Features

Dr Michael Murphy

  • 05 Jan 2017

(6 minute read)

As UCC President Michael Murphy prepares to hand over the baton after ten years, he shares some of his memories of leading the university through high and low times

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . .” How Charles Dickens’s opening line from A Tale of Two Cities (1859) might have been written to capture the experience of the past decade in UCC!

In February 2007, my first month in office, the boundless optimism of the Celtic Tiger era was still alive: “We could not possibly put a three-story building on the former greyhound-racing track, land prices being where they are, and going where they’re going . . .”, was a contribution at our university’s finance committee.

Just four years later, the same committee was voting monies to provide free meals for penurious students and to help house others sleeping in cars (or under a bridge in one case), such was the change in national, institutional, citizen and student fortune.

President Michael Murphy reflects on his term of office


Western Gateway Building

And yet the Western Gateway Building was built. Although it took a decade to find all €109 million required, UCC now boasts the largest and most modern academic edifice in the country. The lesson: universities the world over are extraordinarily resilient and UCC matches the best.

Wasn’t our Main Quadrangle built at the very height of the Famine (1847-49), while cholera in the city prevented Queen Victoria from coming into the campus to perform the opening. One hundred and sixty years later no mere national bankruptcy would derail the ambitions of today’s 23,000 confident, ambitious, diverse and clever community of students and staff.

Citation of a construction project as a premier institutional accomplishment is, of course, slightly ironic, as I have repeatedly and publicly denied enslavement to the edifice complex - a common characteristic of university presidents! More fundamental than buildings have been the evolution of the vision for the university, the refinement of its goals and the projection of its uniqueness to the outside world, coupled with effective implementation.

A world-class regional university

The UCC Strategic Plan for 2007-12 embraced a vision for “a world-class regional university”. Our purpose today remains excellence in teaching, learning and research, but striving also to maximise relevance to the needs of local society and business.

This vision has since emerged as a global theme for university planning but our early embrace of the agenda attracted considerable international attention. The UCC Plan (2009-12) featured as a case study in the Henley (UK) MBA programme, students being required to compare and contrast the strategic plan of Nokia Corporation with that from Cork. Comparison of the status of both institutions today (Nokia is history), might give pause for thought to those who foist a business sector ethos on universities!

University rankings

Vision must give way to actions, effective implementation. Eventually, in 2015, UCC was awarded 21 A grades across 30 metrics by the European Union U-Multirank, the highest number among all 1,220 universities assessed, celebrating in particular our performance under regional university measures.

Dickens must have had university rankings on his mind. It has been quite a roller-coaster decade. By 2010 and by dint of much hard work, UCC had made its way into the top 200 (top 2%) of global universities, recognition we went on to enjoy for three consecutive years.

Michael has been privileged to meet many extraordinary people during his 10 years in office, including here in 2007, with honorary graduate, Irish-American philanthropist Loretta Brennan Glucksman.

Funding

But alas, no more! Eight years of continuous revenue cuts, 15% fewer staff serving 10% more students, enforced early retirement of some of our most productive academic and support staff, loss of our academic stars to other international universities, and - equally important - the imposition of a bureaucratic stranglehold seen mostly in less developed countries - has taken an inevitable toll.

Nevertheless, we have adapted magnificently: fewer than 50 cents of each euro flowing to UCC now comes from the State, contrasted with 86 cents in 2006, due to growing international and postgraduate fee-paying student numbers, as well as growing and diversifying research income. Meanwhile, universities in other countries have enjoyed ever more state and private sector investment and - enjoying greater autonomy to ensure greater effectiveness - have passed all Irish universities by.‌

Green Campus

There is one very important and notable exception to the rankings trend, student-initiated and student-led and a manifestation of that independent thinking that we celebrate: UCC’s commitment to institutional and societal sustainability is second to none. A highlight of the decade has been our designation in 2010 as the first university campus in the world to be accredited with the Green Flag of the Federation for Environmental Education, recognition that itself, sparked off a new global university movement.

UCC’s positioning as a champion of the green agenda, among the top four universities in the world every year since “greenmetric” rankings began, is a source of great pride for everyone. The most recent green initiative, the development of our own vegetable garden on our new lands at Curraheen (which you can read about in this magazine), is also a reminder that the campus estate grew by 53 acres (40%) during the downturn. Yes, you may have guessed – purchased from NAMA: The best of times, the worst of times, providing opportunity for campus growth in the decades ahead.

Harold Macmillan: “events, dear boy”

You will have noticed that when I began this piece I highlighted that UCC has had a plan, implemented it and enjoyed impact and success. But you will also have noticed another theme – the encroachment of unanticipated occurrences, famously described by the British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan as “events, dear boy”. Well, “events” have certainly played their part in the trajectory of UCC lately. Examples include: fire at the old naval building housing the Coastal and Marine Research Centre on Haulbowline Island; the floods of November 2009 which submerged one third of the campus and inflicted tens of millions of euro in damage; volcanic eruptions in Iceland in 2010 stranding dozens of staff and students on field trips in Western Europe; and the global economic tsunami of 2008 from which Ireland is only now recovering. Ah, yes, Macmillan.

The best of times, the worst of times

Artist Colin Davidson, Dr Michael Murphy, President of UCC; and Dr Catherine Day, Chair of the Governing Body, UCC, with Davidson's portrait of the President. Photo: Tomás Tyner, UCC.

The roller coaster experience continues. A sublime moment came in October this year when we learned that UCC had, once again, been named the Sunday Times University of the Year for 2017. It is recognition, in my view, that UCC is confident in its understanding of the role of a university and clearly committed to discharging that role to very high standards. We exist primarily to teach our students, to learn with and from them, and to provide all students and staff with opportunities to grow, to improve continuously, to experiment and to innovate – to be Independent Thinkers.

During the past decade UCC grew in size – in its student population, campus acreage, built environment and research income. It is more diverse - in its international representation among staff and students and in its popularity among both domestic and international student markets. It is more successful in its innovation measures and its commercialisation and more inclusive, transparent and resilient, than at any previous time.

It has been my privilege to serve during one of the most challenging decades in our history.

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