Date: 25 Nov 2011
Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh, Dean of UCD Business Schools
AS FIRST days go, there wasn’t much time to order new stationery or admire the view from his office window. Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh, the new dean of UCD Business Schools, started as he meant to go on by asking everyone who held a senior academic position in the undergraduate Quinn school and the graduate Smurfit school to step down.
“I felt there was a lot of talent in the school that needed to be unleashed,” he says. “I asked them all to step down, because it wasn’t a reflection on any particular performance. I just thought it was the fairest way to go about it.”
After a round of interviews, two of the old team stayed and there was an influx of new appointments. “All of the people who’ve come in – no, not all, most – are around my own age, so our future and the future of the school are very much intertwined,” says Ó hÓgartaigh (44). “It’s all about bringing in people with shared values and shared culture.”
So what are these shared values?
“I think it’s about openness, about standards. I think it’s about being comfortable in challenging each other,” he says, swiftly adding that he’s “not saying the previous team didn’t have that”.
At times, Ó hÓgartaigh doesn’t sound like he’s a million miles away from his predecessor, Tom Begley, who, in a recent article in the Financial Times, lamented a lack of Government investment in education and highlighted the importance of critical thinking abilities.
“How will the next generation of graduates be different from the previous generation? Part of that, I think, is the ability to think critically, to challenge,” says Ó hÓgartaigh, when asked about that spectre of the financial bubble, groupthink.
This is a perennial problem. In his day, at NUI Galway, he doesn’t believe his peers were especially confident in expressing whatever critical faculties they had in the lecture hall. “Students are far more likely to speak out now. Looking back, we would never challenge a lecturer and I think that was a bad thing,” he says.
Trapped by the taint of Ireland’s delinquent economy, and its departed or hopefully departing cast of inept bankers, greedy developers and clueless regulators, Irish business schools face something of a public relations issue at the moment, in that undergraduates are questioning whether they really want to be trained and educated in a field where so many leading players have proven so spectacularly wanting.
They’re also asking ethical questions that perhaps went unasked in the past.
“I was at the open day for undergraduates – so this was Leaving Certs – and this student came up to me afterwards and asked me if you can do good things by studying business,” he recalls. She was thinking of studying medicine, where she was certain that she could do good things, but in business?
“I said that if business can do things badly, and change the world in that sense, then business can also change the world by doing things well. We need more students like her to do business degrees – people who want to make a change, who want to make a difference.”
But does a student like her have role models and, if so, who are they?
“That’s a very good question,” he says, thinking, before citing Tullow Oil founder and chief executive Aidan Heavey and Jacob Fruitfield principal Michael Carey, both of whom sit on Smurfit’s advisory board, as well as Caroline Casey, who leads the charity Kanchi.
Ó hÓgartaigh came to business education by way of accounting, having first joined the UCD staff in 2008 as professor of accountancy. His wife Margaret Ó hÓgartaigh is a historian, “so we work together quite a bit on accounting history”, he says. Their research paper on how the pre-famine poor law was facilitated by accounting is due to be published soon.
“There were moral issues in that – it was quite a loaded context,” he explains. “There’s a mixed story, in that the poor law did provide some relief, but at the same time it also imposed some controls, which made life more difficult in the workhouse. What’s very interesting about accounting is that it’s always contingent on its context. It’s not black and white.”
But while research is “in his DNA”, he insists that engagement with students is critical and that his team of associate deans keeps teaching hours. “I think if I went a full academic year without meeting students, there would be a big gap in my life,” he says.
“I’m the youngest of six and I was quite uninhibited as a boy, in that my mother would bring me into town in Galway and I think her friends were quite entertained . . . I could say anything, and I was quite chatty. But as a teenager I became quite introverted. Now I think I’m back. I’ve rediscovered the boy I was – I feel quite uninhibited, quite open.”
This vigour is partly the result of contact with the current generation of students, who he describes as “very positive” and, one of his most-used words, “engaged”. The day before the interview, students had marched in Dublin in protest against cuts in grants and a proposed budget increase in the student charge, widely regarded as fees-by-the-back-door.
“I think it was detrimental to third-level education that fees were abolished,” he says. “There are people well able to pay who should pay, and people who can’t pay shouldn’t be asked to pay.”
He repeats this a few times: people who can pay, should pay, and people who can’t pay, shouldn’t be asked.
But undergraduate fees are only one part of the investment picture. Smurfit, as the Irish business school with the highest ranking from the Economist and the Financial Times , wants to cement its position as Ireland’s global business school, the centre of excellence that receives priority Government funding in a sector where he believes investment is being spread too thinly.
“I do think there has been a proliferation of graduate programmes that are competing with each other. In Dublin alone, there are three other MBA programmes. I don’t think that’s sustainable in the long run, because we’re competing with each other. We should be competing internationally.”
He believes there is support at Government level for the idea of “one big graduate business school” and says he wants to explore it with his competitors.
“There’s no sense that we want to take over,” he qualifies. “Part of the trick is to try and find a way that we have parity of esteem.”
Smurfit’s continued place in the top 100 business schools in the world, a ranking that puts it in the top 2 per cent, means it wants to “recruit and retain top talent” at a time when educational sector salaries in Ireland are under pressure.
“The university or the business school doesn’t exist to make money for academics. That’s very clear,” he says.
But he cites figures from the Association of Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, which suggest UCD professors are paid 10-15 per cent less than its similarly ranked peers.
“As dean, I’m not taking a cent more than I was as professor of accounting, so that’s not the issue. But a newly qualified accounting academic in the US who has just completed a PhD would be paid more than I am.
“I’m not complaining about that, I’m not sad about that; in fact it’s not something that bothers me at all, but it tells a story, that if we are to compete internationally, that’s the challenge we have.”
His new management team is not receiving additional payments for their roles either. “In the current climate, I don’t think it would be justified, to be honest.”
The school is currently on a recruitment drive, but the two professorships on offer have both been funded by alternative means. A professorship in global leadership is being funded by the school’s North American Advisory Board, while a second post in quantitative finance is being funded by a private donor.
Ireland’s new economic landscape has prompted some changes in how its courses are structured, and new lecturers have been hired in disciplines such as digital marketing and business analytics.
An important part of its non-exchequer funding also comes from Science Foundation Ireland, which funds postdoctoral and PhD researchers as part of the financial mathematics and computation research cluster.
“We want to contribute to the economic regeneration and the social regeneration of Ireland, so an important part of that is the financial service sector . . . Very much part of that is to say there’s a need for well-trained people in financial mathematics, and we’re keen to fill that need.”
The troika’s regular trips to Ireland haven’t dented the intake of international students, which has “held up”, he says, though part of that is also to do with the US and the UK being “more difficult to get into”.
Though there is no shortage these days of case studies, both local and global, of business hubris, incompetence and failure, Ó hÓgartaigh stresses instead the importance of learning from the financial crisis. “I think we have things to teach the world about reform, about resilience and about regeneration.”
ON THE RECORD
Name: Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh
Position : Dean of UCD Business Schools.
Why is he in the news : just promoted to his role, where he leads a team of 100 faculty educating 3,000 students. He is preparing a report for Cabinet on the recent Global Irish Economic Forum at Dublin Castle, at which he summarised 1,300 hours of discussion into a 20-minute précis for the concluding session.
Interests : Reading, cinema, current affairs, sport. Reading biography of Maeve Brennan by colleague Angela Burke.
Something you might expect: He is a former Fulbright Fellow, one of the most prestigious awards programmes worldwide, at Northeastern University (Boston).
Something that might surprise: led the research team that reported to the Commission on Electronic Voting in 2004.