Trinity rushed through the appointment of a top-ranking officer for gender equality, The University Times has learned, U-turning on an earlier decision not to create the position amid fears that its application for a new government equality initiative would be “seriously weakened” without a senior equality advocate.
Trinity will introduce the position of associate vice-provost for equality, diversity and inclusion – a position it had previously decided against creating – without discussion at College Board level, despite Provost Patrick Prendergast admitting he “would not normally ask Board members to make a decision of this importance via the email approval process”.
In an internal memorandum emailed to members of the College Board, obtained by The University Times, Prendergast said it was of “central importance” that Trinity created the annual officership position by October 18th, in time for a submission to the first call of the government’s Senior Academic Leadership Initiative.
He proposed the appointment of Prof Clodagh Brook, an associate professor in Italian, to the position of associate vice-provost for equality, diversity and inclusion. Board members approved the appointment by email, with a handful of members registering their dissent that the appointment had not been discussed at Board.
The Senior Academic Leadership Initiative, which will see the creation of 45 new women-only senior professorships in Irish higher education, opened its call for applications on June 21st, giving Trinity almost three months to prepare a submission.
Explaining his decision to circulate the nomination by email, instead of bringing it forward for discussion at Board, Prendergast wrote: “I had intended to bring this nomination to the next Board meeting on 23 October for discussion and decision, yet there is an urgency of having this position in place in advance of this meeting.”
“Given that all other Irish universities have now created similar senior officerships at Vice-President level, our application would be seriously weakened if we were not able to say that this senior advocate for Equality is in place”, he wrote.
In an email statement to The University Times, Trinity media relations officer Thomas Deane wrote: “There was an urgency in having this position in place in advance of the October Board meeting as the first call for applications for SALI, the prominent Senior Academic Leadership Initiative, launched by Minister Mary Mitchell O’Connor to create 45 gender- specific chair professorships over the next three years, had an imminent closing date in advance of the Board meeting.”
Deane wrote that approving Brook’s appointment electronically “was in keeping with Section 10 of Schedule 2 to the Chapter on Board in the 2010 Consolidated Statutes”.
“Professor Brook”, he said, “will liaise and consult widely with colleagues across the university and especially with individuals with expertise and experience in the EDI area”.
“The Associate Vice-Provost will be supported by a restructured and strengthened Equality Office. The Associate Vice-Provost will be representing the equality, diversity and inclusion agenda in all its aspects at Executive Officers Group. She can attend at her discretion.”
In 2016, as part of its National Review of Gender Equality in Irish Higher Education Institutions, the Higher Education Authority (HEA) wrote that it “is the expectation of the Expert Group that each institution will appoint a vice-president for equality through a publicly advertised competitive process”.
It is unclear whether Brook’s appointment to the position came after a publicly advertised competitive process.
In 2017, then-Vice-Provost Chris Morash told The University Times that “it would be odd to have a vice-president just for gender, when there are a lot of other areas we don’t have vice-presidents for”.
In the memorandum, dated October 7th, Prendergast wrote that Trinity decided to respond to the HEA recommendations “not by creating a new post but rather by including gender equality among the responsibilities of the Vice-Provost/CAO”.
He added: “I believe it is now time to reconsider this given the ever-increasing recognition of the importance of equality and diversity in society, and the attendant complexity of the issues to be dealt with within the college and within the sector.”
Prendergast admitted he “would have preferred to bring this for full discussion to Board”.
“However”, he wrote, “given the urgency of the matter in light of the imminent closing date of the SALI applications, and in the expectation that Board members will share with me the view that the creation of this new position is highly desirable and of great importance to the College community, I take this exceptional step”.
In June, Minister for Higher Education Mary Mitchell O’Connor announced the creation of 45 senior professorships in higher education as part of the Senior Academic Leadership Initiative, to accelerate gender balance in academia.
The government allocated €3 million to fund the new posts in 2020, a figure that will rise to nearly €5 million in 2021.
In a press statement at the time, Mitchell O’Connor hailed “a game-changing moment for Irish academia”.
“This intervention will ensure a swifter gender re-balance, addressing the current under-representation of women at the highest levels of our institutions”, she said.
Trinity will create the position five months after a confidential review of Trinity’s equality structures, a copy of which was obtained by The University Times, recommended the creation of a “senior academic Advocate for Equality”.
The report raised concerns about a “fragmented structure” in Trinity when it comes to gender equality, recommending the creation of a new “clearly integrated equality structure that can support the equality agenda across the University”.
The report also praised the “profound expertise” of Prof Eileen Drew, the director of Trinity’s Centre for Gender Equality and Leadership, and warned that “any transition needs to be very carefully managed”.
In an email statement to The University Times about the appointment of an associate vice-provost for equality, diversity and inclusion, Drew said she “was not involved, in any capacity” in the creation of the post.
Drew wrote that “as Director of the Trinity Centre for Equality and Leadership I have been awaiting this appointment since the HEA Review was published in 2016”.
She added: “In the case of UCC and Maynooth University (among others), the appointment of a Vice President for Gender Equality was made following an open competition, following due process of external recruitment. Since I was not involved, in any capacity, with the Trinity College post, I cannot comment on the appointee or the process that was used to make the appointment.”
The review of Trinity’s gender equality structures stated that the “TCGEL Director is at retirement age making a transfer of leadership necessary, but the personal expertise should be preserved”.
Referencing Athena SWAN, the report stated: “For the Athena SWAN process to continue successfully, the University should find a way to preserve the expertise of the current chairpersons within Athena Swan while entrusting the administrative leadership to younger professors.”
In 2015, Trinity was granted an institutional bronze award by Athena SWAN for its efforts to promote women’s careers and institute positive gender equality practices.
But in May 2019, at the launch of a gender equality charter for Systemic Action for Gender Equality (SAGE), the Provost admitted that “Trinity performed less well in Athena Swan than we had hoped”.
At the launch, Prendergast said that “it is a very important day for Trinity” and expressed his desire for the College to be “a leader in the field” of gender equality.
He noted that 40 per cent of College Board members and 50 per cent of University Council members are women.
But he warned that the College must remain “vigilant”, adding that the “purpose of the charter is to encourage vigilance”.