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President's Inaugural Lecture 2023 - Professor Orla Feely

Posted 25 September, 2023

UCD President Professor Orla Feely delivered her Inaugural Lecture at UCD O'Reilly Hall Belfield on Monday, 25 September 2023.

The event included performances from the UCD Choral Scholars and the Irish folk musician and producer, Dónal Lunny who is musician-in-residence at the UCD Creative Futures Academy.

The guest speakers at the lecture were Israel Olatunde, UCD Sportsperson of the Year 2023; Kerri Rowen, UCD Medicine Student of the Year 2023; and Stiofán Ó Briain, Poet and PhD student in Modern Irish at UCD.

Professor Orla Feely's Inaugural Lecture 2023

Is mór an onóir agus an pléisiúr é domsa a bheith anseo libh inniu, chun mo Léacht Tionscnaimh a thabhairt, mar Uachtarán ar Choláiste na hOllscoile, Baile Átha Cliath.

Thank you, Marie, for those very kind words and for the great commitment to UCD and our values that you have shown as Chair of the Sixth Governing Authority.  Thank you also to Aoibhinn, Israel, Kerri and Stiofán, and to those enriching this event though your music.  

It was very important to me that this event should not just be a traditional big lecture – I have given enough of those – but that it should be a showcase and celebration of our university and our community at this time of transition.

I do also want to take this opportunity to describe some of the factors that have shaped me, and to talk about how this is reflected in my understanding of UCD and my vision for the university.

The first and greatest of my many good fortunes was to be born into a loving and supportive family, very happily expanded over the years.  Most of my family are here today, and I am thinking in particular of those who cannot be.

I was also very fortunate to grow up not just in a family but also in a community and a country that valued education.  I started school in St Pius X National School in Templeogue around the start of the 1970s, shortly after the school opened and just as it moved from prefabs to a new school building. I moved on to secondary school at Our Lady’s Terenure, less than a decade after the introduction of free upper second-level education in Ireland and just as that school opened an entirely new modern building.

Later, just as I advanced to senior cycle, the school opened a major new laboratory extension of which I was an enthusiastic first beneficiary.

I grew up, so, thinking that every school smelled of fresh paint and new carpets, and their libraries of new books. Every child should be so fortunate. I did not realise at the time how my understanding of my place in the world and the opportunities open to me were being changed by those decisions of others to invest in my education, but I am very much aware of it now.

I am also strongly aware of the outstanding quality of the education that I received within those new buildings. Among many inspirational teachers, one whom I would single out because of her very specific influence on my next steps is Deirdre Kelly: a brilliant, expert teacher of higher-level maths at a time when this was not offered by many girls’ schools.  I am delighted to have Deirdre here with us today, along with the principals and other representatives, including students, of the schools to which I owe so much.

As I moved up through secondary school, I took for granted that I would go on to university.  Looking back, I am aware of what a privilege that was.  It was a privilege denied to my parents and theirs and theirs before them: small farmers in Leitrim and shopkeepers in Abbeyleix. My father in particular would have loved the opportunity to attend university, but his circumstances did not permit it.  He later often spoke with pride of his four children attending ‘the university’, as he would refer to it.  For him there was only one.

And when choosing what to study at university, I was again the beneficiary of fortunate circumstances.  The 1970s and early 1980s brought advances in technology that seemed to open up new worlds. One year I received from Santa an early pocket calculator with a red LED display and temperamental buttons, and I can still remember giving it hard sums and trying to defeat it. We listened to electronic music on the new Sony Walkman, and heard tell of computers for the home.

Technology seemed to offer an exciting future for a student like me, with my love of maths, and, crucially, for a girl like me. It was only through the 1970s that the number of women studying engineering in Ireland went from a very tiny trickle to a steady, if still small, flow.  The late Christina Murphy wrote often in the Irish Times about the opportunities for women in the profession, and the late John Kelly, then Dean of Engineering at UCD, held open days for schoolgirls in the main lecture theatre in UCD Merrion Street, now the site of the grand staircase in Government Buildings.

Once again I was a beneficiary of the work of others, this time of the pioneering women who took those difficult early steps and those who worked to grow their number.

And so in 1982, at the age of 16, I started in UCD Engineering, and had four very happy years across Belfield, Earlsfort Terrace and, most of all, Merrion Street.  I received a great education from faculty who, despite the much more restricted circumstances in Ireland at the time, saw no reason to impose restrictions on the education and the ambition they passed on to their students.  

I graduated in 1986, in a class of brilliant, ambitious electronic engineers with an absolutely world-class education from UCD.  The world was our oyster, but with one problem.  There were no jobs for us in Ireland.  That’s not entirely true.  Companies like the ESB always offered great jobs, as did early multinationals in the country like Analog Devices and Digital Equipment Corporation.  But, overall, the country offered nowhere near the scale and quality of opportunity for which we had been educated.  And so we left, en masse, headed for the likes of Philips in Eindhoven or Siemens in Munich.  Or, in my case, to Berkeley in California, where I went to study for a PhD.

Again let me acknowledge my great good fortune, this time to get to study and conduct research at one of the world’s great research universities at a time when students from a country like Ireland were welcomed, and funded, in significant numbers.  

This brought me into a new world.  If I trace my academic genealogy, through my PhD supervisor Leon Chua, his supervisor, and his supervisor and so on, there are names like Vannevar Bush, driving force behind the creation of the National Science Foundation; Fred Terman, provost of Stanford and father of Silicon Valley; and back to Thomas Edison. My ambitious engineering education at UCD had provided the bridge to this new family tree from my original family tree: the farmers of Leitrim and shopkeepers of Abbeyleix.  I am the beneficiary of the work and traditions of all of these.

An interesting thing happened during my time in Berkeley.  Being Irish went from being the subject of pleasant conversational curiosity to the subject of intense professional curiosity.  Senior figures whom I encountered in Silicon Valley and its universities were getting wind of the fact that something was happening in Ireland, and they wanted to know more.

Ireland was transforming: economically, industrially and socially, in a story that has had few parallels throughout the world.  There were a number of drivers behind this, but the one that has truly delivered the ongoing substance of this transformation is talent, as captured in the iconic mid-80s IDA Young Europeans campaign, with its memorable image of a group of smiling engineering and science graduates. 

And not just any graduates – graduates of UCD, ‘the university’ in the worldview of my father and others like him.  The booklet I received at John Kelly’s open day said that around seventy percent of the engineering graduates in Ireland at that time were from UCD.  Seventy percent.  Think of the significance of that number.  Think of what they delivered for Ireland. 

And that’s just the engineers.  Think of the other disciplines across this university, and their contribution to the Irish transformation.  Think of the impact of UCD’s professionalization of business education in Ireland.  Think of the impact of those in and from UCD who worked for social reform, or in championing Irish culture.  Take any discipline, your own favourite discipline in this university, and think of the impact of the UCD faculty and graduates within that discipline.

I am somebody who values stories, and this is one of the key stories that has shaped me and that drives me.  I saw how this country went from being an economic backwater to a country that, even with all of the problems that we recognize today, has accrued success, capability, reputation and wealth that would have been unfathomable to me back in Merrion Street.

And I know, because I am one of those who lived this story, how this relied on education, back to that fresh paint and new carpets, and on higher education, which delivered the talent and the advanced skillsets on which we have disproportionately relied. And I know how much of the story was delivered by UCD, a university that in its scale and its substance has made an unparalleled difference to the transformation of Ireland as I have experienced it.

Israel Olatunde, UCD Sportsperson of the Year 2023; Kerri Rowen, UCD Medicine Student of the Year 2023; and Stiofán Ó Briain, Poet and PhD student in Modern Irish at UCD, along with UCD President Professor Orla Feely. Credit: Jason Clarke

UCD is and has always been a university that makes a difference – to the lives of our students, to Dublin, to Ireland and, very importantly now, to the wider world.  We make things happen.  We leave our mark.

To take one example of this, visit the Museum of Literature Ireland, MoLI, a partnership between UCD and the National Library of Ireland, and see how our university’s first home on St Stephen’s Green has been transformed.  Take a look not only at the exhibits and exhibitions, but also at the school groups, families and lifelong learners engaging with the activities there, and witness MoLI’s award-winning work in fostering social cohesion, inclusion and multicultural dialogue.

Visit Lyons Farm, our teaching and research farm, or Farm Zero C in County Cork, or our partnership with the dairy industry in Rwanda, and see how UCD researchers are coming up with practical solutions to the challenges of sustainable agriculture.

Consider the work of Aoibhinn very recently in chairing the world's first Citizens' Assembly on Biodiversity Loss.  And of course the Citizens' Assembly model itself, now implemented in a number of countries around the world, was developed by UCD Professor David Farrell to see whether a more deliberative form of democracy could work at a time when people felt adrift and disconnected from power.

And consider also the outstanding achievements of the UCD Alumni community of over 300,000 located all over the world, including France, where Ireland’s Rugby World Cup squad has 13 members from UCD.

For me, one of the stories that best pulls together the many aspects of what we do is that of Eirsat, Ireland’s first satellite, which has been designed and built here in UCD and will be launched over the coming months. This is at its core a student project, which has given the students involved an extraordinary experience and skillset.  The research is about as fundamental as you can get, exploring gamma ray bursts that tell us about events in the early universe; and is also of course highly applied, in meeting the very stringent requirements for space flight.  

The team has worked across disciplines in very innovative ways: etched on the side of the satellite is a poem written for Eirsat by a group of school students working with UCD creative writing academics.  The Eirsat team has delivered advanced teaching to UCD students and engaged with many external audiences, particularly schoolchildren, using the excitement of space to excite them about science and engineering in a variant of my open days of old.  They have collaborated with the key leaders internationally and nationally, growing reputation for Ireland.  

And we in UCD are now working with government and its agencies, along with others, to build out from this one project to support the development of an industry sector for Ireland in space and earth observation – an area of opportunity that plays to Ireland’s strengths.  So, over the course of our work, what started as a student-focused project has extended its ambition to the development of a globally-networked industry sector – this is the reach that a university like UCD can have.

What I see in UCD today, what I have seen of UCD in its impact on my own life and the life of Ireland, and what I want to see into the future is a university that can and does land real positive change in the world.  

At a time when many, and in particular those of our students’ generation, feel powerless at the scale of the challenges facing humanity, in UCD we have the ambition, the scale, the substance and many distinctive advantages that enable us to make a difference in areas that matter.  I want us to lift our ambition around the scale of what we can contribute to the big global concerns; to engage at a new level with Ireland and with the wider world; to understand and advance our strategic positioning; and to get our story and our stories out there with conviction and purpose.

This morning, to mark the day of my inaugural lecture, I planted an Irish Native Oak tree just outside O’Reilly Hall, in the presence of colleagues who work in the area of sustainability and biodiversity and in managing our estates.  The Oak is one of the longest living trees in Ireland, and can live for up to a few centuries.  It also supports more life that any other native tree species.  

We have over 50,000 trees in UCD, and this is just one, but it marks what we consider – and what I consider – to be important at this time of transition for our university.  We don’t know how the world will evolve over the term of my presidency, but one thing we can be certain of is that the world’s response to unfolding climate and biodiversity crises will be absolutely central to this period.  We in UCD can help here, and we must.

Another area of clear and enormous disruption is in digital technologies, an area that poses major questions about how we prepare our students for the future of work, and of life.  In digital technologies, as in sustainability, we in UCD have been strategically building capacity, and we have people, programmes and plans of real significance.  In these areas as in others, expertise in ethics, human behaviour and governance must be combined with the sciences and engineering, and we are finding that the strength and reach of our disciplines in UCD and the connections across them present real advantages for us.

When planting the tree, I used – with great care – the shovel that Eamon de Valera used when turning the sod in September 1962 for the development of the Belfield campus.  Those attending that ceremony would be astounded by the campus today, as indeed are much more recent graduates when they come back to visit us. This campus is a an extraordinary and a hard-earned asset for UCD and for our students – we will develop it in a sustainable manner over the coming years to support our ever greater ambitions.

Another transformation since then has been in our global presence  We are Ireland’s global university.  We are the largest primarily English-speaking university in the EU, and by a long way Ireland’s most successful institution in Horizon Europe funding.  We value our European identity, and many of our community have led in Europe.  We have close and enduring ties with our nearest neighbours in the UK, as well as with countries further afield and with major global organisations. We have a genuine facility for meaningful global partnerships that get things done. These are extraordinary assets for us and will continue to be so over the coming years.

And of course the greatest asset of all is our university community.  In every part of this organisation you will find people fizzing with ideas.  We have a shared commitment to scholarship, to service, to academic freedom, to values that must endure at this time of fracturing societies in many parts of the world.  Across our community of engaged alumni you find an enduring bond, and very meaningful support for our university, that gladdens my heart in every place where I encounter it, and I greatly look forward to supporting that community throughout my time as President.

And if you ask those who work here or who interact with us in any way what makes our environment so special, they will say that it is the students.  To be part of the journey of our students, as they explore the world and their place within it, is the most enormous privilege.  Our students will always be at the heart of our university, as we map out how a distinctive and ambitious UCD education can make a lasting positive difference to their lives.  It is almost twenty years since we transformed our education offerings through the introduction of Horizons.  Let’s think about what comes next.

Our university community is reflected in another important element of this event that those of you who are here in O’Reilly Hall may have noticed in the conservatory.  This is the work produced in the Belonging Project, led by Dr Emma Farrell of UCD School of Education, in which past and present students and staff of UCD submitted short written pieces on how they found their place of belonging within our university community. From these submissions, unique art pieces were created by students from the National College of Art and Design, and you can see the pieces side by side in the exhibition outside.  This theme of belonging and community is one that I will keep at the front of my mind throughout my presidency.

As Marie noted earlier, I was funded by a fellowship from Intel during my latter years in Berkeley, and after returning to Ireland to take up a lectureship in UCD I attended the opening of the company’s Fab 10 in Leixlip, that iconic moment in the development of the Irish technology sector and indeed our economic transformation.  In a few days’ time I will be in Leixlip again for the opening of Fab 34.  The story of Intel in Ireland has been a significant part of the story of Ireland over my professional lifetime.  Both stories have been fuelled by talented people with advanced skills delivering with ambition in a global marketplace.

Where does the Irish story go from here?  This is not obvious, at this time of disruption.  The playbook will not be the same as it was previously, but some elements will be the same.  Crucially, we will continue to rely for our success on talent, and on the vital portion of that talent developed in higher education.  How could it be otherwise, given who we are and the resources at our disposal?  We need more than ever the advanced skillsets and global mindsets, the critical thinking and awkward questioning fostered by a strong and confident higher education system.

In the energy sector, and sustainability more broadly, in agrifood, in digital technologies, in manufacturing, in advanced therapeutics, in cultural and creative industries, in critical infrastructures, in healthcare, in social policy and more, there are big changes underway, there are problems to be solved and there are opportunities to be seized.  In Ireland, and in every major economy, there is a never-ending need for those talented people with advanced skills who will deliver in a globalized world and who will constructively shape their societies.

And where do countries, where does Ireland, find these talented people with their advanced skills and thereby secure competitive advantage?  They find them from higher education institutions.  In all of those sectors that I listed off just there, we in UCD have very exciting initiatives underway and growing, that are delivering exciting and important ideas and innovations, and great, great people.  

We have all of the attributes and advantages, apart from one, that we need to really drive the next phase of success for Ireland and to be among the universities making most difference to the world, with all the reputation, influence, network and success that comes with that.  It would be misleading, though, not to discuss the missing one today.

The student-to-faculty ratio in UCD when I was a student in the 1980s, that time of economic deprivation for the country, was around 13 to 1.  Now, in a vastly wealthier Ireland, it is over 20 to 1 – much, much worse than in my student days.  In the OECD Education at a Glance document just published, Ireland is second from the bottom for student-faculty ratio in tertiary education.  It is over a decade since the running of a cycle of the national Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions, so vital to bringing our research infrastructure up to the level needed for serious delivery.

As a country whose main natural resource is talent and whose success has depended so fundamentally on the talent developed in higher education institutions, how can we justify this?  Do we really think that with all the changes and competitive forces headed our way, we should be constraining our ability to reflect these with agility and ambition within Irish higher education?  We are doing the very best we can in an underfunded system, and we in UCD are delivering extraordinary things, often with financial support from our committed community of donors, which we appreciate so greatly.  But we could do so much more if the funding gap even to the international average – though of course we like to portray ourselves as well above average among knowledge economies – were closed.  This gap is the single biggest threat to our university’s ability to deliver on our ambitions over the coming years.

The government – drawing on the very beneficial impact of the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science – has assessed the funding gap at €307 million per annum, and stated their commitment to closing this over successive budgets.  There is a €1.5 billion surplus in the National Training Fund.  The underfunding of higher education, acknowledged time and time again in international benchmarking, will without question limit what this country can achieve for itself and how we can contribute to addressing global challenges.  The National Training Fund can be an important, and is indeed an obvious, element of the solution if the will is there.

I hope the will is there.  I have seen how this university transforms lives – it transformed mine.  I have seen how UCD and the UCD community – more, I would argue, than any other institution – enabled the transformation of this country.  I have seen how through our global presence and partnerships the world is seeing how we make a difference, and wants to get to know us better.

I am very ambitious, and very optimistic, about how with the wind in our sails we will continue to do extraordinary things.  We will shortly begin the development of our next university strategy, with the input of all sections of the UCD community.  Our university mottos are Ad Astra, to the stars – just like Eirsat – signifying ambition and excellence; and Cothrom Féinne, the spirit of equity and inclusion that has been a real focus for us.  These mottos will continue to guide us as we embark on our next steps. 

I believe to my core in the value, and the values, of higher education.

It is an enormous honour to serve as President of this great university, and I greatly look forward to working with you all and to showing together how UCD truly makes a difference to the world though these extraordinary times.

Go raibh maith agaibh go léir.

Associate Professor Aoibhinn Ni Shuilleabhain, UCD School of Mathematics and Statistics, UCD President Professor Orla Feely, and Marie O’Connor, Chair of UCD Governing Authority Credit: Jason Clarke

Professor Orla Feely: Background

Professor Orla Feely was appointed as President of University College Dublin on 1 May 2023. Prior to this, she was UCD Vice-President for Research, Innovation and Impact from 2014 to 2023.

A professor of Electronic Engineering, she holds a BE degree from UCD and MS and PhD degrees from the University of California, Berkeley, where her PhD thesis won the DJ Sakrison Memorial Prize for outstanding and innovative research. While at UC Berkeley, she also won the Outstanding Graduate Student Instructor Award.

Her research is in the area of nonlinear circuits and systems, and she has been awarded research grants and prizes from a number of national, international and industry sources.

Professor Feely is a Member of the Royal Irish Academy and a Fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Engineers Ireland and the Irish Academy of Engineering.

She has served as President of Engineers Ireland and as Chair of the Irish Research Council, the EU Advisory Group on Marie Skłodowska Curie Actions and the IEEE Technical Committee on Nonlinear Circuits and Systems. She has also served as Board Member and Deputy Chair of the Higher Education Authority in Ireland, as Vice-President for Resources and Treasurer of CESAER (the Conference of European Schools of Advanced Engineering Education and Research), and as a member of a number of Editorial Boards.

Professor Feely is a member of the judging panels for the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition, one of the largest and most successful school science fairs in the world, and the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering.

To contact the UCD News & Content Team, email: newsdesk@ucd.ie