Last February, the Governing Authority announced the appointment of Orla Feely as the new President of University College Dublin. The new President is a former student at UCD, where she studied Engineering before flying west to achieve her Masters and PhD at University of California, Berkeley.

She returned to UCD to take up a job as a lecturer and worked her way up to the role of Vice-President for Research, Innovation, and Impact, which she held from 2014 to 2023. Professor Feely was chosen by a lengthy process using external hiring companies and a multi-stage selection team including members of the Students’ Union.

Orla Feely - Photo credit to The Irish Times
Prof Orla Feely – Photo credit to The Irish Times

Professor Feely is the official replacement for Professor Andrew Deeks who resigned in April 2022 in favour of a position at Murdoch University in his hometown of Perth, Western Australia. Professor Feely took up office last May and succeeded Professor Mark Rogers who had been acting as President since Deeks’ departure.

Within the university, the role of President manages and directs the University in its academic, administrative, financial, personnel, and other activities. Within these roles, Feely will have a large degree of financial control – even being able to approve purchases of up to €1 million without approval from the college’s finance committee. Speaking of committees, the President also chairs a variety of university boards and committees across the 10-year term that Feely will serve.

The Editors of the College Tribune sat down with the new President to learn about her appointment and to enquire about her plans and goals for the university. Professor Feely spoke about her vision for the university, and her plans to address mental health support and housing at UCD.

When did you hear that you had been selected for the role of President and what was your reaction?

“The interviews were back in mid-February, and a couple of hours after the interview I got the call from the Chair of the Governing Authority. That was a very strange experience, sitting at home on my sofa, waiting for the call, my husband kind of loitering around the kitchen, and then she phoned and I was overjoyed.”

Professor Feely continued; “it was a tough process…it was complicated. My father was very sick at the time, and in fact, he passed away just a couple of days after that. So I got the word about my success and I was thrilled. I was able to tell my dad and he was just over the moon. But then he died just a few days after that. So it was an awful lot of stuff going on, swirling around my head at that time. But the actual moment of hearing that I got the job was just one of absolute joy.”

When asked if becoming UCD President was something that she had always aspired towards, Professor Feely replied:

“I didn’t start in UCD saying, ‘I’m going to be president here someday’, I was a professor of electronic engineering. I absolutely loved teaching and conducting research in engineering, and that was the way I expected my career would go.

Then, as I moved up the career ladder, I started to take on outside responsibilities of some significance. For example, I was Chair of the Irish Research Council and I saw the ways that I could affect change. Then, almost ten years ago, I was appointed Vice-President for Research and Innovation and Impact – I loved doing that job. It felt like a natural next step when the presidency came up.”

How do you feel about being the first female UCD President, and what do you think that the significance of that is?

“You know, it’s interesting, people often ask me that. On a day-to-day basis, I come into my office, I go into meetings, I open my laptop, and I’m not conscious of being the first woman doing this job. But I am conscious when I meet other people.

For example, schoolgirls or maybe early-stage female academics who come up to me and say, ‘oh, it’s brilliant that you’re doing this’. That inspires me and that’s when I realise the significance of it. So it’s not so much in and of myself doing the job, but it’s when I encounter other people who reflect back to me how they see the significance of it, and that’s what makes it significant to me.”

What do you think that UCD should prioritise as a university?

“UCD is a university of both scale and substance. It’s a university that makes things happen. If you look historically at UCD within Ireland, the imprint that we have left on the development of this country has been extraordinary and completely unparalleled. Of course, our footprint is well beyond Ireland. It’s a global footprint – because we are a global university. But we are out there, we are delivering positive change to the world.”

Professor Feely added “You can see our footprint everywhere – things like the Museum of Literature Ireland on Stephen’s Green, the zero carbon farm in County Cork, Lion’s Farm just outside Dublin. We will shortly be launching Ireland’s first satellite. These are things that UCD, based on our scale and our excellence, our range of disciplines, and our amazing facilities, can make happen for the benefit of our students and for our broader society. That’s the kind of university that excites me. And not all universities are like that. I want UCD to be a really successful outfacing university.”

What would you consider to be the biggest challenges facing the higher education sector at the moment?

“The funding environment in Ireland for higher education is really problematic. Ireland is second from bottom in our faculty-student ratio in higher education. So, this means that our students are in larger classes. They’re not getting the small group teaching that they need. It means that our faculty don’t have the time to engage in research as much as their competitors in other institutions. So this is a real problem for us.”

“The government last year identified the core funding gap at 307 million euros per annum across the sector. And they committed to closing this over successive budgets…Since then there have been significant steps in the right direction – and I certainly want to acknowledge that.”

“If we get our funding up to the level of our international competitors we could do extraordinary things here. We’re already doing extraordinary things, but we could do so much more with the right-sized funding. It’s a fairly boring and predictable answer, but it is the reality.”

What are your goals for the next five years as the president of the university? Do you have any specific visions for UCD?

“I want us to grow our reputation. I want us to grow our influence. I want us to grow the sense of excitement about what we do. What we do is the most exciting thing there is, you know, educating people at a transformative stage of life is an honour and a privilege.”

“I also want us in our research to look at the areas where we can really make very exciting things happen in areas that are important. Areas like sustainability, for example, UCD has such an important amount of knowledge and expertise to bring to the sustainability challenges.”

Professor Feely continued “It’s such an interesting and disruptive time in higher education. Everybody is now conscious of Chat GPT and other generative AI technologies. There’s the question of what this means for how we assess our students but also, what is the world of work for which we are preparing young people?

“We need to try to anticipate what the world is going to look like with this rapidly changing technology and with the climate crisis and to give our students the best possible preparation for that. I want us to think very ambitiously and very distinctively about that because I think that we in UCD are really well positioned to give a distinctive, strong, powerful education that sets our students up to thrive.”

Do you have any specific plans for the provision of student accommodation on campus?

“We have 4,500 beds on campus at the moment, or thereabouts. We’re planning for a further 1,200. When we got the tenders back, the cost was just completely prohibitive.

“So Simon Harris’s department have been very constructively working with us to come up with a funding solution that would A) make it affordable for us, but B) also make it more affordable for students. That is currently going through government machinery to see if the funding can be delivered. And I’d be absolutely thrilled to see that happen.”

Is that full or partial construction of the 1200 beds?

“We’ve given [the government] two options one of which would be partial, one of which would be full – we would dearly love to see that happen.”

Do you have any specific plans to expand student mental health services on campus?

“So [students] can certainly expect to see developments on that. And it’s something that I’m very, very keen to advance for the university. I’m very conscious of the scale of this university. If you are an 18 year old, maybe living away from home for the first time, just how overwhelming our institution may seem. And I want every student to find a pathway into finding their place and their people here and to figure out very specifically how we can support students in that.”

How do you plan to develop working relations with student representatives like those in the UCDSU?

“I hope we have a very good relationship with the SU. I meet with Martha regularly. Her team will be coming into the next University Management Team meeting to lay out their programme for the year. I find them to be excellent people to work with, you know, sometimes we have different takes on an issue, but we are always working towards the same aim, which is the good of our students and the good of the university.”

“I think we have been so well served in UCD by the quality of our sabbatical officers, people taking time out to invest in the student community and leaving a legacy for that community. So it’s a pleasure to work with them. And I really look forward to continuing that, like I say, through very practical mechanisms like regular meetings. We are very fortunate to have their input.”

Students often criticise the commercialised nature of UCD. Do you feel that the university is overly commercialised and how will you address this sentiment among students?

“First of all, non-EU students, that is not just a financial interest to us. That is a diversity interest. We recently launched our Africa strategy and the notion of having students on this campus from all over the world is really important to us. So that’s the first thing to say. The other thing is that UCD is a very big financial operation and you have to be mindful of the bottom line in a situation like this.”

“I am very aware that I am ultimately now accountable for that level of financing of the university. You have to keep the business, and it is in part a business, financially sound and supported in an environment where the government has been underfunding us for a very long time.”

“So we have to be a financially robust university, otherwise, how do you keep the lights on? How do you pay salaries? How do you keep the campus at the standard that we need? So it is absolutely essential that we do that. But at the same time, you want to be an academic community.”

Professor Feely concluded “It’s not always going to be easy to do both. But, you know, where our money goes is evident in our financial statements. It is to provide outstanding education and outstanding research. There’s no secret magic wine cellar that I am replenishing. Thank you very much.

“It is all about delivering value to our students and delivering that great education. So I hope that students understand that.”

Emma Hanrahan & Hugh Dooley – Co-Editors