Professor Linda Doyle: 'There are great things about being in academia. It’s a huge privilege'

Michael Clifford interviews the first woman Provost of Trinity College Dublin
Professor Linda Doyle: 'There are great things about being in academia. It’s a huge privilege'

Professor Linda Doyle set to become Trinity’s first female Provost of Trinity College Dublin  in the University’s 429-year history. 

Michael Clifford interviews the first woman Provost of Trinity College Dublin.

Roll back the clock to the summer of 1989. Linda Doyle has arrived in Dublin and makes her way to Trinity College. 

She wants to check out the prospect of doing a post graduate degree in the university. Trinity nestles in its own cocoon as a city’s rhythm beats against its permitter walls. 

Within a stone’s throw, there is some of the worst social deprivation in the State, some of the busiest and most expensive shopping streets, the seat of parliament. 

Inside, through the arch on College Green, there is a sense of peace, of learning, of, to those unfamiliar with its environs, privilege.

Linda Doyle sits down on a step on the square and takes it all in. She is from Togher on the southside of Cork City. 

Education was highly valued in her home growing up and she is now completing a degree in electrical engineering in UCC. But this place? 

Even the reek of history makes UCC, established in 1845, look like a Johnny Come Lately. Through her student days down south, those who studied in Trinity were unrelatable.

“I remember thinking I’m never going to fit in here,” she says this week. 

When I was in UCC, people in Trinity seemed like from a totally different world. Now I know that some of that is image and some of it is totally wrong

Last weekend, Linda Doyle was elected the first woman Provost of Trinity College Dublin. She did fit in when she ultimately came to university more than 30 years ago, noting in her election campaign that she “felt at home” soon after beginning her PHd studies. 

The university was established by a woman  — Queen Elizabeth I — but has had to wait 429 years before another female took the reins. The contest in which she was successful was between three women so whoever won was going to break new ground.

 Professor Linda Doyle: "It’s proper that institutions are accountable."
Professor Linda Doyle: "It’s proper that institutions are accountable."

In her acceptance speech following the election, Doyle thanked her two opponents for the “huge service for this university by running fantastic campaigns.

“I’m just so proud to have them as colleagues,” she said. 

“Today is a historic moment for our university. I want to acknowledge the tremendous work that women have done before me.” 

But, she also wanted to turn the “extraordinary day” into an ordinary day “when there’s many more women in positions like this.” 

Presidential power

The position of Provost – Trinity speak for president – of Ireland’s oldest university is determined in a highly unusual way by the standards of third level education. 

There is a body of electors consisting of staff and students. The campaign persists over a period of months, with electoral hustings, academics declaring for one or other of the candidates, and relentless canvassing. None of the other third level institutions select the president in this manner.

For Linda Doyle, elevation to one of the most prestigious and powerful positions in the sector is just her latest venture to go where few have ventured. 

Her primary degree was in engineering, a discipline then, and even now, which is male-dominated. And she is also the only academic in the world who is a professor of both engineering and the arts.

“I’m really attracted to both of them,” she says. “Traditionally arts and science worked together and were artificially pulled apart and if you look even at something like climate change it needs to be all disciplines to tackle these things.

“I think technology is fantastic and really interesting but over time I became less interested in technology for technology’s sake and more interested in policy and it (her interest) got broader into contesting technology. You question how developments are going. I found working with artists and creative arts practices great.” 

Around half of the PhD students she now supervises come from an arts background. She also has a track record in research, having established a number of companies and worked in conjunction with Science Foundation Ireland over the years.

Highly accomplished

For somebody who is quite obviously highly accomplished over a range of disciplines, Linda Doyle wears her learning lightly. 

Head honchos in the academic world have a reputation, fair or otherwise, for being removed from the general populace and perhaps somewhat austere. It would be difficult to imagine Doyle ever being thus catagorised. 

She is pleasant, open, easily breaks into laughter and talks rather than lectures when explaining even the more complicated aspects of her area of expertise.

Her father was a printer who spent most of his working life in what was then the Cork Examiner. Education was always highly valued at home.

“Dad did an apprenticeship as a printer but mum had to leave school at 12,” she says. 

“My mother regretted that but later she went back and did women studies and studied geology in UCC. She had this huge yearning to get back. So education was always really important in the family and we were always interested in it. And when mum got to do what she loved it was transformational for her.” 

Linda was, by her own admission “a nerdy child” in school. The idea of teaching appealed to her from an early age. 

“My brother was a good bit younger and I remember getting a book on how to teach your baby to read. The trick was to get red letters and put them on the wall. I managed to teach him one word.” 

Science subjects always interested her in school, but it was pure chance that pushed her down the road to her future speciality. 

There was an open day in UCC and I’d never heard of electrical engineering before. When I saw what was involved I thought I’d like to have a go at that. I didn’t have any clear path 

Engineering then, and now to a large degree, was male-dominated. The ratio of men to women studying the discipline at the time was as high as ten to one. 

“When I was in UCC it was a slightly bumper year, there were 11 (females) out of 55,” she says. 

“But the ratios haven’t changed that much in those topics. Some years ago I was director of a national research centre called Connect, there are 16 in the country and I was the first woman to direct one. 

"The second woman was also from UCC but there hasn’t been any others. It’s hard to say why because there are a lot of great initiatives.” 

Lure of teaching

After completing her studies she took a well-travelled route among her peers to work in Germany with Siemens. But the pull of teaching wouldn’t leave her alone.

“There are great things about being in academia. There is teaching which I was interested in and then there is the research side. It’s a huge privilege that you can really follow an idea if you are interested in it.” 

Professor Linda Doyle: “We have a job of work to do to make sure that Trinity is open and welcoming and ensure we engage with people and you can never do enough of that."
Professor Linda Doyle: “We have a job of work to do to make sure that Trinity is open and welcoming and ensure we engage with people and you can never do enough of that."

Scientific research has been a huge part of her life, but it also gives rise to a question that is being posed in some education quarters are the moment.

Is too much emphasis being placed on the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) subjects as they can both generate money for colleges and are favoured by employers?

The Provost elect of Trinity thinks that it is “true” that this conversation is about, but that it is, in fact “wrong.” 

“All disciplines have a role to play,” she says. “We have a comprehensive approach to these things in Trinity. For instance we have here a course called environmental humanities. You look (at the environment) in a scientific way but you also need to look at it in a historical and cultural context. When it comes to tackling the problems we have in the world all of these disciplines have a role to play.” 

She does, however, accept that her own approach and that of her university may not be universal. 

“I was a judge at the BT Young Scientist and my brother, who’s a teacher, said he’d love if there was an equivalent thing for history. You can see some trends in schools that some are receiving more focus than others.” 

Third level funding

One of the biggest issues for the third level sector right now is funding. All interested parties are agreed that the current model can’t be sustained. In 1996, third level fees were abolished, cutting off one of the sector’s main income streams. 

The stated objective was to widen access to third level. All the research suggests that has not happened, but, politically, any reinstatement of fees would come at a very high price.

In the last 10 years or so, fees have been to some extent reinstated under the title “registration fees” but the amount at issue is very small in the context of the cost of education. 

For the last five years, this government and its predecessor have been sitting on the Cassells report which looked at funding models. The choices, in a broad sense, are either fees and/or student loans or a ramping up of direct funding by the state.

Doyle is of the opinion that the underfunding is simply not sustainable. 

I think third level has stood Ireland very well.  It’s a very different country from back in the 80s and a lot of that has to do with education

“When it happened (the abolition of fees) I wasn’t sure whether it was going to deliver more access. But there was a time in Ireland when we thought that you shouldn’t have free access to secondary school and there is nothing better you can do from an education point than make it easier to go to third level.” 

Whether the Government will be willing to cough up is another matter. One issue that may come into play in that regard is legislation currently being examined for the state to exercise more control over third level colleges. 

 Professor Linda Doyle.
Professor Linda Doyle.

There is fierce resistance in some quarters to the proposals, but politics being what it is the government may well wish to use such a stick to accompany the carrot of greater funding. The big question is how autonomous should third level institutions be.

“I would say up front that, of course, it’s proper that institutions are accountable,” she says. 

“The first problem with the legislation is that it has one view on what good governance looks like. It’s saying that there is only one way to governed and they won’t provide any evidence as to why that model is the only way.” 

She says that the question is really down to whether what is being proposed is an overreach by the state into institutions’ autonomy.

That is one of the many items that Linda Doyle will have on her desk when she takes up her new role in August. 

She has a 10-year term, time enough to make her mark. So what would she like to leave behind?

“We have a job of work to do to make sure that Trinity is open and welcoming and ensure we engage with people and you can never do enough of that.

“I’d love to be able to say in 2031 that we have a properly sustainable third level system in Ireland that can be sustainably funded.”

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