Do you get the feeling Michael D Higgins is embarrassed by his Alma Mater? Obviously, the President is too polite – and restricted by his high office – to say so.
But Michael D was a revolutionary, who, at the very least, would be concerned with recent goings-on at NUI Galway.
He’s proud of it too, no doubt, but he must be a teeny weeny bit mortified.
The university appears to have lost its way since the former Labour Party TD was a lecturer in politics up there. Or maybe it just appears that it has lost its way.
In a nutshell this is what happened: an exhibition of 14 cartoons depicting a fictional university president and gender equality issues was hung by the Students’ Union in the Arts Millennium building last Thursday.
They had permission from the Buildings Office. But it was taken down, overnight, by university authorities, who didn’t tell the organisers.
Though fictional, they bear a striking resemblance to the predicament of NUIG President, Dr Jim Browne, and the gender equality storm on campus.
The university would deny they attempted to repress the exhibit and freedom of speech. But there was a whiff of censorship to the whole affair. Removing the exhibit in the ‘dead of the night’ – and damaging one of the pieces in the process – was heavy-handed. And it was unnecessary.
Not unlike the Father Ted cinema protest – where Dougal and Ted hold placards ‘down with this sort of thing’ and ‘careful now’ – interest in the exhibition was piqued by the opposition to it.
The SU president, Phelim Kelly, planned to exhibit the cartoons regardless of the university putting stumbling blocks in his way, and re-arranged for them to be displayed in the SU offices.
College authorities injected oxygen into a non-story.
PR isn’t necessarily NUIG’s strong suit, which is strange given the institution is so sensitive to adverse publicity.
But at least they wised-up to their mistake, and performed a U-turn at the 11th hour, just before the launch on Monday.
Dr Micheline Sheehy Skeffington, who won an Equality Tribunal case against NUIG, did the honours at the opening.
What has all this got to do with the President, says you?
Well as both Kelly and Sheehy Skeffington have alluded to, on the same day the cartoons were taken down, Michael D gave a speech at NUIG to open the European Universities Association’s annual conference.
In his 4,500-words speech he said universities were facing an ‘intellectual crisis’. They shouldn’t just be about producing graduates for the labour market.
“Fostering the capacity to dissent” is a core function of universities, he said. They should develop “independent thinkers” to “challenge the status quo”. Universities must “allow (students) to develop a critical turn of mind”.
Michael D is correct: what is a university if not a bastion of free speech, where diverse views are?
It doesn’t sound like NUIG. Something stinks up there at present. Gender equality problems. Rows between management and unions. Private consultancies filling staff vacancies. A senior staff member turning whistle-blower. Court cases galore. Staff on rolling contracts. It all amounts to a climate of fear. And now a comical controversy over cartoons.
It’s enough to make a president blush.
For more, read this week’s Galway City Tribune.