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Posted 25 November 2014

UCD President Prof Andrew Deeks delivers his inaugural lecture

The President of University College Dublin, Professor Andrew Deeks has delivered his inaugural lecture to an audience of over five hundred people at UCD’s O’Reilly Hall. In the wide ranging lecture, Professor Deeks defended the values and principles of comprehensive, research-intensive universities.

“Newman’s Dublin writings on “The Idea of a University” and his spirited defence of the value of a liberal education continue to have impact today, and indeed have shaped the development of UCD and influenced the development of university education worldwide. This evening, I want to follow in Newman’s footsteps in another way, by reflecting on the idea of a global university,” he said.

Prof Andrew Deeks, President, University College Dublin and Eugene McCague, Chair, UCD Governing Authority
Prof Andrew Deeks, President, University College Dublin and Eugene McCague, Chair, UCD Governing Authority

He explained that when you grown up in “an era of such rapid technical progress” like this era you come to expect that such a state of progress is normal, but offering examples of eras when technological change was notably slow, Professor Deeks suggested that “connectivity” is the required catalyst for combining and building new technologies. He proposed the “cross fertilisation of ideas” as the main generator of societal advance.

“Although we often think of advance of ideas and technologies in terms of contributions by a small number of individual geniuses and inventors, it is fairer to think of technological advance as something achieved by society more broadly, as one idea or way of thinking generates another,” he said.

He offered several examples including Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz, who quarrelled over who discovered calculus; James Watt whose advance on Thomas Newcomen brought him the credit for the steam engine; and more recently, Peter Higgs, whose review of an academic paper on elementary sub-atomic particles led him to postulate a mechanism that would require the existence of a new elementary particle, now called the Higgs Boson, which would win him a Nobel Prize. Higgs did not receive the Nobel Prize alone, but shared it with François Englert, a Belgian physicist who independently with a co-worker had postulated the same mechanism.

“The interlinking of different societies and viewpoints clearly promotes societal advance, and a society isolated from alternative viewpoints and ways of doing things will stagnate.  Within these interconnected societies, we see that advance is through a series of incremental steps, each building on the next, with the next technical step becoming inevitable at certain points in time and then a number of individuals independently making the step,” he said.

As he expressed his view on the importance of a comprehensive, research-intensive university, Professor Deeks noted that the same utilitarian arguments which confronted Newman in his day are still put forward today. 

“These utilitarian arguments say that universities should prioritise the preparation of students for careers which are seen to be in demand, and to concentrate on developing practical skills. Like Newman, I reply that we are preparing our students to take their place in society and to contribute to the flourishing of that society, both national and international.”

“In Newman’s ‘The Idea of a University’ he argues for a liberal education which develops in the mind the ability to, through a process of looking at things from a variety of viewpoints, come to full illumination or understanding of the subject matter. He also sees university as developing a range of generic skills in communication, teamship and leadership that we would recognise today. He stops short of suggesting that everyone should be educated in a liberal way, but suggests that as long as a university has a range of scholars in a variety of subjects, and that they converse and debate matters of interest together, that the end goal of the university would still be reached.”

“These days we see exposure to and participation in research as being a vital part of the process of training the mind of which Newman was so passionate about, and a primary goal of the university.“
But, Professor Deeks added, universities need to be global in their being in order to meet the needs of students and of society.

“To prepare our students to flourish in this interconnected global society, we need to be a global university.   We must be engaged nationally and around the world. Different points of view do not only come from within the university, but also from outside.  We must also promote international mobility of staff and students, joint research and teaching programmes with universities around the world, and mutually beneficial strategic holistic partnerships.”

“We must be research-intensive. The brightest students need to be inculcated into an academic community or practice which is always learning, innovating and reaching for new knowledge. This is part of the training of the mind that Newman promoted.”

“We must have a comprehensive suite of strong disciplines. As Newman has pointed out, an environment where different points of view are present assists in the debate and in developing the understanding of all involved.”

In answer to the question of what might hold a university back, Professor Deeks said that we must learn from that which works and doesn’t work around the world, and then introduce new insights to define international best practice.

“Particular issues we need to sort out include the funding and governance framework of the research intensive university sector, and the human resource constraints.  It will take courage for Irish political leaders to trust and empower university leaders to build and develop our universities to keep pace with the best in the world. Research-intensive universities are unique institutions, with a significant amount of their funding coming from non-exchequer sources, and the sector contributes greatly to the nation. The more we are empowered, the more we can contribute.”

The motto of University College Dublin is “Ad Astra” – to the stars – and the President finished by presenting his ambition for UCD.

“The vision our UCD university community have expressed in our new strategy is one of a scholarly community which is preeminent and excellent, research intensive, diverse and inclusive; having global standing and impact; underpinned by a suite of strong disciplines and performing high quality interdisciplinary research; contributing to the development of Ireland and tackling significant global challenges.”

“Our UCD graduates will be imbued with a knowledge of the past, capable of critically interrogating the present and of imagining the future, and equipped with the knowledge, skills, experience and attitudes they need to flourish through a holistic educational experience which is student-focused, research-led and has both breadth and depth.”

“In this way we will not only prepare our students to contribute to the flourishing of Ireland and the world, but we will also contribute directly through our research, innovation and engagement.”


(Produced by UCD University Relations)


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