Interview with Linda Doyle, Provost & President of Trinity College Dublin

Interview with Linda Doyle, Provost & President of Trinity College Dublin

BF: Ireland has always placed education as a top priority. The state allocated €6.9 billion in spending toward education as part of its National Development Plan 2021-2030. Not surprisingly, the country ranked third in the highest level of education among OECD members in 2022. To begin the interview, can you tell us about the key factors that have led to Ireland having such a competitive education and research sector?

Linda Doyle: There are several key factors. First of all, there is a genuine love for education. If you look at the history of Ireland, the idea that education plays a central role in upward mobility and in expanding the mind has always been central in the Irish psyche. The university system is very strong indeed: we now have 13 universities. Trinity College Dublin (TCD) is a comprehensive university, and that is important: we focus on humanities and social sciences as well as STEM and health sciences. This, I believe, makes us particularly strong.

We’re also a small island, therefore, we are very good at collaboration. This drives scale. If a particular expertise isn’t present in an institution, then it’s possible to work with others.

Also, our position in the EU enhances this further. American colleagues come here and are surprised at the breadth and depth of the collaboration within the country and across the EU as well, and this bolsters the whole educational experience here.

BF: TCD consistently ranks among the best universities in the world. According to QS World University Rankings, the university is number 1 in Ireland and 98th in the world. What ethos does TCD maintain that has allowed it to stand above all other universities in Ireland, and what key initiatives is the university now working on to improve its campus and infrastructure?

Linda Doyle: Trinity College Dublin is a research-intense university. Our reputation is underpinned by the quality and talent of our staff at an individual level and at the collective level when we work on our research.

Trinity is also strong on research-informed teaching. So, not only are we doing research in terms of making societal, economic and cultural impact, but we’re also using that to inform the teaching. This places our teaching at the cutting edge, and I think this really makes us stand out.

In terms of large-scale initiatives for the campus, there are quite a few. We’ve just opened Printing House Square which, in addition to being the first new square for over a hundred years on our historic campus, also includes a new accommodation block, an incredible student health center, top-class sporting facilities and a disability service center that we have strengthened significantly. This is important since access and inclusivity are a core part of our ethos.

We also have a major ongoing initiative called the Old Library Redevelopment Project which will conserve the library and its collections for future generations. I’m sure many visitors from the US will be familiar with the Book of Kells, which is held in the Old Library. Visitors, after viewing The Book of Kells, are brought upstairs into a magnificent space called the Long Room, with vaulted ceilings, incredible shelves of books, and a smell of learning. We take great pride in it and the redevelopment project is a massive national conservation project.

As an aside, there are also two iconic rows of sculptures in the Long Room in the Old Library. They have been there for hundreds of years, all of them men. Last week, on the 1st of February, St. Brigid’s Day, we added the first four sculptures of women in there. So, it is a place that represents tradition but it also represents breaking tradition through reinterpreting books, and seeing new insights, physically so, in the case of these new sculptures.

Another huge project is what we’re doing with a five-acre area in Dublin’s Docklands, which we call Trinity East. We are focusing here on our environmental and sustainable ethos. We plan to take a different approach to our use of this space. We’re not just building new buildings. Our approach will include refurbishment, the rethinking of indoor and outer space, urban farms, landscaping, circular economy, and how we use it. But not alone are we going to develop it in this way, we are also going to use it as a research project in and of itself. Our researchers from different disciplines will be able to experiment with new ways of doing things as we proceed with the development. We also plan to occupy it differently. Currently, we occupy things very much according to discipline. In Trinity East, our plan is for no disciplinary boundaries: any discipline that has anything to do with sustainability, or is about doing research or innovation in a sustainable way, will be part of this new approach in Trinity East.

If you look at the challenges the world faces at the moment, they’re all ‘messy problems.’ They demand multi-pronged approaches. So, I also envisage that Trinity East will be a place where industry partners and people who focus on policy areas can co-locate.

We are also planning an innovation hub called Portal, and that will be a home for spinouts, thus creating an environment where innovators sit shoulder to shoulder with researchers involved in all sorts of different things.

BF: Tangent — TCD’s center for innovation and entrepreneurship — and other centers have had great success in creating spinoffs from the university, including SilverCloud Health and ProVerum Medical, which secured Commercialisation Impact and People’s Choice awards in December. Can you give us an overview of the support TCD offers to entrepreneurs and shining stars the university has recently produced?

Linda Doyle: We have a great culture of innovation and entrepreneurship in Trinity.

We have spun out over 30 companies in the last five years, raising over €200 million in funding and creating over 400 jobs.

The US is an important market for Irish startups. TCD medical device spinouts, for example, build their regulatory approach around the needs of the US market. IP strategies are also developed in the knowledge that the US is a significant audience.

The key thing for us is that entrepreneurial opportunities are present at all stages in a student’s experience in Trinity. We have a student society called the Trinity Entrepreneurial Society, and they do their “dragon” stand events. I was the judge at one of them last year, and it was fascinating, fun and brilliant. And then there are formal programs in Tangent where students can learn about entrepreneurship and develop their social and cultural entrepreneurship. This is a widening of the traditional understanding of entrepreneurship. We have programs like Launch Box, which is an incubator where students compete for a place to work on their idea over the summer.

Then, in terms of our researchers (PhDs, postdocs, and  staff) there are a whole variety of initiatives:  ‘Trinity Innovation’, for example, assists with commercialization and  technology transfer. We work a lot with industry (multinationals, SMEs and startups) and we host several large-scale research centers that collaborate very fruitfully with industry partners. We have a really good culture of working with industry.

BF: TCD was ranked the eighth most international university in the world by Times Higher Education rankings in 2021, with students and staff from more than 120 countries. Almost 30% of students are from outside of Ireland. For what reason are students from outside Ireland choosing the country as a destination to advance their studies, and how is TCD successfully competing with other local institutions to attract these international learners?

Linda Doyle: We’re lucky that there’s a really strong recognition of Trinity around the world. We have over 1,350 US students in Trinity at the moment, and we have really strong relationships with universities right across the world, including North America. We have some very interesting programs, like the dual BA with Columbia University. We are involved in partnerships such as the League of European Research Universities (LERU), the European University Alliance, and CHARM-EU, which is a partnership of eight European universities offering a degree that’s partly in Trinity and partly in those other universities across Europe.

We’re also a University of Sanctuary and we’re part of the Scholars at Risk Network. We’re interested in scholars from around the world who come from places experiencing great difficulty. In light of the major earthquake that happened in Turkey and Syria, and when you look at what’s happened in Ukraine, our message is: our doors are open. There are multiple ways of engaging with us. Our arms are open to people coming from situations that would ordinarily make it difficult to come to Trinity.

BF: Ireland has pledged to hit net-zero targets by 2050, which has spurred all kinds of investment and activity. What kind of programs has the university put into action to lower its carbon footprint and teach the idea of sustainability to its students?

Linda Doyle: We have appointed our first-ever Vice President for Biodiversity and Climate Action, Prof. Jane Stout. We were the first university in Ireland to do that. We have a particularly nuanced understanding of this issue, which is how the title “Biodiversity and Climate Action” was arrived at. It arose from the observation that it is possible to do actions that help climate but undermine biodiversity. We have very good systematic thinking about how these two things matter.

For a university, one of the key things is honesty about where you are and where you want to go. We have a lot to do and when you have a very old campus, you have even more to do. Teaching is key: we’ve introduced a lot of new courses. We have an initiative called E3 (Engineering, Environment and Emerging Technologies) that brings together engineering, computer sciences, statistics and natural sciences. So, we’re encouraging people to think and work in groups: sometimes an engineering solution works best, sometimes a nature-based solution works, and we also have a set of undergraduate and postgraduate courses that reflects this mix.

But, more importantly, we’re doing a review of our entire program to understand where sustainability needs to feature more. There is a general belief now that everything we teach  should have some element of sustainability in it. We’re not near that point yet, but that’s where we want to go. Staff, as well as students, must be part of that journey and our VP for Biodiversity and Climate Action is very much leading the charge on that. We do have very dedicated courses. We’ve increased those numbers, but ultimately, we feel that it should be part and parcel of everything that we do.

We also have very significant research efforts. We have over 160 research projects in some aspect of sustainability. We’re also examining our behaviors and how we do things. For instance, 98% of people come to Trinity on public transport or bikes. That’s helped by the fact that we are in the city center and those travel options are available but there is genuinely a huge focus on sustainability, i.e., waste, green labs, food, transport, and carbon footprint.

We have also changed our investment portfolio into greener, more impact-oriented investing. I notice that we have all been learning more about impact investing and its potential.  We want to take a very systematic evidence-based approach to all that we do in that area.

It’s also important to treat this as a whole: ultimately, I want to get the university to a position where we have a much more integrated reporting perspective where we do not just think about our finances but also our natural, social and intellectual capital.

BF: The world has recently seen a huge rise in digital technologies in every aspect of our lives, including education. How has the university reacted to the new need for digital tools in its operations and innovation-based learning to meet the needs of tomorrow’s industry?

Linda Doyle: As experienced by most universities, the COVID-19 pandemic had a remarkable accelerating effect on how we have adopted technology. Traditionally, we have not been an online university and, I think, going forward, this is an area that should explore systematically; for example, looking at digital twins and immersive environments in the learning space. We’re not there yet, but that’s what we need to explore and, like most universities, we have learned two things from Covid: we’ve learned that place matters hugely and, for our students and staff, that being physically present in a space matters for socializing as well as for working. We’ve also learned that you can do many more things through the digital space. We’re on a journey.

BF: You are the first female provost of Trinity College Dublin, which is truly inspiring! Previously you were the Dean of Research and founder of Ireland’s national research center for telecommunications, CONNECT. You’ve successfully led the university during a very interesting time for Ireland and the world. As the President and Provost of TCD, what are your current priorities, and what vision do you have for the university in the next five to ten years?

Linda Doyle: As a frame for my vision, I have been motivated by UK economist Kate Raworth’s concepts of ‘a social foundation’ and ‘an ecological ceiling.’ I think the world and universities thrive when they’re operating between those spaces.

I want to continue to build a strong social foundation at the university. That social foundation depends on using all our talents; it’s about access and who gets to come here. It’s about inclusivity, it’s about our behaviors. It’s about creating good conditions for work support, stipends for researchers, and so on. It also includes things like the diversity of opinion, people being able to say what they mean, the issue of giving voice, creating that fabric so things aren’t polarized. The ecological ceiling is all that we spoke about earlier in terms of biodiversity and climate action. I was in Brussels for the last few days and we were talking about the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, and they are a constant reminder of the need to do things radically differently. Universities need to show the way forward.


BF: What’s your final message to the readers of USA Today?

Linda Doyle: Our door is open. Ireland has incredible links with the US and, as a university, we already have a huge level of engagement in terms of the number of students, number of alumni (over 9,000 Trinity alumni living in the US), and in terms of research.  We already have fantastic initiatives, ranging from the Global Brain Health Initiative with University of California-San Francisco to individual collaborations. And we love that. Our doors are open to more people coming here and to establishing more partnerships.