As Dr Desmond Fitzgerald settles into UL, Anna Nolan discovers the Dublin man is already very familiar with the region.
During his early years, the university’s new president spent his summer holidays in Kilkee, the County Clare seaside resort affectionately known as “Limerick by the sea”. Desmond Fitzgerald’s mother, Maureen O’Donovan, was born in Limerick and though they all lived in Dublin with his Belfast-born father, Thomas Joseph Fitzgerald, there were also family visits to her mother in Limerick City.
UL is in a position to progress quickly over the next ten years, regionally, nationally and globally.
Schooled in Dublin, Dr Fitzgerald’s first degrees in medicine were taken at University College Dublin. While time was spent studying, training and working in the US, much of his career was based in Dublin. In 2016, he was happy and settled in his role as vice-president of health affairs at UCD. Then, the possibility of becoming president of the University of Limerick arose last autumn. Happy as he was in UCD, when he looked at UL, his interest was piqued.
“I had the same reaction as I had with UCD. I felt that I could contribute to bringing UL to the next phase,” he explains. “UL is in a position to progress quickly over the next ten years, regionally, nationally and globally.
“From a faculty perspective, UL is notably international but we could attract more international students. This would enrich the experience of the students here in UL and would stimulate us to broaden the curriculum.”
Dr Fitzgerald’s diverse career spans academic medical research, hospital medicine and teaching, as well as leadership and managerial roles. He was vice-president for research at UCD (2004-2014) before his appointment as vice-president of health affairs.
“I am very fond of UCD, it is my alma mater. Like UL, it is a national success story. After working in academic medicine abroad and in RCSI, I was excited by the idea of developing an entire university, especially in building its research.”
As UCD’s head of research, he substantially grew the number of PhD students and hugely increased its funding and reputation for research. He also has an impressive reputation for establishing research centres, based on the principle of bringing disciplines together to tackle major challenges. He sees the same opportunities in UL.
“UL has unique strengths, including pharmaceutical manufacturing, material science, automation, aviation and sports, to name a few,” he notes. “I would like to see these develop further and work on new areas, such as data analytics and health.
I was excited by the idea of developing an entire university, especially in building its research.
“Data science is making important contributions to areas as diverse as health, robotics, financial services and manufacturing, as well as to social sciences and the arts. For the city and region, there are many ways that data science can contribute - the digital city, for example or the implementation of social policy.
“I am a believer in the value of multidisciplinarity – UL has strengths in fundamental disciplines, in mathematics, physics and chemistry. It has strong computational skills. It has unique expertise in the performance arts, in history, journalism and political science,” he continues.
With a successful research background (450 research papers) in medicine, primarily cardiology, it is natural that he stresses the important of UL’s Graduate Entry Medical School (GEMS).
“GEMS, and indeed the entire health sciences at UL, is a great success story, not least in providing much-needed healthcare professionals to the region. I’d like to see more medical research that would have a major impact on UL’s reputation.”
He sees caring for patients as the primary responsibility of any healthcare professional. However, healthcare is far from perfect and there is another responsibility; he wants to know why people get ill in the first place.
“I would like to see UL develop a wider programme, one that takes on the challenges of health and well-being, starting here with our students and staff, by developing a healthy campus. It is an indictment of the third level that so many students are addicted to cigarettes for life when they graduate.”
The university has grown extraordinarily from its initial intake of 120 to almost 14,000 on campus in 2016. So, where to next for UL?
“We should create additional programmes that will address the needs of students from this region, so that we are not bypassed in favour of Dublin.
We also need to be seen as a national institution, to attract students from all over the country. In that regard, we have several unique programmes, like aviation and sports. But there is a growing need for UL to go beyond undergraduate.
“We will grow the number of postgraduate students, which currently stands at 10% of the student body. We will double that in the next 10 years. That would be good for development of the region and we will attract more students from overseas with distinct offerings of international relevance. This would also be good for the region, as a sizeable proportion of those students will stay here after graduation.” Although the outcomes of Brexit are at present unpredictable, Dr Fitzgerald sees the opportunities there.
“We are already exploring partnerships with several universities in the UK and working with them to better understand students’ needs and to make sure that, whatever is designed, it will function around Brexit,” he says.
“International education is responding to the seismic shifts in politics and it’s not just Brexit. There are also one to two million overseas students going to the US every year and they are worried by the changes they see. Some of these students may now prefer to come to Ireland.”
In these contexts, international university rankings matter, he contends. “Students will not go to universities that are not ranked. One of the tasks facing us is to improve UL’s ranking. That will take time but, then, UL is here to stay.”