The University as the Birth-place of the Leader

by Mark Wallace

DCU’s commitment to the vision of the citizen as entrepreneur was elucidated in my last post. Trinity College Dublin is a different sort of university. Whereas DCU is young, TCD is by far Ireland’s oldest, a survivor from the days of English colonialism and the Ivory Tower – for much of its existence, most Irish were excluded from TCD by virtue of their Catholicism. I am happy to confirm that that is no longer the case.

But TCD remains the aura of old-world respectability and in the mission statement featured at the beginning of their strategic plan the ghost of “liberal education” lingers:

We provide a liberal environment where independence of thought is highly valued and where all are encouraged to achieve their full potential.

The mission is then divided into three strands. The key ideological content words here are: diverse, academic excellence, transformative, interdisciplinary, local innovation, global challenges, pluralistic, just, sustainable. Some of these key words retain the almost archaic flavour of the liberal university (“just”, most notably). None allies TCD with economic ideals in any clear way. Several gesture towards the most topical contemporary political debates: diverse and pluralistic, in particular.

The notion of diversity is certainly a pregnant one for the contemporary university. It has its cultural element, but also its economic element, particularly in terms of what TCD calls “geographical diversity”. The financial rewards of foreign students are considerable.

A1.2 Internationalization

Geographical diversity in our student community is critical in developing an educational milieu which fosters cross-cultural understanding and prepares all students for a life of global citizenship. It allows for a coming-together of different educational, cultural and personal perspectives. It is also a key factor in introducing students to a global dialogue on their areas of academic study, and in building a global Trinity community by creating lifelong, personal, academic, and professional relationships across the world. We will ensure that an integrated internationalized student community re-emerges as a strong feature of the Trinity experience.

But my question for these posts on Irish universities is: how is the student figured in these documents? In DCU, we had the student as entrepreneur. In TCD, the individual identity of the student is mostly dealt with in the subsection “Renew the Trinity Education”. Here the student is figured as a global citizen is invoked. Elsewhere, this figure is again mentioned, and Erasmus is cited as a philosophical source for the concept. This is unusual, to have a direct quote from a general source like this in a strategic plan, but the choice of Erasmus is clearly in itself strategic, assuring the reader that notwithstanding the appearance of such contemporary keywords as global citizen, TCD’s roots remain in the European humanist tradition.  Critical thinking and independence of mind are also cited.

Students are referred to as “leaders in intellectual, cultural, social, political and economic life”, and the figure of the leader is ultimately probably the central one in TCD’s document. As well as the aforementioned fields, students of TCD are also destined to be  “ethical leaders in the fields of politics, science, culture, business and industry, healthcare and law”. So while DCU tends to evoke the figure of the entrepreneur, TCD is more interested in the leader. While the entrepreneur is defined by his relationship to the economy, the leader is defined by his relationship with others. But it is not a relationship of equals; instead, the TCD students is expected to establish a relationship of power and superiority with regard to his/her fellow citizens, in all fields.

TCD’s confidence arises, I suppose, from the fact that it is both Ireland’s longest-established university and, according to most metrics, its most important and influential. Why not, then, openly acknowledge that its students are more likely to go on to be persons of importance than graduates of other institutions? TCD students are steeped in an ideology of leadership when they enter its hallowed halls. Or so the strategic plan would seem to indicate. A greater task would be examining if and how this is brought into practice on the campus itself.