Jess Casey: O'Shea bows out at UCC having made his mark

Jess Casey
Jess Casey: O'Shea bows out at UCC having made his mark
The outgoing President of UCC, Professor Patrick O'Shea, pictured here with Tanaiste Leo Varadkar in 2018, is leaving his post. Picture: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

“A fine leader and most personable man” is how one person described Professor Patrick O’Shea following the news of his impending departure from University College Cork (UCC). 

There are many in the university, and in Cork, who would agree with that.

A native of Cork city, he took the helm at UCC in February 2017, returning home after a successful career spanning three decades in the US.

On his decision to return to Ireland, he said he sensed “renewed optimism and opportunity" as the country recovered from the last recession. 

It goes without saying that that recession was particularly disastrous for students and the higher education sector. 

While he is retiring early, three years into a 10-year term, he will have accomplished much during his time as the 15th president of UCC. 

Since he joined the university, funding, and outputs of its research activities, including scholarly publications, patents, and licenses and participation in SFI research centres, have grown significantly.

The university has also improved its position in the international rankings and retained its Athena Swan Bronze award for gender equality. 

Successful projects like the Atlas of the Irish Revolution led to great acclaim, and there has been a strong focus on maximising UCC's contribution to Cork city. 

UCC was also named one of the most sustainable universities in the world, the culmination of 10 years of work by the UCC Green Campus project. 

A scientist, Prof O'Shea also advocated for supporting and funding the arts and humanities at a time when they have been undervalued compared to the STEM subjects.

 

In 2018, he chaired the Irish Universities Association, where he spoke of the need for better state investment in higher education. 

Above all else, it has always been very clear that Prof O’Shea really loves UCC, a university with which he has a deep personal connection. 

It was here as a student that he first met his wife Miriam, whom he has known for the best part of 50 years.

After first setting eyes on each other at a dance in Nano Nagle Hall, they were later assigned as lab partners while they were both students at UCC, sharing a workbench for a year. 

"It was like a contract; we were bound together," he told the Echo last year. 

They went on to marry in the Honan Chapel on the UCC campus in 1987.

Both moved to Maryland to achieve their PhDs. It was here Prof O’Shea became the Vice-President and Chief Research Officer at the University of Maryland. 

He brought his top-level experience from the States to Cork, helping UCC to 'think big', according to Dr Catherine Day, chair of the UCC governing body. 

In his statement announcing his retirement, Prof O'Shea said he was particularly pleased with how well UCC responded to the Covid-19 pandemic, almost overnight transferring its operations online while also supporting the frontline response to the crisis. 

While Prof O'Shea leaves behind a great legacy, his successor is looking at a period of great upheaval for the sector, one where universities will have to 'think big' almost as a means of survival. 

Prof O'Shea said he was particularly pleased with how well UCC responded to the Covid-19 pandemic, almost overnight transferring its operations online while also supporting the frontline response to the crisis. Picture: File photo
Prof O'Shea said he was particularly pleased with how well UCC responded to the Covid-19 pandemic, almost overnight transferring its operations online while also supporting the frontline response to the crisis. Picture: File photo

UCC, like all Irish universities, is managing a great deal of uncertainty as institutions define what a third-level education looks like post-lockdown. 

Planning is underway for the next academic year, and there are a lot of moving parts to balance, like how to prepare staff for a return, how to prepare students, how much teaching and learning will take place on campus, and what will this all mean for the university.

Covid-19 has had many unforeseen implications, not least for student accommodation, the number of enrollments from international students, college clubs and societies, and the transition of thousands of students into their first year at university. 

Institutions will also have to ask themselves how they will keep a sense of community amongst staff and students when the advice remains to keep apart. 

Meanwhile, more families and students than ever are facing financial difficulties, and youth employment is at a high. 

There will also be an urgent need for wellbeing and mental health supports post-lockdown, and for students who have been isolated from campus life. 

Students are also beginning to question why they must pay the same amount of fees, when the majority of their studies may now take place online. 

At the same time, traditional sources of revenue for universities, relied on upon in recent years as a means to make up for the drop in State-funding enacted during the last recession, may all but dry up. 

Increased funding for the sector does not look like it is set to be announced, at least not before the next academic term. 

One positive in all of this has been the establishment of the new Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. 

Students' fees will not increase during the lifetime of the current Government, according to Simon Harris, the newly appointed Minister for Further and Higher Education. 

Simon Harris agreed that student life and socialising will have to change due to the virus. Picture: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin
Simon Harris agreed that student life and socialising will have to change due to the virus. Picture: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin

However, the full financial implications for the sector won't be known until the next academic semester. 

"The cost of providing education will increase in the short-term," Mr Harris said. 

"Because colleges are going to have to try to provide things in a more tailored way. They won't be able to have everyone on campus as they did pre-Covid. 

"Things like fees and supports for students are things that me and [Niall Collins, Minister of State for Skills and Further Education] will work on in the Budget. 

"Our immediate priority is getting colleges back open, getting as much face-to-face time as possible." 

Speaking at the launch of a new strategy for further education and training, Mr Harris agreed that student life and socialising will have to change due to the virus. 

The traditional packed college bar is not where we can be today. It doesn't mean you can't have the college experience.

A framework will be published before the end of the month, he said, adding that how this is implemented at each institution will vary depending on its set-up. 

For UCC, it will begin to take its next steps in recruiting its 16th president at a meeting of the governing body in September. 

By then, hopefully, the national picture will be a little clearer and we will be a little further away from the possibility of a second spike in the virus than we are now. 

"The further steps we are taking will place UCC in a strong position to weather the storm and emerge as a more resilient and transformed university," Prof O'Shea said. 

"I am committed to working with the governing body and my colleagues in our university management team to ensure a smooth transition to new leadership”.

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