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Disrupt / A time of re-imagining - the views of UL President Kerstin Mey

Professor Kerstin Mey gives an insight into becoming Ireland's first female University president.

“On 9 July 2020 I was appointed by the Governing Authority as Interim President of University of Limerick following the outcome of an open application process in the previous month. In the wake of an open call for Expressions of Interest for the Interim role, I underwent an intense process of critical self-reflection to ascertain whether or not to apply for the role.

Having served just over two years as Vice President Academic Affairs and Student Engagement, I felt it important to assess my suitability for the role based on three aspects: my leadership skills; whether I had the trust and support of the campus community; and my ability to envision the future of UL in a situation of significant societal challenge not least under the impact of COVID-19 and the impetus for higher education to shift from 20th century industrial mass education into a model that meets the needs of the emerging society 5.0, i.e. a human-centred social order in which economic progress and the solution of pervasive social issues are balanced by the full integration of technological innovations of the 4th industrial revolution including the convergence of physical and virtual space.

While I was acutely aware that there had never been a woman at the helm of an Irish university during their 428 year history, this did not drive my thinking about my application. Its significance only fully sunk in when I received so many positive responses to the announcement of my appointment and perhaps most strongly when women I had never met before approached me in the street or in a shop to congratulate me and to emphasize the importance of being a role model with all its accompanying expectation of impact and change. 

Since I took up the role on 1 September 2020, serving on national academic bodies and interacting with leaders in business, industry and government,

It has certainly further crystalised in very real terms that women in academic leadership positions are still in the minority

Indeed, a tweet had asked whether my presidency came about as the result of the Government’s Senior Academic Leadership Initiative (SALI), designed to promote more female professors in Irish universities. 

While my presidency is unconnected to SALI, that sustained government intervention has an important part to play in growing the number of women professors and changing and challenging the respective scholarly practices, values and role models in Irish higher education institutions.

That it took me a while to internalise the importance of the gender aspect in filling the role of the UL Chief Officer is, I can see with hindsight, down to a number of  reasons. It certainly formed part of a protective response to prevent me from overthinking the enormous responsibility and accountability of the role, both in terms of taking on the institutional lead and of operating as a role model for other women in senior leadership positions and those who are aspiring to rise to such positions in UL, in the Irish higher education sector and internationally.

Yet it is also intricately linked with my socialisation in East Germany, where the emancipation of women had been anchored in the doctrines of the GDR until its demise 30 years ago. While back then I understood that the socialist model of women’s rights was deeply embedded in the concept of class struggle and the economic necessity of  female labour, I also recognised the empowering impact of social achievements such as the availability of childcare, support for the professional development of women including quotas, and their right to self-determine their body albeit, within a still rather traditional model of the family and motherhood upheld by the State. 

The almost full participation of women in paid employment was required by an ailing economy to mitigate against its low industrial productivity. The official notion of equality for women, perhaps best exemplified in the prescribed celebrations of International Women’s Day on 8 March every year in East Germany, did little to modify gender stereotypes or individual gender roles as became obvious within the early years after the fall of the Iron Curtain and in the wake of reengineering society, models of practice and hierarchies of value based on the patriarchal structures of West Germany. 

It should also be noted that only during the final years of the GDR did feminist voices surface more publicly. I still remember the enlightening and empowering effect it had when feminist theories openly entered the lecture circuit of Humboldt University. They served as a formative influence at the start of my professional life. And although I fully recognised the flaws in the socialist model of female emancipation, being the first member of my family to obtain a PhD and embarking on an academic career during the German unification period still instilled a strong belief that it is possible to knock at and shatter the glass ceiling. 

Having taken on the role of President, I feel very privileged to head up an institution that is leading the way in addressing gender equality

UL made substantial progress in achieving Athena Swan Bronze wards as an institution, and through its faculties and departments. In many instances these achievements are also firsts for universities in Ireland. Women are well represented in the UL senior leadership and amongst its professoriate.

That said, there is no room for complacency as values and structures, practices and procedures impact peoples’ lives and prospects, not just awards. The current COVID-19 pandemic impacts in different ways on an individual’s ability to combine competing demands of increased workloads and intensified or disrupted work schedules, heightened learning efforts to transition into the virtual space on the one hand, and caring responsibilities, the confluence of professional and private spaces on the other. Studies have shown how this affects women’s research performance in particular and thus their future career prospects.

Building and maintaining an institutional culture and ethos, structures, practices and pedagogies for equality, diversity and inclusion to thrive, remains an ongoing priority for UL. 

Such a sustained commitment is a fundamental prerequisite to widen access to higher education. Given the incessant and accelerated scientific and technological advancements, government’s continued focus on the knowledge society and the extent of change to the ways people live, communicate and socialise, learn and work, access to quality education and life-long learning opportunities are as vital for social inclusion and stability, economic resilience and planetary health as they are for meaningful individual lives.

This requires flexible educational pathways that can be accessed at any stage of life and career, support for life-long learning from government and employers, and inclusive curriculum design and facilitation of learning that meets the needs of a diversity of learners and prepares them for radically changing professional fields and occupational landscapes. Recognition of prior learning and prior experience are key ingredients for moving away from front-loading education as is a greater diversity of accredited learning options beyond a traditional university degree. UL is committed to the reshaping of university education that is anchored in its strengths in research and knowledge making, and builds on close collaboration with industry and academic partners, communities, the third sector and government.

Reimagining higher education has to go in hand with a reform of its funding model

The significant degree of disruption and uncertainty to jobs and patterns of employment brings into sharp focus the demand for autonomous, self-determined learners who are resilient, able to embrace ambiguity and complexity, and who can both navigate and shape social, economic and environmental change.

Having experienced the collapse of one social order and reorientation in another system, I appreciate the importance of such competences. Self-determined learners are aware of their own strengths and weaknesses, their access to resources, and are actively drawn to complex challenges and opportunities. They are hungry to learn and can translate their ideas into gainful employment with social, cultural and environmental agency, and economic impact. Through advancing partnership models, UL is investing its future into pioneering such learner opportunities by actively supporting engaged citizenship and working towards a more livable and regenerative future.” -  Professor Kerstin Mey