As students return to DCU campuses this month as part of the “new normal”, what are DCU’s key goals and priorities for the forthcoming academic year and beyond?
It has been a real joy to welcome students back to our campuses. A university is nothing without students. During the crisis, online education served us well, but education is not transactional. As a ‘People First’ institution, we believe that in-person teaching and learning is crucially important for our students’ education, and personal development. Our staff have put a huge effort into ensuring that students’ return is also a safe experience for all. DCU Estates and the Health and Safety Office risk-assessed all of our teaching spaces, which will be operating at 80% or greater capacity. All campus mechanical ventilation systems have been reset to fresh air in-take only, while students will have to wear face masks and observe social distancing.
We also want to ensure that our students can enjoy as much safe social interaction as possible, as well as engaging in extracurricular activities. Marquees have been installed on our St. Patrick’s and Glasnevin campuses to cater for DCU Students’ Union and Clubs & Societies activities and events. Additional outdoor seating is in place on all campuses to encourage safe outdoor socialising. DCU Sports facilities are all open (operating in accordance with national COVID-19 guidance) and Student Sports Clubs’ activities have resumed.
We realise that the crisis is not over, but changed, and we are confident that this academic year will be as ‘normal’ as possible for students. And as we have shown before, DCU is an agile and innovative organisation that is well placed to respond to unexpected future challenges, if they arise.
How do you believe philanthropy can play a role in helping DCU to realise its goals as we move towards a post-pandemic world?
The pandemic highlighted many of the pre-existing inequalities that exist in our world. There was a mantra that ‘we are all in this together’, but as one observer put it, ‘we may be on the same sea, but we are not in the same boat’. Ultimately, the pandemic impacted the disadvantaged disproportionally. If anything, the crisis reinforced our belief in DCU in the value of education as a leaven, and demonstrated the potential of a research intensive like ours to create knowledge, drive change, and advance our society.
As we work to make an impact, philanthropists have a bigger than ever role to play. Together we can lift all boats. I strongly believe that philanthropy is about providing opportunities for people to make a difference, to help us address challenges. In other words, it is about joining the DCU mission to ‘transform lives and societies’. One thing is certain, we can’t go back to the way we did things before. As we’ve heard countless times from world leaders such as President Joe Biden, it’s about ‘building back better’, or as Pope Francis put it, ‘building a world not as it was, but as it could be, and should be’.
As a university, we share this vision, and our stated purpose is ‘to transform lives and societies’. We are reopening campus with a renewed belief in our mission and our vision for a more sustainable world, in which we implement new approaches, learned during the last 18 months. We had a great example of this during our recent DCU Teaching and Learning Week. Teaching staff shared a whole range of innovative practices learned during the pandemic – pedagogies that staff can take back into our ‘real world’ teaching.
Every year, we see the impact donors make: Supporting the Water Institute’s life-changing research on clean water for communities in developing countries; enabling researchers at DCU’s Anti-Bullying Centre to address bullying and online safety issues for young people; and funding scholarships for hundreds of Access students, who otherwise may have missed out on the chance of a third level education. These are just a few examples of what is being achieved. As we emerge from the pandemic, we know we can do more, and we hope you will stay with us on the journey.
From MRNA vaccines, to research taking place in DCU to develop devices that can detect Covid-19 in the air, the pandemic has highlighted the importance of new knowledge and discoveries driven by research in our universities. Do you think the pandemic has created a new paradigm for how philanthropy and education can work together to transform lives and societies?
One of the positives that has emerged from the pandemic was the way in which it underlined the immense importance of research-intensive universities such as DCU for addressing critical challenges like COVID. It also highlighted the critical role of philanthropy in supporting our researchers and giving them the resources they need to take on the big challenges facing our world today.
What was perhaps different about the pandemic situation was the speed at which our donors were able to answer the call to assist us in the fight against COVID and its fallout. We usually think of philanthropy and the development of a relationship between donor and University as a long term “slow burn” affair. The response of our donors to the COVID crisis turned that on its head in many ways. It showed how philanthropists and the University were able to react quickly and decisively to an emerging situation that affected our entire world.
The creation of the DCU COVID-19 Research and Innovation Hub, with seed capital from our donors, offers a prime example. The fund allowed DCU researchers to address a range of pressing issues facing frontline workers, children, vulnerable groups, students and businesses within our society. Meanwhile, the creation of the DCU Covid-19 Student Emergency Fund, supported by our donors, was another instance of this kind of rapid-response philanthropy. These initiatives provide a model that we may not need to call on in the future, but they have shown us that such innovative and responsive collaborations are possible and highly effective.
No philanthropist has committed more to the transformation of Irish education than Chuck Feeney, indeed his generosity and confidence in our mission made DCU what it is. He recently celebrated his 90th birthday and I was honoured to send him greetings and an expression of our profound gratitude. I was especially pleased to share with him news that the Helix, the magnificent cultural space which he built, had been put at the disposal of the state as a mass COVID vaccination centre and how his gift had been vital in the battle against the deadly virus. I can think of no more powerful illustration of the potential of philanthropy in education to create impact in ways unimagined at the outset.