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New broom at University of Limerick planning to sweep clean

On day one as president, Dr Des Fitzgerald reversed the entrenched UL attitude over a long-running controversy. Anne Sheridan hears why - and what he plans to do next

THE DAY before Dr Des Fitzgerald took his seat in the University of Limerick’s Plassey House he rang Mr Justice John Murray, the former Supreme Court judge who is chancellor of UL’s Governing Authority.

Mr Murray had been resistant to year-long calls by the Higher Education Authority for a new review into a series of allegations dogging UL since September 2015, when this newspaper was sued after reporting them on the front page.

“To my mind, we just had to draw a line in the sand,” Dr Fitzgerald told the Leader, “and the thing that concerned me with the department and the HEA was that we had to rebuild the trust with them, in having an independent adjudication on the various matters that have arisen.”

He was guided, perhaps, by one of Machiavelli’s quotes, which he often paraphrased when handing out degrees in UCD, where he once was the highest paid academic in the country on a salary which, at its 2009 peak, was €409,000. (He has taken a pay-cut of about 20 per cent for his €180,000-a-year, 10-year post.)

“It’s the man that honours the degree, not the degree that honours the man,” he would tell new graduates.

Now, he intends to honour the office of the presidency in UL, an institution he admits he warmed to “fairly slowly”.

So did Mr Murray agree?

“Yes. He was very supportive. This had been on my mind for a while, but I wasn’t working in the institution so I couldn’t action it.”

He wrote the letter to the secretary general of the Department of Education and Skills first thing on the morning of Tuesday, May 2, his first day in office, indicating UL’s full support for a thorough examination of all the issues raised.

It was quite a departure from UL’s previous stance, and he has rejected suggestions that the turnaround was precipitated by the Governing Authority having been sent an outline of what was due to appear in the RTE Investigates programme.

Since then, he has received a tranche of emails from former UL staff concerned about the university’s standing, and a number who themselves signed confidential, six-figure severance packages, many proffered by Arthur Cox solicitors in Dublin.

“I’ve written back to all of them to express my concern and unhappiness at what was happening. At some stage I would meet with them, but I don’t want to do this in the absence of the independent review, at least it getting started, and speaking to Richard Thorn [head of the new review], to make sure he was comfortable with it.

“If he is comfortable with me talking to these people, I’ll talk to them, because they have played such an important role in the university and what’s going on at the moment.”

Mr Thorn, the former head of Sligo Institute of Technology, will examine a range of issues in UL, including governance, human resources practices, procurement and severance packages, amongst other financial issues. The review’s remit is considerably broader than the earlier one commissioned by the HEA and a further facilitator’s report, which highlighted the difficulties of resolving deep-rooted issues at UL.

“We had no hand, act or part in [setting] the terms of the review, which a lot of people expressed surprise at. But I don’t want the review to come out and for people to say there was interference in some way,” Dr Fitzgerald said.

On the basis of what he had learned to date, should any of the whistleblowers receive an apology? “I'm very concerned about what happened, but I am not rushing to judgement. At some point, when it’s appropriate, the institution may apologise to them.”

Dr Fitzgerald’s first three weeks in the job would be regarded by many as a baptism of fire, in inheriting a legacy of problems not of his own making, and seeing UL being heavily featured in an RTE Investigates programme, Universities Unchallenged, in which substantial severance payments, expenses and the plight of three whistleblowers in the finance department came to the fore.

“It’s been very busy,” he admits. “We have to deal with them [these issues], but it takes away from being able to focus on the mindset of academic work, research, teaching and getting out to the community.

“I’m not underestimating the importance of dealing with that, but it is a pity because it takes away from what I was really brought in to do, which is to develop the academic programme.”

While the development of a new campus masterplan is under way, Dr Fitzgerald is not laying out his vision for UL just yet.

Stronger links with the city will finally be cemented during his term, he believes, citing connections in the field of health and bio-medical sciences among the most logical, particularly with the UL Hospitals Group and the private Barringtons’ Hospital, now owned by the Bon Secours group.

It is not a case, he says, of UL pinning down a particular site under the Limerick 2030 plan for the city’s development, or buying any site, for that matter.

“We really have to define what it is we want to do, rather than think about a site, such as what programme would you logically set up in the city. I have ideas about that but I’d need to discuss it with academics first in those areas to see if there’s an appetite for that.”

Aside from campus off-shoots, there are many other challenges. Dr Fitzgerald wants to grow postgraduate numbers to 20-30% of the student base, and bring in more international students to create a diverse student body, and a more multicultural city. The financial benefits of bringing in more non-EU students on higher fees are over-emphasised, he says.

UL also has to drive itself up the list of world university rankings, which will required it to improve its research portfolio and staff/student ratio, while its resources are currently “cut to the bone”.

“UL has to [go up the rankings], because students and parents make decisions around that, especially when fees come into it, as well as attracting staff and students from overseas. That’s the first thing they look at.”

Close to 15,000 students will be enrolled by next September, with 80,000 alumni now around the world. In a city mired with pockets of social deprivation, he admits he hates the word “disadvantaged”, particularly in the context of children. For a number of years UL has been running a ‘gifted kids’ programme, which he hopes the university will expand, potentially with a base in the city.

Dr Fitzgerald is enthusiastic about watching children aged seven to nine doing courses in medicine, writing or creating an app, under Dr Stephen Kinsella of Kemmy Business School.

“The kids are fantastic. The idea is to get them used to being on the campus. By the time they leave about 80% want to go to university, and there’s still a bunch who want to be footballers.

“About 5% of kids from Moyross go to university, and two-and-a-half miles away on the North Circular Road about 95% go. It’s socio-economic, but it’s also about telling someone you can go to university, and we bring their parents on to the campus to help to break down that barrier.”

At present, Des and his wife are still surrounded by boxes, living in the Strand apartments on O’Callaghan Strand, overlooking the river, the sight of which he says is “spectacular”.

“The view that people have [of Limerick]... they don’t quite see it as I see it. It's actually quite a beautiful city and it’s a great place to walk around. You don’t necessarily feel safe walking down O'Connell Street in Dublin at 11pm, but it just seems to be stated more about Limerick than it is about Dublin.”

Soon he will reside in the €2m president’s residence on campus in UL, which caused considerable controversy when it was built with private funds at a time of economic austerity. In spite of the negative publicity the residence received, sources said former UL president Don Barry spent little time there, preferring to stay in his own home in picturesque Ballina.

Dr Fitzgerald is not entirely overjoyed at the prospect either.

“How do I put it ... it has great architecture,” he says, with a laugh. “It’s a requirement you live there. It’s a very public house, for events, meeting donors or visiting academics. It’s not exactly a private home — it's more like living in a fish bowl and kind of exposed.”

When the search commenced for the UL post in January 2016, Dr Fitzgerald came down to inspect the campus, and found it was “a bit like what UCD was in 2014. I could feel that there was a huge amount put into it, but it needed to work on its academic programme. I warmed to it fairly slowly. I had a look at campus; I couldn't meet with staff [then] so I met the community.

"The support from the community was tremendous. I had never really seen anything like it.

“The campus really impressed me and the opportunity for the university. I thought it was something I could really make a difference in.”

Many will hope that he succeeds in that challenge.

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