In Focus
Jan 15, 2017

Radical or Reactionary? After Five Years, the Provost’s Legacy is Still Growing

Patrick Prendergast discusses divestment, commercialisation and what he regrets from his five years in charge of Trinity.

Dominic McGrathDeputy Editor
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Sinéad Baker for The University Times

Only a few minutes into our interview, Provost Patrick Prendergast leaps from his seat, dashes over to an armchair in the corner of his office and pulls on a green Fossil Free TCD t-shirt over his shirt and tie. I’ve just asked him about Trinity’s decision to divest from fossil fuels. He returns to sit down, smiling, and this is pretty much how he remains for the rest of our interview. Suffice to say, Prendergast is proud that Trinity has divested. I suggest that it seems like he didn’t need much persuading to ditch the university’s investments. Only last November, The University Times revealed that a freedom of information request, submitted to the College by those campaigning for divestment, showed that Trinity had €6.1 million invested in fossil fuels.

“I think the first thing to say in this is that Trinity College can respond rapidly and quickly when it sees the need”, he says.

The divestment campaign was, on reflection, slightly odd. Trinity’s main decision-making structures, Finance Committee and Board, both chaired by Prendergast, were faced with both a well-organised and impassioned grassroots campaign and Chancellor, Mary Robinson, who is a passionate advocate against climate change.

He admits that working in the shadow of Robinson had an impact. “I think having a chancellor of Mary Robinson’s reputation creates a certain tone for how Trinity College is going to engage with global issues”. “I think if the Chancellor supports divestment, it does sort of create a direction of travel for the College”, he continues.

There is something cheerful about Prendergast today while chatting to him. When I last met him in September, for an interview with The University Times, he was nothing if not taciturn, even shy.

Prendergast has good reason to be cheerful. In November, Trinity was accepted into the League of European Researchers (Leru), joining an elite group of the 23 best research universities in Europe. The organisation is famously selective – the last time it expanded was 2010 – and membership is invite-only.

One of the paintings in Prendergast’s office, “He Seeks His Fortune” by Jack B Yeats, could very easily describe what many see as the raison d’etre of Trinity over the last couple of years

How much networking was involved to secure membership for Trinity? “I would have met many rectors of Leru universities on a one-to-one basis the previous two years, either at conferences or when I was visiting their city I would make sure to call by.”

A relationship with the Secretary-General of Leru, Prof Kurt Deketelaere, was “very important”, Prendergast tells me. “The first thing to do was to have a conversation with Leru about expansion, would they expand or not, and I remember quoting Edmund Burke to them, in a letter to Kurt actually.”

The Burke quote – “a state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation” – might not have carried as much weight as Trinity’s incredibly successful ability to attract research funding. However, I get the sense that Prendergast takes a certain pride in being able to reference off-hand one of Trinity’s most famous graduates. Yet I wonder how much Burke, whose statue still stands in front of College, would approve of the changes that have occurred behind his turned back over the last five years.

One of the paintings in Prendergast’s office, “He Seeks His Fortune” by Jack B Yeats, could very easily describe what many see as the raison d’etre of Trinity over the last couple of years. With the launch of an aggressive campaign to attract philanthropic funding, a significant expansion of the activities of Trinity’s Commercial Revenue Unit (CRU) and an increased pressure to attract non-EU students, the dominant theme of the Provost’s five years in charge of Trinity has been enhancing the college’s ability to make money.

“The first thing to do was to have a conversation with Leru about expansion, would they expand or not, and I remember quoting Edmund Burke to them, in a letter to Kurt actually.” Prendergast at the announcement of Trinity’s membership of Leru in November.

Sinéad Baker for The University Times

The CRU can often seem to be a law unto itself, and one wonders how much free reign the Provost gives the unit’s director, Adrian Neilan, to devise new ways to make money for the university. The day before I spoke to Prendergast, the Irish Times reported that Trinity has reached a deal with MCD, an Irish concert promotion company, to host a number of large-scale gigs on-campus over the summer. When I raise it with Prendergast, it seems to be the first time he’s heard the plan. This doesn’t mean he doesn’t support it: “When we have the opportunity to make money from events, we do need to do it. Every university is doing it. American universities are very good at it as well. And this is generating revenue we can use for academic purposes.”

Of course, these efforts all go back to the decline in state funding for higher education over the last decade or so. This issue has become the dominant narrative surrounding the sector, especially following the publication of a report in July by the government’s higher education funding working group, outlining three options for the funding of the sector.

We are in a position, quite rightly, to determine our own funding for higher education. We need to step up to the plate and do that and not continue to kick the can down the road

The process, so far, has not provided much hope to those who want to resolve the funding crisis. The Minister for Education and Skills, Richard Bruton, seems unwilling to come to a decision, while the people he’s instructed to come up with a “consensus” proposal, the Oireachtas Education and Skills Committee, don’t seem very willing to fulfil that role.

Prendergast is careful not to criticise the process. “Consensus is required in a democracy”, he says. “Any new funding model must get through parliament, both Houses of the Oireachtas, which is not a small matter, and politicians are adept at figuring out how to get these things through parliament, that’s what their skill set is, and I’m sure Minister Bruton is thinking that through and wants to build some sort of consensus rather than see it emerge as some sort of divisive issue.”

His personal preference is for a mixed system that sees contributions from both students and the state. He seems happy, however, to let the process run its course: “That’s what Irish sovereignty means. I mean, Pádraig Pearse and all those boys died for an independent system where we are sovereign.”

“We are in a position, quite rightly, to determine our own funding for higher education. We need to step up to the plate and do that and not continue to kick the can down the road.”

If there isn’t any decision made in the next few years, does Trinity switch to a plan B? “Trinity has been operating on a plan B for a long time, increasing its own revenue streams through commercial activities, international students, philanthropy, driving efficiencies and cost reductions internally. So we’re not sitting on our hands waiting on the government to find a solution.”

One of his biggest concerns, however, is growing state regulation of the university sector. “I think the threats to autonomy are the biggest, because the state could do anything random – and what would you do.”

Government employment controls, for Prendergast, are most concerning. “It’s Trinity College Dublin who is the employer, let’s be clear, and yet regulations describing how we interact with our employees and our staff are determined externally. So this is a risk because what suits the wider public sector, as indeed the Cush report, may have collateral damage.” The report, published in May, recommended a number of changes to how universities employ staff, including placing limits on the use of temporary contracts.

Some things succeed and some things don’t. But I don’t beat myself up too much about the failures, I get on with it

You might have thought there wasn’t a worse time to become Provost, just as a funding crisis was beginning to grip universities. It’s to be expected that mistakes would have been made as Trinity navigates the difficult issues of funding, government regulation and globalisation.

Are there any mistakes you regret? “I wouldn’t be a very good leader if I didn’t make a few mistakes. Obviously we take risks, and it’s all about taking the right risks. Some things succeed and some things don’t. But I don’t beat myself up too much about the failures, I get on with it”.

He goes on to list his successes. The Trinity Education Project (“a consensus around change in our main activity of undergraduate education”), increasing the number of EU and non-EU students (a “success), the development of the new business school (“going great guns”). I wait patiently for any regrets.

Continuing, he references Trinity’s new Engineering, Energy and Environment campus (E3). He says: “E3 is emerging fully onto the starting blocks now, and we’ll have a very ambitious plan to develop our technology and enterprise campus.” Still no mention of mistakes. “Things that haven’t worked or failures, no I mean, I’m going to ask you the question. What do you see from your side?”

I make a quick mental list. You might point to the farcical development of a new logo at the cost of €100,000, which saw Prendergast heckled and mocked by staff and students alike. Many students still maintain the impression that Prendergast simply wants to cut their student services and charge them €20 for a new student card. Or, this year, when QS threatened sanctions against Trinity after College sent emails to graduates and academics encouraging them to take part in reputation surveys conducted by the rankings agency.

What I raise, however, are the criticisms levelled at Prendergast in a piece in The University Times in 2015. A number of College Board members, speaking on the condition of anonymity, described his chairing of Board as variously “dictatorial”, “barely functional” and “authoritarian”.

Were the comments fair? “I absolutely don’t think they were fair. I think they were completely off the wall. That’s a good case in point, I probably would have preferred if that didn’t happen. We rebutted those accusations comprehensively at the time. And it’s my job as Chair of Board to ensure that everyone gets a chance to speak, and that’s what I did and what I continue to do, and it’s extremely important that Board isn’t dominated by one or two voices, and if that makes those people feel that I’m being dictatorial, well, that goes with the territory.”

It wouldn’t make more sense to introduce a more corporate structure, with a neutral chair independent from the rest of the decision-making process? “Well, firstly, I am a neutral chair and I don’t accept the premise that I’m not. What could be useful if there was an external chair. But I wouldn’t do that without changing root and branch the Board.”

It’s extremely important that Board isn’t dominated by one or two voices, and if that makes those people feel that I’m being dictatorial, well, that goes with the territory

Prendergast suggests he’s unwilling at the moment to draw attention from Trinity’s other big projects. “That would be a big job, would require legislation, would require approval of the Fellows, and whilst I’m not saying never to doing that, it’s not on the immediate work plan.”

More recently, it seems Prendergast has been trying to reach out to students for their support, whether allowing them to miss class to attend the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) march in October, or having the Vice-Provost, Prof Chris Morash, deliver a speech to students on the steps of the Exam Hall ahead of the demonstration.

Last time we spoke, he told me he’d been a casual participant in marches during his student days. He wasn’t interested in giving the speech? He wasn’t around, he says, but he was happy with the gesture: “The Vice-Provost giving a speech to students ahead of a march. It’s pretty good, pretty radical”.

Edmund Burke might famously have been afraid of the radical and the revolutionary. Prendergast, it seems, is not. He recently commented that the future lay in “fees, philanthropy and commercialisation”. If his prediction is correct, it seems, for better or for worse, his legacy to Trinity certainly will be radical.

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