News and Views

Reflecting on 10 years as President

Dr Michael Murphy says he is very proud of the tenacity of staff and students. Photo: Clare Keogh.

Dr Michael Murphy says he is very proud of the tenacity of staff and students. Photo: Clare Keogh.

  • 30 Jan 2017

Floods, ash clouds, and the recession were just some of the more challenging aspects of Dr Michael Murphy's 10-year term as President. 

Dr Murphy took office in 2007 when the Celtic Tiger was "in its last fling."  Dr Murphy admits that he had a feeling that the Celtic Tiger wasn't going to last. However, even he couldn't have foreseen the upheavals that were on the horizon arising out of the economic crisis that befell Ireland.

 "What is most striking for me is that I was probably the only university president in the history of the institution who had to conduct research, googling about how to manage a university in a country in default. Because by 2010 there were serious concerns about default. Nevertheless, UCC has stayed the course in terms of delivering high quality teaching to students.”

We continued to conduct high quality research and develop the campus in spite of all the challenges, a testament to the resilience of thousands of people in the university. That is how I look back over the 10 years. Resilience in the face of extraordinary challenges."

Dr Murphy says he is very proud of the tenacity of staff and students. He insists both staff and the student population "just got on with doing an excellent job."

"Beyond that there are a few things I am very happy about. Obviously we acquired a campus in Dublin. I am happy that we were able to sustain the University's commitment to the Arts and Culture. They are often the victims of cutbacks early on and we have sustained the Glucksman gallery and we have artist-in-residence programmes. I am very happy that we have been able to do that."

He is heartened by UCC's many achievements over the last 10 years. Since 2007 UCC has admitted 15% more students and doctoral graduations have doubled with 15% fewer staff. International fee income has doubled while UCC now has full time representative staff based in China, India, Latin America and North America.

The Quadrangle boasts the world's first university-based Green Flag and UCC has been named The Sunday Times University of the Year three times over the last decade. SFI has also chosen UCC academics as their, “researchers of the year” for the last three years. 

Dr Murphy has always believed in making tough choices. He stresses that you don't become President to win a popularity contest.

"If everybody is your friend when you are retiring from this job, or stepping down, you probably haven't done the job properly. Success is very much based on continuing change, continuing evolution, and choices of direction have to be made in making choices you are going to satisfy some and you are going to dissatisfy others. So if you haven't seen continuing diminution in your circle of friends in the university over a 10-year period you won't have done your job right!"

Dr Murphy maintains that he has left the University in a better position than when he started. However, he concedes that not all of his hopes were realised during his tenure.

"In so far as anyone starting in the role has the ambition to leave the institution in a better state than when it started I would look over the 10 years and say that has been achieved. But not to the degree that I would have wished 10 years ago. I am happy that in most regards the University is in a better place. But a little disappointed that it is not in an even better place. Without revenue there are limits to what you can achieve. Obviously there is need for further growth of the University. We are facing a demographic bulge in the domestic population and so the University is going to grow. To be successful it will have to maintain a level of international participation approaching say 20% of students so preparing the ground to accommodate growth of that nature has been constrained by limits of revenue.”

While we did a lot and added 70 acres to the land space of the campus, and we have built some significant new buildings, we haven't been able to do as much as we need to do."

UCC's position in the world rankings is higher than when Dr Murphy took office in 2007. However, it is not as high as it was five years ago.

Dr Murphy says research levels have to be increased at the University and such an increase requires an injection of funds.

"We had broken into the top 200 in the QS system. We dropped back because of the 15% reduction in staff serving 15% more students. The loss of quite a number of high performing researchers, particularly in the STEM area, have impacted negatively on us but we are in a better position than when we started. Our researchers play a huge part in shaping the reputation of the University. They should be celebrated and I would like to see the growth of research. But that requires more money." 

Dr Murphy emphasises that it is unhealthy for any institution to become dependent on any single source of income.

"So when I started 10 years ago we were unhealthily dependent on the State. You should always spread your risk. So the optimum resourcing of universities should come from a jigsaw of sources. The state, the student a little bit more but not too much, the business community and philanthropy. The fifth element should be university-earned income through exploiting the outcome of its research. I would also like to have engaged our alumni more in the success of the University. I would like to engage them to give back a bit more. As much as supporting UCC on a financial basis, it is the leg up that they can give to their successor graduates, enabling their careers, that is the biggest value of the alumni network."

Dr Murphy insists that the central role of the President is in creating a positive environment to allow people with vision and ideas to realise their ambitions.

"We have two straplines. 'Independent Thinking' is a great descriptor of this University and it should be sustained in the future at all costs. The second strapline is that we prepare our graduates to be work-ready and world-ready. I would like to see the staff and the students keeping those two descriptions in their frontal lobes at all times. “

 He is very grateful for the input of the business community which gives students access to resources to make their entrepreneurial dreams a reality.

"Business has a very important role in the University and should have, does have, a role in governance to make sure that the programmes we are delivering are fit for purpose to ensure our students are ready for work and for society. In exercising influence, there should also be a commensurate responsibility on business to invest more in UCC and other universities. We provide their workforce and to do that we will require investment in facilities and staff."

UCC Outgoing President

Dr Murphy is particularly proud of UCC's sporting achievements over the last few years.

"I am delighted the “Skull and Crossbones” is the iconic sporting symbol in higher education and sports across the country. Every opposing player wants to swap jerseys for a UCC Skull and Crossbones shirt. Sport has a huge part in giving growth experiences to students and we are indebted to all the volunteers who support our clubs."

The outgoing President hopes that he was "an open and accessible" President to students and that he fostered a culture of engagement between students and the academic staff.

"When I was a student here in the seventies, the garden we are looking at out through the window was walled and we couldn't go in there. The absence of that wall symbolically describes how the University has evolved. I always try to make myself accessible to students. I set a new standard I think by being the first to face the Students Unions’ general assembly annually. I try to be out there and open and available. Because I think that is something that Presidents should always do. One of the matters I am proud of is that I took a decision that the President of the Students Union should be on the University management team. We have taken many steps to increase the voice of students in decision-making within the University. I hope that there has been healthy progress in engaging students."

In terms of offering advice to graduating students he is a firm advocate of the importance of travel.

"I am adamant that you have to work very hard to avoid insularity. I am adamant that everyone here should spend time abroad in the interest of ensuring that we have a globally focused society. The smaller the country and the more peripheral it is, the greater the risk of insularity. We are a long way from Brussels. It is absolutely critical for people on islands, small islands, to travel and to see diversity of culture, diversity of philosophy and diversity of approaches."

Meanwhile, Dr Murphy says university should be a place of fun and that it is important to have light hearted moments in the midst of an often-onerous job.

He also strongly believes that dissent and a degree of turbulence are healthy aspects of a healthy university.

"So I always invited the new Presidents of the Students Union to consider protesting as part of their raison d'être. Sit-ins in my office once a year were invited provided I knew about them 24 hours in advance. Only one took that up. And I was quite happy to take part in the ice bucket challenge because I think it is important for young people to recognise that older people haven't lost their sense of humour. The university is a fun place."

Dr Murphy says the one cultural shift he made was in reforming governance.

 "I spent the first few years reforming governance, simplifying it, making it very clear who was making decisions. We abolished 19 Governing Body sub committees and we reduced the statute book from a quarter of a million to 40,000 words. Much clearer clarity as to the proper gap between Governing Body and management roles. Understanding the relationship between Academic Council and the Governing Body. Simplifying, clarifying and increasing transparency. And trying to grow the trust of staff in the organs of the university particularly those designed to manage conflict. Hopefully the relative peace of the last five to seven years will be sustained in to the future and will allow everybody to focus on teaching and research."

The outgoing President says he is very conscious of the importance of "being both gone and forgotten."

"I have been very conscious of that in the transition phase with Professor Patrick O'Shea and over the past year I have made decisions deliberately not to make decisions in order to optimise the conditions for change he will bring. So for example I have desisted from filling senior leadership decisions to give him the opportunity to shape a team that he can work with to bring about healthy changes of direction in to the future. I wish the new President fair economic winds. I think he has the privilege of taking over the reins of a very committed, loyal staff and student population at this University who are proud of their history and are committed to being even better in the future."

Dr Murphy is adamant that while he is proud of his work at UCC it is a time for a change of leadership.

"I am sure I will find the adjustment challenging because all through my life I have accreted positions of increasing responsibility and it will be somewhat challenging to my persona to have to adjust. That said I believe that leaders in all functions have “sell by dates”. If you haven't made a significant contribution or role within seven years you are unlikely to do so in the future. It is time for change."

Being a President of a university is a time-consuming job which often involves 70-hour weeks. Dr Murphy says he is extremely grateful for the support of his wife Sioban over the last 10 years.

"In our case we had young children when I started. We had three under the age of 10. I take my hat off to Sioban because there were many times when I am sure she felt she was a single mother. And at the same time she created space to sponsor various projects at UCC, the Jennings Gallery and Visual Thinking Strategies in the curriculum as well as promoting Tai Chi for the retired staff."

President Murphy hopes to use his free time to travel and will also get involved in the voluntary sector. His golf clubs are also going to come out of their bag for the first time since the summer of 2008!

He is thankful for the privilege of being President and wishes his colleagues and graduates every success in the future.

"At the end of the day, the achievements of UCC over the past decade can be laid firmly at the feet of the staff and students of the University. I am extremely grateful for the support of both. I would like to convey my thanks to each and every one for enabling me to discharge the role of President of UCC over the past decade."

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