Ireland's 'first green university president' takes UCC helm

The Cork city native, Professor John O’Halloran, takes on the role as the university encourages students to take part in antigen testing to help in the early detection of asymptomatic Covid-19
Ireland's 'first green university president' takes UCC helm

Ecologist and zoologist, Professor John O’Halloran, who begins his tenure as the sixteenth President of University College Cork. Picture: Dan Linehan

Acting as interim president since September 2020, Professor John O’Halloran was at the helm of the university during an unprecedented year.

Now, on his first official day in office as newly installed president, he told the Irish Examiner about his plans for leading one of Cork’s oldest institutions into a challenging future.

An ecologist and a zoologist, he describes himself as the first 'green university president', committed to securing a future for the university, our country, and the planet. 

"My main goal really is what I call securing our future, and that's a big ask," Prof. O'Halloran said. 

"What I want to try and do is secure our future, ranging from the planet from climate change and through climate mitigation, right through to creating global citizens, and indeed, securing the university and indeed the communities in which we live." 

"Part of the narrative of being an ecologist is that diversity is key in ecology, whether that's the diversity of plants or animals, and I believe it's the same for our communities.

I have a phrase that I say 'diversity begets stability'. 

"So the whole idea of equality and inclusion is critical, and diversity of people and voice, and international, all of that I want to see grow with UCC. But fundamentally, I want to secure our future as a country, as a university and as a planet." 

UCC is currently ranked eighth globally for sustainability, he added. 

"I want to leverage that more, and I want us to change the world. You might say that's ambitious. We need to be ambitious. We're going to drive that research really hard to ensure that we get the best evidence to help us to these really challenging times." 

UCC at a time of Covid

The UCC campus remained open throughout the Covid-19 crisis, but with much restricted numbers allowed to access the facilities. Now, the university is again preparing to welcome back thousands of students and staff.

“We're really excited,” Prof. O’Halloran said. “We are absolutely committed to getting our students back and our staff back for September.” 

Recently, he met a staff member who hadn’t stepped foot on campus since March 2020, the day universities were told to switch to remote teaching and learning. “That's going to be a big change for people, so we want to get people back safely.” 

This term, the campus experience will look different — teaching spaces are expected to operate at 80% of room capacity pre-Covid, and there will be caps on the maximum number of attendees in larger lectures.

Professor O’Halloran formerly served as vice-president for teaching and learning, and as vice-head of the College of Science, Engineering and Food Science at UCC. Picture: Dan Linehan
Professor O’Halloran formerly served as vice-president for teaching and learning, and as vice-head of the College of Science, Engineering and Food Science at UCC. Picture: Dan Linehan

Lectures will be shorter, to allow for changeover between them, and lecturers have been asked to consider outdoor air breaks halfway through two-hour lecture slots. Libraries will operate at 80% capacity, with students required to use the pre-booking system and to wear face coverings.

With 22,000 students and 3,000 staff members, UCC is approximately the size of Tralee. Were the logistical changes this year difficult to plan for?

“Universities are very complex organisations, and no university is the same. People often compare UCD, Trinity, UL but we are all very different.”

Student numbers and scale are big factors, as are campus buildings. 

“We have a whole variety of complex buildings. So buildings with ventilation, natural ventilation, and mechanical ventilation.

Professor John O’Halloran is a native of Cork city, and an alumnus of UCC. Picture: Dan Linehan
Professor John O’Halloran is a native of Cork city, and an alumnus of UCC. Picture: Dan Linehan

“So UCC is a research-intensive, comprehensive university. That means we're teaching medicine right through to humanities. All of those departments and schools have a little microcosm in each of them, and we have to plan for each one of those.

“We use what we call a 'rule of subsidiary', where we have people making the best decisions as close as possible to the students to make the best decisions for programme, first of all, and then secondly, there's accountability and transparency upwards.

“What I want to do is to assure students that they will have a campus experience and that campus experience is both in the lecture theatres, in the laboratory and the practice area, or in the clinical setting, but also in the clubs and societies.

“A university education is broader than just the lecture theatre, and that is something we really feel strongly about, that we are trying to restore and hopefully we will be able to do that.”

Return to on-campus learning

Will it be a shock for people to return to on-campus? 

“I think it is, and I think that’s understandable actually. There's been a degree of nervousness, there's been a degree of worry for people, but I think we've worked really hard with our human resources, but also with our students and our students' union." 

We’ve all seen the fantastic success of our vaccination programme, he said, adding that UCC is encouraging all of its students to avail of vaccination if they haven't already.

 The sixteenth President of University College Cork Professor John O’Halloran in the Presidents Office at UCC. Previously, he was the deputy president and registrar and led UCC’s first academic strategy. Picture: Dan Linehan
The sixteenth President of University College Cork Professor John O’Halloran in the Presidents Office at UCC. Previously, he was the deputy president and registrar and led UCC’s first academic strategy. Picture: Dan Linehan

“We will continue with all the steps that we ordinarily have been observing, I suppose in our lives the rest of the time. We will listen very carefully to those who are worried and have concerns and we will support them in the best way possible." 

There’s one thing the pandemic has proven is the importance of plan b, and there are several in place for this academic year at UCC. 

“There are a range of plans actually. So we're at the optimum option for the current context."

This is based on the current vaccine levels, and for the current prevalence of the disease, according to Prof. O’Halloran.

 UCC's 16th President has written a significant body of international research focusing on the ecological impacts of land-use change and climate change on our community. Picture: Dan Linehan
UCC's 16th President has written a significant body of international research focusing on the ecological impacts of land-use change and climate change on our community. Picture: Dan Linehan

“If that improves, we can dial it up. If it disapproves, we'll dial it down. I suppose we've learned an awful lot in the last 18 months. And I've had the privilege of leading the organisation through that time, even though I'm just actually formally starting [this week].

“Essentially, we've been navigating that space, and it's about actually constantly reviewing, refreshing, and renewing every time and constantly looking at the advice and making the best judgment with the information we have at that time.

"So there are lots of plans. I met the Students’ Union last week, I met our union representatives and we are holding town halls this week. It’s as much about speaking as it is about listening and listening to people’s anxieties. People are concerned, and getting used to getting back socially with people as well.”

Antigen testing

UCC is currently one of four universities trialing antigen testing amongst its students. UniCoV is currently exploring rapid testing and surveillance systems in third-level institutes to assist in the early detection of asymptomatic Covid-19. 

Currently, there are about 300 volunteers at UCC taking part in the project. “We’re hoping to get that up to 2,000,” Prof. O’Halloran said.

“It will help us to navigate the uncertainty, so people will get the test done, and it's very rapid. We also have a Covid app developed by UCC, which has now been adopted by Limerick and Trinity.

"It’s an app we’ve been using for clinical students up until now. Every morning they check in to the app themselves. In some ways, it gives people a reference point to ask ‘how am I feeling today?’.

"Are they feeling any anxiety, or any symptoms, it will capture that in the app and automatically refer to our medical people here. If necessary, people will get a test. It’s about constantly keeping to the foreground the risks associated with Covid. 

 The sixteenth President of University College Cork Professor John O’Halloran is an ornithologist who holds the chair in Zoology at UCC and previously held academic posts at Colby College in the USA and at the University of Wales. Picture: Dan Linehan
The sixteenth President of University College Cork Professor John O’Halloran is an ornithologist who holds the chair in Zoology at UCC and previously held academic posts at Colby College in the USA and at the University of Wales. Picture: Dan Linehan

"I think all of us, including myself, maybe we need to be careful that we don't slip back into the way we did things before, actually, and particularly during this transition period.”

Prof. John O'Halloran is the 16th president to lead the university. Prior to his appointment, he was the deputy president and registrar and led UCC’s first academic strategy.

A native of Cork city, and an alumnus of UCC, he also formerly served as vice-president for teaching and learning, and as vice-head of the College of Science, Engineering and Food Science.

An ornithologist, he holds the chair in Zoology at UCC and previously held academic posts at Colby College in the USA and at the University of Wales. 

He has authored a significant body of international research focusing on the ecological impacts of land-use change and climate change on our community.

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