"PROGRESSIVE" and "exciting" is how Labour city councillor Tom Shortt described the new president's residence at the University of Limerick, which others have termed "lavish" and "extravagant" in the current economic climate.
However, Cllr Shortt said just because this was a period of cutbacks, didn't mean we should abandon visionary ideas.
Funded by private philanthropic donations, for this specific purpose, Cllr Shortt said the residence will provide inspiration for the university's architecture students, as it has been designed by the award-winning Irish architect Shelley McNamara of Grafton Architects.
"Our university has not been standing still, and that it a very good thing. It will be an inspiration to young architects studying there.
"I think the money is being well spent, and we need a bit of vision at the moment. Maybe we could take a leaf out of their book in the city.
"UL is terribly important to the image of Limerick city itself. If UL proved to be prestigious internationally then that benefits Limerick," said Cllr Shortt.
He said the house possessed a number of attributes, including its architectural design, environmentally friendly features such as geothermal heating whereby "it could pay for itself in time", and the fact that its president will reduce commuting and congestion by "literally living on the job."
He agreed that third level fees were being "brought in by the back door", but said the "small sum of money" being spent on this project was "good value."
Peadar Cremin, president of Mary Immaculate College and a member of UL's Governing Authority, did not express any criticism of the project.
Instead, he said, he wished "that the foundation at Mary Immaculate College could find as generous a donor to support the many ways in which we make a difference to our community."
His comments followed those of Mayor Kevin Kiely, who earlier this week called for Prof Don Barry's residence at UL to be "scrapped".
Mayor Kiely, who also sits on the Governing Authority, believes the multimillion euro property, "should be sold and funds reinvested in education".
"I totally agree that a residence like that is too lavish. There is no need for it. The money should be invested in educational purposes. I am totally opposed to it. It should be scrapped straight away. It's sending out the wrong message," he said.
Prof Barry is due to move into the property at Garraun, Clonlara, next month.
The Limerick Leader first reported that the university president was to have his own residence on campus in May 2007, following Prof Barry's appointment.
But just last week, Minister O'Keeffe called for a report into the five-bedroom, three-storey residence. The Minister of State with responsibility for Overseas Development, Peter Power, said he “understands and has been assured that private donations were allocated to the property”.
He added that it was not unique for an Irish university president to have his own residence on campus, as the provost of Trinity College Dublin lived on campus, as had been the tradition for many years.
Prof Barry had been living in Killaloe, in a second president’s residence, which was also funded by philanthropic donations.
It could not be confirmed at the time of going to press if that property will now be sold, and where any resulting funds could be allocated.
Among the critics of the residence are Fine Gael Education spokesman Brian Hayes, who said he was “astonished that the university could engage in such extravagance when it is in deficit and students’ registration fees have been hiked up from j900 to j1,500”.
The students’ union at UL has not been critical of the project, but the Union of Students in Ireland said the money was “ill-spent” and “hard to justify”.
Fine Gael MEP Sean Kelly said building this residence in the current climate was like giving a j900,000 bonus to former FAS director Roddy Molloy.
Mr Kelly joined his party leader Enda Kenny in criticising the residence, stating “the day of privilege and class is over”.
“We spent many years trying to get rid of the privilege and class of the earls and the barons and the lords of Britain and we don’t want to be repeating that here,” he said.
EDITORIAL: PAGE 24