Wrixon: UCC’s Courageous President

During my years as president of the University of Limerick my colleagues and I were pleased indeed at the relaxed approach to change and development adopted by successive presidents in UCC.  As Cork dawdled Limerick forged ahead. Year after year Cork’s lead was narrowed, and in certain areas eliminated. In rapid succession a series of spanking new buildings emerged on the Limerick campus with funding from the World Bank and then the European Investment Bank. New academic programmes were launched and student numbers grew.  Then, with a major fundraising drive in the US, further new laboratories, student residences, sports facilities, library, Ireland’s first 50-meter pool and purpose designed concert hall, together with the most extensive university art collection, after that in Trinity, appeared in Limerick.  Cork was not pleased.

Then came Prof. Gerard Wrixon as president of UCC.  Unlike his predecessors Prof. Wrixon saw the need for change, and radical change. He recognised that UCC must be shaken out of its complacency and old ways in order to make up lost ground and re-establish its reputation nationally and internationally. This challenge he has addressed with courage and unrelenting determination during the remarkable seven years of his presidency.

Prof. Wrixon returned to his alma mater, UCC, after a brilliant US career at Berkeley and Bell Labs: world-leading academic and research establishments. Despite Ireland’s penury in the 80s he managed to pull together the funding to build the National Microelectronics Research Institute, (now the Tyndall Institute) into Ireland’s largest and most distinguished centre of research.

When he was appointed president of UCC in 1999 he lost no time in signalling his determination to bring about change, streamline, and awaken the sleepy campus. He transformed UCC, attracted talent and, in terms of research funding, made it Ireland’s foremost research university.

With disproportionately large slices of public funding, won in competition with the other universities, UCC attracted an impressive range of international talent. New research centres emerged along with a new medical campus at Brookfield.  While the thrust of Prof. Wrixon’s efforts was directed to meet the national challenge of building Ireland’s scientific research capability, and responding to the opportunities provided by Science Foundation Ireland, his commitment to the arts and humanities is also strongly evident.  He created new departments of History of Art and Religious Studies. He launched new degrees in Architecture, Chinese Studies and Sports. In securing private funding to build the stunning award-winning Glucksman Gallery he provided Cork, by happy coincidence, with the only significant evidence to mark its European Year of Culture.

Surprising then, that within days of his announcement to step down as President of UCC, he has been pilloried rather than lauded. But for those of us who have been involved in leading change in the university system this phenomenon is familiar. For, in awakening and streamlining UCC and releasing pent up talent he has also disturbed those who enjoyed cosy work practices and academic relationships.  His most dramatic move, and one which I applauded, was the introduction of the management model that has helped build some of the world’s greatest universities in the US.  He established four Colleges, each with an executive College Head and a decentralised budget. Faculty and departmental fiefdoms were made more accountable, not only for the headcount of undergraduate students, but also for a range of achievements, especially in the area of research.  The outcome was predictable: while most of the leadership welcomed being unfettered from the old constraints, a small number were not amused.  Their academic power balance was disrupted, old certainties confounded and academic alliances dislocated.  The vast bulk of the faculty and staff recognised the need for change, got on with their jobs and took pride in a succession of achievements as new buildings sprung up on the campus, as UCC outflanked other universities in winning research contracts and attracting a growing list of distinguished researchers from abroad. But some academics, whose carefully honed lifestyles and contrived career paths are disrupted, can become a dangerous bunch.  The privilege of academic freedom to determine personal work patters can readily be abused: scholarly research and teaching can be pushed aside in favour of academic politics… and disgruntled academics, especially those who may be smart but not much interested in their jobs, can skulk in the corridors and plan really dirty pool.

Accusations of bullying are readily thrown around. University presidents who have the courage to face down academic cliques and brook no nonsense grow accustomed to the charge.  Attempts to discredit Prof. Wrixon with charges of mismanagement because UCC has borrowed to finance new buildings make no sense to anyone with even the most basic grasp of economics.  Indeed with a UCC capital asset of some €500 million a businessman would have good reason to ask why only €40 million has been borrowed against it.  UCC’s debt falls well within the conservative guidelines approved by the Higher Education Authority.

Prof. Wrixon has also been accused of prematurely proceeding with the construction of UCC’s Information Technology building.  It must be almost seven years since planning permission was granted, the building is ranked as a high national priority and it is almost a year since both the Ministers for Finance and Education announced it.

It can be tempting for an outgoing chief executive to be critical of a successor, but prudence normally imposes restraint. But Prof. Mortell, who preceded Prof. Wrixon as president of UCC has taken sides and publicly embroiled himself in the controversy.  Managing a university has been likened to herding cats at a crossroad: the task becomes even more demanding when the outgoing president joins in and when associates are prepared to abuse powerful media connections.

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