Dr Leslie Shaw | Contributing Writer
The Provost’s “identity initiative” is misguided, muddled and has made Trinity the object of ridicule and opprobrium. I first read about it in the Irish Times on March 29th. My immediate reaction was to contact Alumni & Friends, but I soon discovered that this association is an office within the college bureaucracy, a fundraising vehicle (alumni donations were €4.7m in 2010-11 and €3.4m in 2011-12) and not a real alumni network. I started a discussion on their LinkedIn page that generated considerable response, with 94.5 per cent of contributors opposing the rebranding.
I would never again donate so much as one cent to the Trinity Foundation and encourage other alumni to do likewise
I e-mailed a contact in college, with the Provost in copy, saying the proposed change was an act of historical and cultural vandalism and that I would “never again donate so much as one cent to the Trinity Foundation and encourage other alumni to do likewise”. Within a couple of hours the Provost replied, stating that it was “a proposal that is now to be discussed and pending a final Board decision”.
There are two intertwined drivers behind the identity initiative: money and international ranking.
A major objective of the Provost’s current strategic plan is to “increase the number of international and non-EU graduate students… from 13 per cent to 20 per cent and from 7 per cent to 14 per cent respectively”. He is presumably referring to students from Asia and elsewhere, with an eye on the cash they can bring. The assumption is that such students choose their place of study on the basis of university rankings such as THE and QS. If Trinity continues to slide in the rankings, as it has done, the aim of increasing foreign student intake will not be achieved.
This is not the place to critically examine the THE and QS rankings, but they are seriously flawed.
The University of Bologna is 1,000 years old, with 85,000 students and 2,850 academics, but is lumped in the 276-300 tranche.
In the THE 2013-14 top 50, 33 are in the US and Canada, 7 in the UK (only 4 are universities) and 8 in Australasia. Neither of the 2 Europeans (a Swiss tech, a Swedish medical school) are universities. In the top 100, France has only one, a medical school. The first French university in THE is Paris Diderot at 178th. There are 15 European universities in the 50-100 tranche, 5 of which are Dutch. Scale is a crucial factor. Utrecht has 30,000 students and 7,500 academics (Trinity has 16,646 students and 785 academics). There are no Italian or Spanish universities in the top 100. Trinity slipped from 76th in 2010-11 to 129th in 2013-14. In 2013-14 Nanyang Tech Singapore (32,500 students) is in 76th position, but how many people worldwide have heard of it, compared to Trinity? The University of Bologna is 1,000 years old, with 85,000 students and 2,850 academics, but is lumped in the 276-300 tranche.
Such rankings should not become drivers of policy and a strategy based on joining the top 100 or 50 is doomed to failure and likely to be detrimental to the quality of education provided. An alumnus has pointed out that Trinity abandoned its tradition of seminar-based learning by pushing faculty away from teaching to focus on research, in pursuit of a higher score in the citation parameter, thus lowering the teacher/student ratio.
At a reception for alumni in our Paris Embassy on May 14 but my argument fell on deaf ears
I put this to Jane Ohlmeyer, Trinity’s Vice President of Global Relations, at a reception for alumni in our Paris Embassy on May 14 but my argument fell on deaf ears. In her speech she recognized that the “identity initiative” had prompted a debate that led the Provost to “pause” the proposed change. She confirmed to me that the drivers of the “identity initiative” were (1) the world university rankings and (2) Trinity’s lack of visibility in Asia. Apart from the questionable aspects of these parameters, there is no evidence that messing about with the name and “visual identity” of Trinity will move it up in the rankings or make it more visible in Asia.
Two alumni I spoke to seemed to agree with the change, on the basis of the cliché “Trinity must move with the times.” Not wishing to spoil the cocktail party, I abandoned my plan to canvass the 60 or so alumni present to get them to sign the petition, which at the time of writing (May 15) has 1,790 signatures.
This is small in comparison to the 95,000 alumni worldwide, but those who have voiced an opinion are, for the overwhelming majority, against the changes proposed. The same can be said for students and faculty who have contributed to the debate at meetings, in the social media and the press.
“If the Provost is hell bent on dumbing TCD down, perhaps he should find the courage to put the decision to an open vote”
The Provost seems to be keeping a low profile and refused to take part in Marc Coleman’s Newstalk discussion on April 13. As one alumnus put it “if the Provost is hell bent on dumbing TCD down, perhaps he should find the courage to put the decision to an open vote. Railroading by one person is never acceptable; it is simply not democratic.” During his term of office the Provost is the custodian of Trinity’s heritage, embodied in the original name and coat of arms. This identity has stood the test of time and is respected throughout the world. Hiring branding experts and accepting the ludicrous contention that an identity change is required to attract potential students whose level of English is such that they don’t know that “college” and “university” are synonymous terms is, as another alumnus put it, “crazy”.
Let me finish with a message from Colette O’Flaherty, Chief Herald of Ireland:
“I have written to the Provost to advise that should the College decide to apply for a new coat of arms, this Office would be pleased to consider an application and offer full guidance and assistance throughout the process.”
Dr Leslie Shaw is a professor at ESCP and an alumni of Trinity College Dublin. He currently has 1,792 on his petition and encourages all students and staff to sign it.