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Oct 5, 2019

When the Academic Becomes Political: Trinity’s Vice-Provost Prepares for New Challenges

Prof Jurgen Barkhoff, Trinity's new Vice-Provost, has an impressive CV. But the demands of the Trinity Education Project won't be easy to navigate.

Donal MacNameeEditor
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Nathan O'Gara for The University Times

Prof Eda Sagarra was sitting in her office in Trinity’s Germanics Department, nearly 35 years ago now, when two Germans knocked on her door. They were coming off the back of a hitch-hiking tour of Ireland, and one of them was looking to know if there were any classes he could join.

Sagarra didn’t know then what she knows now – that the student (who would be both a student and a co-teacher in her classroom) would go on to become one of the pillars of Trinity’s community for the next 35 years, serving as registrar, Director of the Long Room Hub and now Vice-Provost of the College. But she says she knew immediately that Jurgen Barkhoff was a high flyer. “I noticed he was one of these people who was interested in everything”, she says. “He had a great sense of humour.”

Barkhoff himself recalls the incident slightly differently. In his recollection he was looking to join Trinity as a student for a year, having been advised by a co-worker in an office he was working in that Trinity was “just as good” as Oxford or Cambridge – “and a lot more fun”.

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But both recollections tally in that they remember Jurgen Barkhoff taking to Trinity like a duck to water. They also add up to the image of a man who has never looked back in a career that has led him to his current role as Trinity’s second in command and the man with his hands on the reins of the Trinity Education Project.

Almost all of the people that I spoke to about Barkhoff say that he is Trinity through and through. Rima Fitzpatrick, who worked as manager of the School of Languages, Literatures and Cultural Studies while Barkhoff was Head of School, says that he “always used to say to me: ‘I can’t really compare this job to anything, because that’s all I ever did is work in Trinity’.” This isn’t strictly true: Barkhoff has also worked in Germany and the UK. But what’s clear is that, by hook or by crook, Trinity always seemed to have a hold over him, and Barkhoff always felt a keen sense of duty to the College.

He says he came to Trinity three times – in 1981, 1988 and 1995. In the first two instances, his stay was temporary, but the College really left its mark on him. “I just loved Trinity”, he tells me, with sincerity. He praises the College’s “tight-knit” community – something that marked it out to him as different from German universities.

He always used to say to me: ‘I can’t really compare this job to anything, because that’s all I ever did is work in Trinity’

Prof Graeme Murdock from Trinity’s Department of History – who worked with Barkhoff when Murdock was heading up Trinity’s Centre for European Studies – says his first impression of Trinity’s Vice-Provost was of a man “tremendously knowledgeable and helpful about how things work in College”. Barkhoff, though, says it wasn’t always this way. He wasn’t overwhelmed, exactly (it doesn’t seem like Jurgen Barkhoff is a man to get overwhelmed easily), but there was a lot to explore in a community where “you not only went to classes but that through societies and socialising within your year you really got the sense” that your persona was being developed as well as your academics.

Barkhoff was always academically inclined – he says he was “a bit of a nerd” growing up – but at Trinity, he threw himself into society life, including a short career in DU Players that he says “ended with the freshers’ co-op”. The student experience was something he prized then, and something that others say he still thinks of as one of Trinity’s defining characteristics. Sagarra, who admits to being sentimental about Barkhoff, says she noticed early on that “Jurgen was very student-focused”, and Barkhoff himself says it’s something he’s tried to place at the centre of his College experience since the day he walked in the door.

But is there a side to Barkhoff beyond what he presents to Trinity? In the style of the true academic, he’s not saying too much about it. When I ask him what he wanted to be when he was 10, he smiles bemusedly at the apparent inanity of the question, before conceding that he wanted to be a policeman: “It’s so cliche. The German who wants to be a policeman! But I didn’t know for a very long time.”

The reason he didn’t know what he wanted to be wasn’t the longevity of the police dream – it seems this was very quickly shelved. Instead, it was Barkhoff’s love for academia that left him in two minds about a possible career – he says there was a period when he toyed with the idea of medicine, “but then my interest in the humanities won me over”.

And it’s clear this interest was backed up by talent. Barkhoff himself speaks with ease and fluidity about a range of academic subjects, and his colleagues speak with an admiration verging on wonderment about his academic prowess. Caitriona Curtis, the Executive Director of the Trinity Long Room Hub, who worked with Barkhoff during his tenure as director, says in an email to The University Times that Barkhoff is “a tremendous intellect”.

But if intellect can get you far in some circles of academia, it’s often not enough for some academics, who spend years toiling in universities’ shadows. Barkhoff isn’t just an academic. He’s also tremendously charming – this is as clear from a conversation with him as it is from the compliments he is paid by his colleagues – and, tellingly, Sagarra calls him a “political animal”. She bursts out laughing when I ask if Barkhoff will be able to navigate Trinity’s choppy political waters. The implication is clear: he’s gotten this far, hasn’t he?

It’s so cliche. The German who wants to be a policeman! But I didn’t know for a very long time

Sagarra says that Barkhoff is encyclopaedic on Trinity’s rules and regulations. “He’s very much aware of what the College regulations are, and what the procedures are”, she says. “And it’s very important that procedures, particularly in the age in which we live, that the proper procedures are known and applied in a proper and decisive manner. And that’s where I think he’s extremely good. He’s going to insist that the proper procedures are followed up.”

More importantly, though, she says he’s very good at building consensus. Murdock and Fitzpatrick agree: Barkhoff, they say, has a knack for bringing people along in his ideas. Fitzpatrick says he’s more pragmatic than idealistic, but adds: “He would never say: ‘That can’t be done – let’s leave this.’ He will try anyway. He is always willing to try.”

Barkhoff himself prefers to talk about politics through the prism of his academic research and his teaching, but he does tell me that he was a founding member of Germany’s Green Party in 1987. Beyond that, he says, “I do not want to divorce research scholarship intellectual pursuits from social and political matters. I think they really are enmeshed”.

He says that the foundation of everything for him starts with the Enlightenment, recalling the time “when I did my inaugural for the chair of German – it was early in 2016 and the graduate attributes had just been published and promoted – and I linked to the thinking critically, acting responsibly, developing continuously and communicating effectively. These ideals, I linked them back to the Enlightenment”.

Barkhoff, then, seems like almost the classic success story in an Irish university, with both academic and political talents. But the role of the Vice-Provost will bring some unusual challenges.

First, a more personal issue: he’ll have to give up teaching. Sagarra tells me: “I think he’s going to miss the teaching a lot. And we will miss him in the department.” But, she says, “there comes a time that you have to choose what you think is the priority – not just for you, but for the institution. He’s very committed to Trinity”.

More broadly, Barkhoff will have to wrestle the Trinity Education Project back under control. Last year, it seemed at times as though students were gathering en masse against the project, and meeting students where they are while also implementing its ambitious structures won’t be easy. Murdock, though, says: “When I heard that he was taking on that role, I thought that’s a huge job – but who else would be better qualified in that sense?”

The abiding sense of Barkhoff, then, is of an academic who’s practiced in the art of getting things done. He knows Trinity inside-out, and seems well-equipped to tread the College’s political tightrope, but he’s much more comfortable talking about 18th-century Germany than he is about bringing students on board with Trinity Education Project, or the lengthy thought process involved in taking on the role of Vice-Provost. He deflects a question about this away from his own ambitions and onto Trinity, and it’s hard not to see it as slightly telling. “I did have to ask myself: did I want to leave German, to leave the students, leave my research – not entirely, but largely – to do this”, he muses. “So it wasn’t an easy decision, but I enjoy being part of bringing Trinity forward, and so I said yes.”

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