Equality and diversity were at the front of postgraduate students’ concerns as they put questions to the candidates running to be Trinity’s next provost this evening.
At a hustings hosted by the Graduate Students’ Union (GSU), Professors Linda Doyle, Linda Hogan and Jane Ohlmeyer were pushed on the climate and sustainability, equality and diversity, and workers’ rights for PhD students.
In the first question posed to the three professors, the candidates were asked whether they would commit upon their election to mandating a removal of all animal products in the catering services at Trinity and if they would commit to mandate all Trinity green spaces not used for sport or leisure to be replanted with native wildflower seeds.
Professor Linda Doyle said that vegan options should be offered as a main focus and that that meat should be offered as an option, rather than the other way around. Doyle said she would work alongside Healthy Trinity, wanting to make it “much more in the centre of things and to give it teeth”. She talked about waste minimisation and transport emissions, mentioning that this is something she would plan to focus on and draw on expertise already in Trinity.
In her answer, Professor Jane Ohlmeyer focused on her manifesto first, in which she has committed to a “50% decrease in our carbon footprint” by the end of her term. She went on to say that Linda Hogan’s aim to have a carbon neutral campus within 10 years is “unachievable”. In response to the suggestion of an immediate removal of all animal products, Ohlmeyer said that she will “promote a plant-based diet, but people need to have a choice”. She said that she “can absolutely commit to the wilding of all of our campuses.”
Professor Linda Hogan, who was noted as the only candidate to promise a carbon neutral campus by the end of her term, has stated that “this is not only achievable, but it must be”. Her plans would include a “full annual audit so we can set our parameters for what we need to achieve,” as well as focusing on climate change education to create “innovation and impact.” In response to the question on animal products in Trinity, Hogan stated that “vegetarian should be the default” but that people should have a choice. She would also want sustainability research to be more important within campus.
Turning to the experience of students with disabilities, the candidates were asked how they would address the underrepresentation of disabled students at postgraduate level and make social engagement opportunities more accessible and inclusive.
Doyle said there is “without a doubt more we can do” to support students with disabilities, raising insufficient facilities to fully include wheelchair users in lecture theatres as an example. She said she would deliver on the Capitations Committee funding proposal – a plan that would increase funding to groups like societies and clubs in line with inflation – to support student activities more efficiently. Looking specifically at postgraduate affairs, Doyle said that the standard stipend fund for PhD students is “completely not suited” for some disabled students and that “we need to create much more flexible financial supports”.
To improve the representation of disabled students at postgraduate level, Trinity must focus on tackling the challenges students face as undergraduates that could turn them away from continuing in higher education, Hogan said. She described a “problematic lack of visibility” and role models and said she would “ensure that there’s an appropriate platform to ensure the role models we have really are speaking with people and enabling them to see themselves in that role in the future”. Hogan said she would encourage clubs and societies to be “places of inclusion” and that she would not support groups that were not inclusive.
“My own experience of this is with my son who was diagnosed in college with dyspraxia,” Ohlmeyer said. The candidate said she is “heartened by the ambition” in College’s strategic plan around diversity and inclusion, but that “that’s words, and words need to be accompanied by actions”. Ohlmeyer said she would work on the “real financial issues” and the “physical issues” that disabled students face on campus, as well as educating staff and listening to research and advice.
Next, the candidates heard testimonies from students on incidents of racism, hate crimes and issues with finding employment that they and fellow students of colour have experienced. Candidates were asked how they would go about tackling racism in Trinity and providing support for international students.
Ohlmeyer said she is “just appalled” at the incidents of racism students have experienced in their time in College. She feels “very very strongly” that we need to have “frank and honest conversations” about race. She noted that she is “conscious that [she is] speaking to this from a position of privilege as a white person”. She believes Trinity needs to look at its “colonial past” and engage with movements such as Black Lives Matter. “International students are our best ambassadors,” she continued, emphasizing the need to “change the culture on the ground”. “Actions speak louder than words” – it’s not only about “condemning it but actually doing something about it,” she concluded.
Doyle believes that “we have to act really really strongly and have a zero tolerance approach” towards racism. She wants to “tackle things systematically”, highlighting issues with racism in academia. She wants to take “specific actions” such as implementing “specific career training”. “We can take the lead in both educating ourselves and educating those [international] companies” to break down employment barriers. She also wants to lobby for “systematic” change and to “get involved in policy influencing” on a government level.
“I think we haven’t taken opportunities in the past to speak out when we should,” she said.
“Speaking out” is the “centerpiece of what it means to be a leader in a university”, according to Hogan, who spoke about the importance of “living our values” and said “part of that is about standing up for the values of equality and fairness and challenging behaviour”. Hogan said that “we need to address systemic inequalities within the university” and “schools and departments also need to be taking the lead on this”. She touched on the importance “acknowledging the diversity” in College, “building on it” and “actually recognising its value”.
The candidates were asked how they would promote LGBTQ+ rights in Trinity and specifically how they would tackle issues of transphobia on campus.
Doyle said that Trinity has some strong policies, referencing the Gender Identity and Gender Expression Policy from 2019, but that more needs to be done to make it visible. “It is shameful that anyone has experienced that kind of bad behaviour and we need to take what’s in that policy and put it into action,” she said. She emphasised the need for increased staff training on LGBTQ+ issues and “living by the code of conduct that’s embedded” in the policy.
Ohlmeyer said she wants to “begin with the Gender Identity and Gender Expression Policy”, noting that “we’ve got the policy and we haven’t implemented it”. She believes that is “critical” to create a “positive and inclusive environment” and introduce training for staff. She wants to invest in the Equality Office and highlighted the need for compassion among staff, saying that a “little kindness goes a long way” to improving students’ experiences.
According to Hogan, there is “a great deal of licence given to people on the basis of lack of understanding” or “ lack of knowledge”. She said that “transphobia cannot be treated as a matter of academic freedom” and “lack of education is not an excuse”. Hogan advocated for a “zero tolerance approach” on this front, saying Trinity should “expect” people to “educate themselves about when one is being transphobic”.
The next portion of the hustings was given over to PhD students and their rights as workers. The provost candidates were asked if they could commit to lobby the government to make change at a national level on recognising PhD students as workers and on their plans to alleviate the burden on PhD students with children due to lack of accessible childcare facilities and financial issues.
Doyle said that she “completely agrees that PhDs play an exceptional role in Trinity”. Her first step would be to “map out the full extent of students’ situations” in regards to their conditions in their research or their work to provide a picture of PhD students’ experiences. Additionally, Doyle stated that any postgraduates working as demonstrators, leading tutorials, or doing any work should be fully considered an employee. This would involve a written contract, fair pay, and recognition as an employee. In regards to PhD funding and scholarships, Doyle would plan to pressure the government and funders to provide more support.
“PhD students are the lifeblood of our university,” Ohlmeyer said. If she was elected, Ohlmeyer would lobby at a government level. She said that PhD students need to be provided with “clarity on hours and payment,” drawing on what she said she learned from her experience working in the Trinity Long Room Hub and as chair of the Irish Research Council. In response to a lack of sufficient childcare facilities, Ohlmeyer said that “this is unacceptable” and that she plans to look into childcare provision.
Hogan said that “any person, student or otherwise, who is working should have a proper contract”. She raised the entitlements that PhD students should be provided with alongside a status as employees, such as maternity leave, paternity leave, and sick leave. “It’s about giving a proper decent contract to anybody who is doing work whether they are PhD students or adjunct staff. Unless we do that, we really are not living the values we say we espouse,” she said.
The candidates were asked about their mental health policies and how they plan to deal with the extra demand on mental health services created by the pandemic.
Ohlymeyer believes that it is “absolutely important that we invest in” College’s mental health services. She highlighted plans to make sure that additional income from areas such as Global Relations are “actually invested in the services on the ground”. She said it is “utterly essential” that mental health services are properly funded but noted that it is also “utterly essential to invest in things like the tutor system and Healthy Trinity” for student wellbeing.
Speaking on the topic of mental health, Doyle emphasised her plans to create a Deputy Director of the Student Counselling Services to help deal with the extra burden the pandemic has placed on mental health services. She said she doesn’t “see why we couldn’t implement [this] in the first year of the provostship”, saying that’s “exactly when we need it”.
“Mental health is absolutely crucial,”Hogan said. She wants to “ensure that student counselling is supported adequately and adequately funded”. Hogan advocated for investment in College’s tutor system, commending tutors’ role in students’ wellbeing and noting that tutors have “become so overburdened” with administrative work. She believes it is “important the provost models the kind of healthy life and living” they want for students.
As part of the electorate, the GSU has four votes to cast for Trinity’s next provost.
The union is running a preference poll of postgraduate students’ next week to vote for the candidate favoured by its members.
The provost election is set to take place on April 10 and the successful candidate is to take office on August 1 for a ten-year term.