- 25 Apr 19
As one of their youngest ever provosts, Patrick Prendergast has been a progressive force at Trinity College which, he reveals, is looking to scrap fees for students in direct provision and forge closer ties with the Muslim world. Campus protests, consent classes, drugs, Trump, Michelle Obama, Meghan Markle and Johnny Marr also feature as Stuart Clark gives the AC/DC fan the third degree.
Rock ‘n’ roll isn’t the first thing you associate with Trinity College, but back in the ‘70s, future Hot Press writer Bill Graham was responsible for introducing fellow Trinity alumnus Paul McGuinness to a bunch of young fellas called The U2. Future Dave Fanning producer, Ian Wilson, was President of the Students Union and The Clash provided a short-sharp lesson in punk when they gigged in the Exam Hall.
As a nod to this historic moment, a Clash tribute act will be first on this weekend, when The Coronas, Bugzy Malone, Mabel, Mall Grab, Kojaque and Nina Nesbitt do their respective things at the Trinity Ball. While you need to be either a student or a significant other/mate of theirs to grab one of the gold-dust TB tickets, all are welcome for the MCD-promoted Summer Series of gigs, which find Vampire Weekend, Foals, Janelle Monáe, Paul Weller, Stereophonics and New Order playing outdoor headliners at the college in July.
For good measure, Pete Doherty, Johnny Marr, The Cranberries, Jack White and Island Records founder Chris Blackwell have all passed through the famous front doors of the college to collect Honorary Patronages from its Phil Soc.
Trinity is also the place where Andrew Hozier-Byrne, Wyvern Lingo and Saint Sister studied before bagging their respective record deals. It’s appropriate, then, that TCD’s 41st Provost, Dr. Patrick Prendergast, is a rock ‘n’ roller himself. Sitting down in his private rooms for a chat, the first thing we clock is a dog-eared copy of Bob Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks lying on top of a vintage radiogram. The full rack of vinyl next to it includes Leonard Cohen’s Ten New Songs, the recent Christy Moore On The Road live album, and a signed copy of Declan O’Rourke’s Chronicles Of The Great Irish Famine.
“I went out and bought them specially when I heard Hot Press was coming,” laughs the amiable Oulart, Co. Wexford native who attended Trinity as an undergraduate in 1983; was appointed to the engineering faculty in 1995; and got the top job in 2011. He was aged just 44 at the time, which makes him Trinity’s youngest provost since 1758.
Stuart Clark: When did you first seriously get into music?
Patrick Prendergast: I was a boarder at St. Peter’s College, the all-boys school in Wexford Town. We went home once a month. The rest of the time we were in our dormitories playing music. These were the days of AC/DC and Meat Loaf. The cool guys – of whom I definitely wasn’t one – had ghetto blasters and would blare them out along with The Doors and The Cure. I was quite studious and doing well in Maths and English, but loved my music because it was one of the few escapes we had from academia.
Your Dad ran a haulage firm. It must have been successful for him to send you to St. Peter’s and then on to Trinity.
In the 1970s, he was one of the first in Wexford to buy these new-fangled ‘juggernauts’. He ended up with four or five lorries, mainly working for local farmers drawing – that was the word for haulage at the time – milk to creameries and beet to the processing factory. Although my father had little formal education, he was very outward-looking and taught himself Esperanto, which was the attempt at creating a universal language. It was rare that he left Wexford yet alone went abroad, but he also learned French and felt strangely connected to Europe. We’d have been considered fairly well off in our parish. Being the eldest I was expected to take over the family business, but when I started doing well at school my parents realised I was smart enough to go to university. None of my mother or father’s family had even done the Leaving Cert, so it was kind of unchartered territory.
St. Peter’s made headlines for all the wrong reasons in 2005 when the Ferns Report found that a teacher, Fr. Donal Collins, had serially abused boys there between 1962 and 1991.
I was reasonably happy in boarding school, and some of my brothers went after me and were happy as well. But there were very many pupils that weren’t happy and who were subjected to appalling abuse. Young boys like me, who thankfully escaped the worst of it, would’ve had a kind of radar for that, I suppose. It’s well documented that there were many problems in St. Peter’s back in the ‘80s. Many of these have been high profile cases that have gone through the courts. It’s all been dealt with now from a legal perspective and hopefully washed out of the system. There may still be a religious ethos but, in the main, priests don’t run these schools any more. The lay leadership is much more open to what young people need than the priests who taught me were.
It must have been a relief to leave St. Peter’s for Trinity.
Yes, ‘relief’ is definitely the right word. I arrived at Trinity in 1983, which was just ten years after the Irish Catholic hierarchy had lifted its ban on Catholics attending the college, which up till then had been regarded as a place where only Protestants studied. There was a great demand in Irish society for university education, and Trinity responded accordingly. There were still vestiges of its past, but Trinity felt a very secular place – especially when compared to St. Peter’s and the teachers in their priestly garb.
While you immediately said “yes” to talking to Hot Press, it’s taken us three months to nail down this slot because you’ve been travelling so much. How did you get on in the Lebanon?
We have a potential collaboration with one of the best universities in the Middle East, the American University of Beirut, which has flourished now that there’s relative peace in the region. Students from all around the Middle East come and study there. I would very much like to have a collaboration of some kind – in engineering or in Islamic Studies. I went out there with some of our engineers and Linda Hogan, who is our Professor of Ecumenics. We had a very interesting discussion with religious leaders in southern Lebanon about how religion and politics interplay and how the ultimate copper-fastening and success of a peace process involves interfaith dialogue. Clearly, the Irish school of ecumenism has, for many years, played this role in Northern Ireland. Now it’s playing that role in other parts of the world, like the Lebanon where dialogue between Sunni and Shia clerics and Christian leaders is really helping to move things forward.
Trinity opening an Islamic Studies Centre would be the perfect riposte to Ireland’s anti-Muslim brigade who’ve clearly been emboldened by the rhetoric spouted by the likes of Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen and Tommy Robinson.
This fear people have of Islam is completely ridiculous. I’m not particularly religious, so didn’t realise that there’s a chapter in the Quran given over to the Virgin Mary. This was news to me! We should all know that the Virgin Mary plays a role in Islam.
You were also in Tel Aviv recently.
Yes, I’ve been to most universities in Israel – Tel Aviv, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Technion and the Weizmann Institute, one of the world’s leading centres for Life Science research with which we have an excellent annual student exchange programme.
How integrated is the Israeli university system?
I’d say there’s good integration. There are many Arab students in Tel Aviv University, for instance, who would be Israeli citizens. What you don’t have in any great numbers in Israel are Palestinian students. There are universities in Palestine, very good ones, which Trinity has collaborations with as well.
A student referendum asking, “Should TCDSU accept a long term policy on Palestine and in support of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS)?” resulted in a 64.5% ‘Yes’ vote. Has that impacted on your thinking at all?
The student voice is important, and represented on all of the committees. On perhaps the most important one, students have taken over the part of the table that used to be occupied by the deans. They’ll make their point, as they did with the BDS. We also have two good newspapers here, The University Times and the Trinity News, who are always on my case and that’s fine. Personally, I would have liked to have seen a wider debate and discussion before the referendum was held.
In February 2017, forty members of the Students For Justice In Palestine group prevented the Israeli Ambassador, Zeev Boker, from speaking at Trinity. Were they right to do so?
I thought it was particularly unfortunate that the Israeli Ambassador was blocked in that way. A university is a place for discussion and debate. If you disagree with the Israeli Ambassador’s position then say so – but let him speak. He was willing to have a dialogue and discussion afterwards. That would have been an important exchange of ideas.
What’s your definition of anti-Semitism?
I find it hard to know what a good definition is because the whole thing is thrown around so much. But I suppose anti-Semitism is some sort of racism against Jews in a way that disadvantages or disrespects them. There are many who think Trinity should do less with Israeli universities and some that think we should do more. We’ve many Israeli alumni and, as provost of this university, I’ve made an undertaking to meet alumni around the world wherever they live. I should not be saying, “I’m never going to talk to you or visit your country.”
Do you believe in the concept of university safe spaces?
I suppose my thoughts are that a university is not necessarily a safe space. It should be safe physically, of course, for students but it is a place for debate and discussion, a place where you’re going to be challenged by your lecturers and other students. And where you, in turn, have a duty to challenge them. That dialogue is the root to understanding. So I am very cautious about the concept of safe spaces as it’s emerged. It doesn’t rest easy with the environment needed for a good university education in particular.
Have you ever used your power of veto, as provost, to bar people that have been invited to Trinity by students or faculty?
We didn’t let Nick Griffin, the former leader of the British National Party, give a speech. The main reason being that the Irish politician who the students had lined up to debate him – I forget the name – baulked at the last minute. I wasn’t happy for him to talk unopposed. Recently we had Nigel Farage, which was fine because he was challenged on his views. As long as they’re similarly able to be challenged, I’d be okay with an American right-wing politician coming in. It’s only in very extreme circumstances that we would limit debate and discussion. In the case of Zeev Boker, this man is an accredited ambassador to Ireland and should have been allowed to make a case, which students could either have agreed or disagreed with.
Given all the #MeToo controversy, should there be mandatory consent classes for students?
I’m not, generally speaking, in favour of mandatory anything. Our students’ union was, three or four years ago, the first in Ireland to have consent classes. Not mandatory: come to them if you want. And this was a very good thing. The whole business of consent is worthy of more discussion among students.
Dating, compared to when we were clumsily kissing people as kids, has become incredibly complicated.
I have two teenage daughters myself and hear their conversations over breakfast and dinner and, yeah, it’s a minefield. But it’s a minefield that we all have to learn to negotiate. We’re much more aware now than we were, in our day, of the variety of sexualities, and the students here are very good at championing such things as LGBTQ rights.
With David Norris and Ivana Bacik both former students, Trinity has helped foster the two referenda ‘Yes’ votes. Are you proud of that?
Yes, I’m unequivocally and resolutely proud of Trinity College’s role in societal change in Ireland. It goes back to Mary Robinson’s day. She’s our current chancellor and was one of the very first to take a strong position on human rights issues relating to contraception and abortion and so on. She did it when she was a young lecturer and a professor here. I see this as a really crucial thing, and I’m proud that in the Marriage Equality referendum, Trinity students played an outsized role and, in so far as I can, I support them. It would have been wrong for us to have taken a corporate position and said at board level, “Vote this way.” There’s a diversity of opinion at Trinity that has to be respected, but we did encourage students to get out and express their views, and to realise that they can change this country for the better.
Personally, were you a “Yes” voter in both referenda?
Yes, I was in favour of marriage equality and the woman’s right to choose, absolutely.
Student registration for the next Seanad election has just ended. A lot of people – myself included – feel that it’s an inherently elitist way of selecting a second chamber.
I believe it’s good to have an upper house, which isn’t just another forum for electing national politicians. When the referendum to abolish the Seanad was called in 2013, we agitated strongly for a debate around this whole issue. I look at the great senators we’ve had – Mary Robinson, David Norris, Ivana Bacik, Sean Barrett, Shane Ross and Lynn Ruane among them – and think, “If it works, it works.”
Lynn Ruane has been a breath of fresh air in the Seanad.
She’s more than a breath of fresh air; Lynn Ruane represents a changing dynamic in Irish society. She’s able to articulate sophisticated ideas – like taking a more rehabilitative approach within the justice system to drug addiction issues – very well. She’s turning the wheels of change.
Lynn’s argument is that drug addiction should be treated as a health rather than a criminal issue. The recently retired Assistant Garda Commissioner, Jack Nolan, has said that the current Misuse of Drugs Act is failing young people who are getting criminal records for possessing often tiny amounts of illicit substances. Would you like to see that change?
I don’t know enough about drug policy to be pontificating about it but, yes, we should be looking at young people getting criminal records, which make it harder for them to establish themselves in jobs and a career. Not only with regards to drugs, but petty theft and other things as well. They’re getting criminal records before they know their own minds – often there’ll be outside influences – and are able to establish themselves independently. We need to work out a system in Ireland that doesn’t put people on a fatal path to a lack of success in their lives.
What happens if a Trinity student is caught with, say, a couple of Ecstasy pills that are clearly for personal use?
We have an internal process carried out by a person called the Junior Dean. If the laws of the land have been broken in any way, we’re obliged to tell the Gardaí. I shouldn’t give any other impression than that. But we do recognise that people make mistakes and can genuinely learn from them.
So, they won’t automatically be thrown out of college if cautioned or prosecuted?
We tend to be understanding of context. We’re kind of in loco parentis here. We’ve got 17,000 relatively young people, a thousand of whom are living on campus and another thousand who are in our Dartry residence. Many of the first-year students come from outside Dublin or from abroad. Students have a personal tutor whose job it is to help them with life choices as well as academic matters. That’s a very important part of what we do.
Lynn Ruane is a shining example of the Trinity Access Programme helping people from communities where the third-level progression rate is low to get on to courses.
I had a very depressing conversation about two years ago with a New York philanthropist who more or less said: “Those kids that have come from families where drugs may have been an issue; they might be very intelligent, but you’re wasting your money and resources because they won’t pass the courses. You’ll feel good about it, but it’s pointless.” I was able to tell him, “Well, you’re 100% wrong.” Students might not have their Leaving Cert, but do our foundation year and fare just as well as those who’ve come to Trinity with 500-plus points. It’s been borne out by statisticians that you don’t have to do really well in the Leaving Cert to benefit from a Trinity education. We want to broaden this access and create as many different kinds of routes as possible.
Does this include engaging with young people living under direct provision?
The President of the Students’ Union here, a man called Shane De Rís, is on the warpath about direct provision and rightly so – it’s a terrible thing. I’d like to be a citizen of a country where all the young people living in it have access to higher education. The young people in direct provision are classified as non-EU students, which means under state regulations that they’re obliged to pay the non-EU fee, which is upwards of €20,000. They can’t afford the EU fee of €3,000, let alone the higher amount. We’re setting up a special task force in the college, which will look at ways of getting these students from direct provision who do well in their Leaving Cert, and have the necessary points for a course, to Trinity. We want them here. They would add to our diversity and bring brains, intelligence, commitment and motivation to the university. We’re planning to find a way to admit students in direct provision free of fees.
What’s the government saying about it to you?
Well, the government’s saying, “You have to charge them €20,000, the non-EU fee.” I haven’t talked to them about it, but I suppose they’re worried that we might become known as a country that you come to as an asylum-seeking student and then get a free education. But would that be a bad thing?
How well do you get on with the relatively new Minister for Education and Skills, Joe McHugh?
I haven’t met Mr. McHugh yet. I look forward to meeting him.
He’s six months in the job, and hasn’t found the time yet to talk to the provost of Ireland’s top-ranked university? That’s extraordinary.
I’m just going to look at the floor…
I’m genuinely shocked.
I did write to him and I know his diary… he’s a busy man.
Isn’t it unfortunate that one of Trinity’s food franchises, Westland Eats, is run by Aramark, the American conglomerate, which has also been contracted to run three direct provision centres in counties Clare, Cork and Meath? The students who protested outside Westland Eats with “Direct Provision = Prison” and “Aramark profits from human suffering” banners think it is.
(Sighs) Yeah, yeah, I think it is. I’ve asked the director of our commercial activities to look into this. Clearly, Aramark, like in direct provision, are providing what they’re asked to provide. So, I don’t know if we should paint all their activities with the same brush. I can’t, on the one hand, say I want a university where students have their own opinions and think independently, and on the other go, “I don’t want this protesting against Aramark.” I have to let it happen.
Two incidents – an erroneous student newspaper report that Trinity had bought you a €1.95 million penthouse and the social media smearing of a student who was falsely accused of sexual harassment – prompted you to speak out about the dangers of ‘Fake News’.
(Pauses) We had a student movement in Trinity last year. The dining hall was occupied and buildings were shut down. I didn’t think it needed to come to that, but it’s their campus, it’s their university as much as it is mine.
Does Trinity have a social media bullying policy?
As far as I know, we don’t. We have an anti-bullying policy, but what they call ‘Fake News’ is a matter of public discourse now. I didn’t have a penthouse apartment. It’s not fake news; it’s just wrong news. What we find with the student protests is that Trinity College’s social media engagements improve tremendously when we’re in competition with our own students ‘cause they’re better at it than we are. After these skirmishes, I always say to our public affairs and communications head, “Tom, why did the students beat us again?” and he’ll say, “We must get better.” And we get better. And then it’s almost like an arms race with both sides looking to up their game.
A recent OECD study found that 6% of Irish graduates are functionally illiterate – a marked increase on the previous figure. Does that shock you?
Am I surprised it’s quite low?
I thought it was quite high!
What does ‘functionally illiterate’ mean? I’m confident that our young people are coming out of Trinity as smart as they ever were, and more interested in things like climate change and migration and social justice than my own generation from the 1980s were.
Should somebody who comes out of Trinity be fully ready for the job market?
The most important thing is that they should be ready and motivated to learn. Let’s say they graduate as an engineer. After four years in Trinity, they’re going to be able to do some things in the firm, but they won’t be able to do the full gamut. Nor, I think, should the employers expect them to. Don’t get me wrong: employability is important and students should come out with the skills to be useful in the workplace, but employers should have an understanding too that they’re getting an educated person who, if they don’t know how to use a particular package or a particular diary management system, will soon pick it up with instruction.
In relation to the Trinity School of Medicine, there’s been a lot of debate about doctors being trained at Irish taxpayers’ expense and then going off to work tax-free abroad. Should there be a set period that they’re obliged to stay here for?
It’s very difficult to constrain people’s mobility. But in the case of a medical doctor, it’s interesting. When I was an undergraduate, you paid a higher fee to go to medical school than you did to do engineering. You probably paid least to do an arts degree. Now everybody pays the same amount - €3,000 – yet doctors come out with something that gives them very high earning power. If you’re in the United States, for example, you usually have a lot of loans to pay for your medical degree. In Ireland, you have no such loans. There’s a case for student doctors and dentists and so on to pay a higher fee for their very expensive education, obviously taking into account those that can’t afford to pay or may need loans or grants or whatever. But I’d be slow to bring in what you’re suggesting, which is a constraint on people moving around.
Is there any scenario in which you can see university fees being scrapped?
I suppose it could happen if there was a change of government, but who’s going to pay for it? It ends up being the taxpayer, and I think there’s a rationale for those that benefit from the education contributing to it. That’s reasonable given the earnings of people who have university degrees.
Talking to Hot Press at the start of the current academic year, USI President Síona Cahill cited cases of students having to sofa surf and sleeping in their cars because they can’t afford exorbitant rents.
I wasn’t aware of students sleeping in cars, which is obviously horrendous, but I do know of them commuting up from places like Wexford because they can’t afford accommodation in Dublin. I’m appalled by how much some landlords are asking. How can students do a degree at the same time as having a two-hour commute every day? It’s one of the biggest challenges not just for universities, but for society in general.
There’s a salesman’s aspect to your job: you have to go out and convince companies that their research money is better spent with Trinity than other third-level institutions. How important is that?
Our turnover last year was €375 million. €100.6m of that was from research, so it’s very important. We have to compete annually for these grants from Science Foundation Ireland, the European Commission and from industry. Trinity is Ireland’s premier centre for research and scholarship. In terms of money, we do more research than any other university here. Reputation comes from doing brilliant research and making great discoveries.
By the time people read this Theresa May could have told Michel Barnier and Guy Verhofstadt, “Sorry, it’s all been a terrible mistake, we’re staying.” What would a no-deal Brexit mean for Trinity?
It would be very bad for Trinity, and for all Irish third-level institutions because student mobility will change. Trinity sees itself as a university for the whole island of Ireland. We’ve made a big effort to have more students from Northern Ireland come south. The number had been increasing by about 20% every year, but in 2018 it dropped 20% because of the uncertainty. A student from, say, Derry is going to be a non-EU student and therefore have to pay five times as much in fees.
A week rarely passes without a high-profile politician, actor, writer or musician paying Trinity a visit. What have been your personal standouts?
Michelle Obama visited a couple of years ago. We had her in the Old Library while her husband, who was President at the time, was at a G-7 Summit meeting up in Northern Ireland. I was like, “Oh my God, here I am with Michelle Obama, she’s giving me a hug; we’re having a chat.” She’s an all-round very impressive person. Meghan Markle was another one. I don’t know much about the British royal family, but I found her quite interesting. Again, we brought her and Harry to the Old Library and showed them all the beautiful books. She looked at the busts of past provosts and said, “Twenty men on this side, twenty men on that side – no women. What’s going on?” Which was a good point.
Would you welcome Donald Trump with as much gusto as Michelle Obama?
(Pause) Em, well, it’s hard to beat Michelle. Er, it’d be great if Melania came.
And left her husband at home?
Well, if he wants to come and see a lovely university in Europe, Donald Trump is the President of the United States and we respect that.
A bit of a bizarre one to end on: when he came over in 2007 to receive his Honorary Patronage from the Phil Soc, Johnny Marr nearly bailed on the ceremony because he’d heard that Trinity still swears allegiance to the Queen. Is that true?
Er, no. We recognise that the initial charter was signed by Queen Elizabeth I: it’s just a historical fact. The charter to found the university came from the British monarchy, but we’re a happy institution, fully integrated with what’s going on in the country. (Laughs) The lecturers and professors doff their caps to me, but to nobody else.