambitious for Trinity. Because at the end of the day, it’s in everybody’s interests for Trinity to be prospering not just on the national stage but on the world stage”. 

In conclusion, she emphasised her trust in face-to-face communication as “a hallmark” of her campaign if elected. “The provost really needs to listen to the students, to the staff…because in a Trinity context, the provost has to be there as the ambassador with a vision for the university, but taking the college with her”. 

Regarding her use of the pronoun “her” to designate the incoming provost, Ohlmeyer affirmed, “The one thing we’re guaranteed is that she’s either going to be called Jane or Linda, and that’s a win in itself”.

The upcoming provostorial election will be historic in that all three confirmed candidates are female, so the new provost is guaranteed to be Trinity’s first female provost. 

Elections for the provost will take place on April 10, and the winning candidate will assume the role of provost in August 2021. 


Audrey Brown

Audrey Brown is a Senior Fresher English Studies student, and the Deputy News Editor of Trinity News.