OPINION + WOMEN
It’s about time: Trinity to elect first female provost
16th February 2021
Over a century ago, former provost of Trinity College Dublin, George Salmon, reputedly uttered his infamous words: “Over my dead body will women enter this college.” And yet on Friday 5th February 2021, the very same university confirmed that the next Provost of Trinity College Dublin will be a woman, for the first time in its 429-year history since its establishment in 1592 by Queen Elizabeth I.
Announced was an all-female shortlist of three senior academics – Linda Doyle, Professor of Engineering and the Arts and former Dean of Research; Linda Horgan, Professor of Ecumenics and former vice-provost; and Jane Ohlmeyer, prominent historian and Trinity’s first Vice-President for Global Relations. Professor Ohlmeyer was, in fact, the only female candidate when Professor Patrick Prendergast was elected Provost in 2011. On the line is a ten-year position, complemented by a respectable €200,000-a-year salary, to begin when Professor Prendergast competes his own term on July 31st. To achieve this reward, however, candidates must first engage in what has been described as a “papal-style election process”, involving engagement with multiple hustings events before 800 full-time academic staff vote on April 10th.
But apart from the novelty of it being the first-ever provost-election to take place online, Susan Parkes identifies the election of a woman as provost as the real milestone moment for the university. Originally, they were not regarded as equal members of the university upon first admission: “There was no residence on campus for women. They had to be off campus by 6pm and weren’t allowed to dine in the dining hall. It continued as a male, residential community for many years.”
“To achieve this reward, however, candidates must first engage in what has been described as a “papal-style election process”, involving engagement with multiple hustings events before 800 full-time academic staff vote on April 10th.”
Not until the late 1960s were female students given rooms on campus for the first time, and allowed to join debating societies and became eligible to be elected as fellows and scholars. A prime example is our very own Mary Robinson, who was elected president in 1990, was auditor of the college’s law society and became Reed Professor of Law there too. But, as Parkes asserts, “[n]owadays, there are plenty of women in leadership positions in the university. They are more than ready for it. If this happened 10 years ago, it would have been bigger news… it’s taken a long time.”
In fact, several other colleges beat Trinity to it, with a number of female heads presiding over institutes of technology in recent years, and Kerstin Mey of the University of Limerick becoming the first woman to head an Irish university last summer. However, one certainty arising from Trinity’s jumping aboard, says Ms Parkes, is that it will be the first time a female is appointed to a top role in a traditional Irish university on a permanent basis new female provost.
Of course, our work is not yet done. The gender balance across all senior roles in Irish academia has been the subject of criticism for a long time now. A 2018 report on higher education found that while women made up half of the staff at third level, they held only a quarter of the professor jobs. However, it must be noted that at this time no woman had ever held the position of university president, and only two had been appointed to lead an institute of technology. Just look how much ground has been broken in the meantime.
It cannot be doubted that the election of a woman provost will absolutely be a “boost for women academics,” according to Parkes. “To think it’s really not that long ago women weren’t even allowed in the university common room… I sometimes say to female students to this day, be sure to get your photo beside the statue of George Salmon, just to shows how far we’ve come.”