Professor Wrixon and The Irish Times

Geraldine Kennedy, editor of the Irish Times is surely serious when she says her newspaper’s role is to ‘shape public opinion’ – if its coverage of the fortunes of “Professor” Gerry Wrixon is anything to go by.  In another of the IT’s articles on behalf of the controversial Professor Wrixon, now ex President of UCC, the paper has again put a gloss on the latest developments in the ongoing saga of events at University College Cork.  This time around, the occasion for their enthusiasm on Wrixon’s behalf is the report by John Malone, appointed last year by UCC’s governing body at the behest of Minister for Education, Mary Hanafin, to investigate allegations of bullying and corruption.  Bizarrely, until now, the Irish Times has failed ever to report the fact of this investigation – a strange omission by our foremost national newspaper in the public record of disturbing events at a significant national institution.

Background

The allegations against Professor Wrixon and others were raised most notably by Professor Des Clarke in a lengthy memo circulated to every member of staff at the university last summer.  Former UCC President Michael Mortell, among others, was sufficiently troubled to write to the Irish Examiner, supporting Clarke in his request for a proper investigation into UCC’s affairs. (1)  Clarke’s memo itself followed the publication of other critical news reports, including some by this author on Indymedia.ie and who declares a personal interest.

The furore resulting from all this seemed to have finally compelled Minister Hanafin to take the matter seriously where all previous attempts had failed.  However, that turned out, unsurprisingly it must be said, to be too good to be true.  Despite the serious nature of the allegations against Wrixon and the mountain of evidence which his critics say exist to prove them, the first sign that matters were once again to be hushed up was when Hanafin declared, in defiance of legal logic “I think appointing a visitor at this stage would be taking the allegations too seriously, given that they were disputed two years ago. But I don’t want it to come back again in another two years.”  (2)

A copy of Professor Clarke’s memo is available at the link provided beneath this article. (3) There will surely be few readers who will consider his concerns not to be very serious indeed.   Hanafin’s statement in itself, was pretty incontrovertible evidence of a foregone conclusion as to the veracity of the claims:   “They’re about Gerry Wrixon but they’re also about finances and about spending of money on buildings, therefore it could be very easily cleared up,” she was reported to have added. (2)

Independent Investigation?

The next sign that matters were continuing along the same path that had led to the disharmony in the first place was when Minister Hanafin announced the appointment of an independent investigator whose ‘independence’ was questionable in the opinion of many people.  In what might best be described as a knight’s move, Minister Hanafin and the HEA allowed UCC to appoint its own investigator and frame the remit of the investigation. The appointment was subsequently made by Governing Body Chairman, Enda McDonagh and presented to the rest of the Governing Body –  after the fact and without discussion.

The Irish Independent:

“UCC Governing Body chairperson Professor Enda McDonagh recommended Mr Malone in a letter to members of the body on Friday, in which he sought agreement to the appointment by 10am yesterday. Prof McDonagh expressed regret that he would not be contactable “over the next day or so” and said that no reply would be taken as consent. The professor stressed the challenge involved in identifying someone of stature, with the relevant expertise, who had no connection with UCC, to conduct the investigation.” (4)

(John Malone is a former General Secretary of the Department of Agriculture. He came to public prominence in obtaining 100 per cent public financing of the 15 million euro Equestrian Centre at Punchestown Racecourse, fast-tracked by Finance Minister Charlie McCreevy and Agriculture Minister Joe Walsh. In evidence to the Dáil Public Accounts Committee on 17/12/2003, John Malone said the Centre was never intended to hold show jumping events, in flat contradiction to his earlier contention that the absence of such a centre was the reason for the loss of the World Equestrian Games in 1999.   The Comptroller and Auditor General, John Purcell, said it would be hard to conclude the centre was providing a vital function in the agri-equestrian area.)

The remit of the investigation was to be determined by the governing body of UCC, the very group about to whom many of the allegations were related.   In effect, the defendants were allowed to determine what they should be accused of.  Naturally enough, they decided that none of the really tricky stuff would be considered.  Out of approximately 50 heads of complaint, it seems that about three were deemed appropriate for investigation.  A call was made for all parties with outstanding grievances to contact Mr Malone.  But when Dr Stuart Neilson, for example, approached him with the details of his experiences of alleged bullying at UCC he was told that the matter was outside the scope of the investigation.  The Irish Independent noted on the 22nd December 2006:

“After the selection of Prof Murphy [Wrixon’s successor] the governors spent an hour and a half discussing a report into the bullying allegations. The Irish Independent understands that a motion was carried stating the governing body was unable to progress matters further and felt it had no option but to dismiss the complaints on the basis only of non-engagement by the three complainants – who have rejected a committee investigating their allegations. It is understood that at least one of the three is seriously considering legal action. The other two are also expected to consider their options.” (5)

Having at first welcomed Minister Hanafin’s interest in the situation, the prejudicial nature of the investigation resulted in the refusal of many people, including Professor Des Clarke to cooperate with it.  What confidence could have been felt in a process which amounted, in effect, to the setting up of a kangaroo court by the very body against whom the allegations were made?  Undaunted by the inevitable failure of her strategy for resolving the situation constructively, the Minister nevertheless pressed ahead with her plans without apparent concern for the further insult and anger that it caused to many people.  In September 2006, the Irish Times had eagerly reported that:

“…many of the allegations made by Prof Des Clarke of financial mismanagement at UCC had been made before and it referred them to the HEA which in turn referred them to the UCC’s governing body, which had found them to be groundless.   President Wrixon has said that “there isn’t a single instance where any of the allegations he has made have found the university has acted wrongly in any way” and that “these views have already been expressed to the governing body, Government ministers and State agencies, and been found to have no merit” and that he would not highlight all the “factual errors” in Prof Clarke’s letter.”  (6)

This translates into nothing more than saying that President Wrixon has said there is no need for a proper investigation.  Well, he would, wouldn’t he?   But the Times just left it at that – no supporting evidence was offered for Wrixon’s claims.  Of course, any competent enquiry would have quickly revealed the ‘factual errors’ in his own or anyone else’s version of events.  Nevertheless, both the Irish Times and Minister Hanafin have so far evidently taken him at his own word – both seemingly determined not to look at any evidence that would prevent them from shaping public opinion in favour of Professor Wrixon.  And let’s not forget what is at stake here: a university college massively in debt; a divided and unhappy institution and many outstanding grievances among people who believe they were treated with exceptional contempt by the university – and now by the Minister for Education herself  –  for challenging corruption, bullying and mismanagement.

Again, it fell to the Independent to provide us with some counterweight opinion on the nature of the ‘independent investigation’:

“Prof Clarke made clear his unhappiness with the latest development in the saga, including the time given to members of the governing body to consider and agree Mr Malone’s name. ‘The Governing Body is appointing a consultant to write a report about itself; the scope is limited by excluding all the matters that the Governing Body ‘considered’ but failed to investigate.’ The appointee has no independent legal powers, no brief to investigate anything, is paid by the Governing Body and the Higher Education Authority (HEA), gets secretarial support from UCC, and is asked to report within a few weeks.” (7)

Reporting The Report

This brings us to the central point of MediaBite’s concern with the affair.  The investigator, presumably, has apparently seen fit to provide the Irish Times with an early copy of the report before the university’s own officers have had a chance to see it or comment on what it says.  Did the Minister agree to that?  This turn of events may not be unrelated to the fact that the newly constituted governing body at UCC under President John Murphy, takes over from the old body on the 19th of February.  The Wrixon camp, which will include many of his supporters on the old governing body, will clearly have been keen to secure favourable publicity for themselves ahead of the report’s official publication date –  said to be this coming Tuesday the 6th February. And the Irish Times has, it seems, been happy to oblige.  On the 30th of January in the ‘Teacher’s Pet’ column, clearly equipped with advance information, the IT was in a position to begin the process of  ‘shaping’ the public perception of what Malone’s report would say:

“Broadly, the report will be welcomed by the Wrixonites. There is some mild criticism of the manner in which the governing authority was by-passed on some decisions.” (8)

To anyone who has been following the Wrixon saga from other perspectives, the IT account of the report makes the same depressingly familiar reading.   It conforms almost exactly to about a hundred earlier flattering items and articles in the same paper and to Wrixon’s apparent view of himself as the messiah of UCC and the Irish university world at large. It also claims that “The inquiry examined over 50 allegations made by Prof Des Clarke of UCC in a letter to Ms Hanafin” (9) but it patently did not investigate all of them, because they had excluded potential litigation, the bullying complaints and all matters previously considered by the governing body itself. In other words, most of the issues that Professor Clarke raised were actually ignored beyond the decision not to investigate them.  The word ‘examined’ is the critical one in the account above.  The complaints were ‘examined’ but not investigated.  In his analysis of the report in the IT, Sean Flynn, Education Editor, summarised the conclusion of the report as follows:

“There was a very strong focus on results and implementing change but much less on people affected by these changes….” (9)

This has been the refrain from the Wrixon camp over the last few years.  Nobody at UCC has been troubled by the fact of ‘change’.  The closing down of a highly successful and internationally renowned research centre might possibly be one of the ‘changes’ which Wrixon supporters are talking about.  For a university that was spiralling into debt at the time, it was a questionable business decision and the closure appeared to be grounded more in ideological preferences than any concern with modernisation or change. From an academic perspective, it was inexplicable.

And which ‘results’ was the President truly focused on?  We know that, personally, he has done handsomely well out of the sale of Farran Technologies – a company the full extent of whose links to the UCC sponsored NMRC (National Microelectronic Research Centre) are of unknown provenance. On the other hand UCC itself is estimated to be in debt to the tune of between 60 and 100 million Euro.  If Wrixon were the director of a company, the shareholders would likely have long since sought his resignation.  Certainly a lot of shiny new buildings have materialised as a consequence of private sector donations but it is not clear what foothold in UCC’s teaching and research activities those donors have secured for themselves as a consequence of their largesse.   Where public money is concerned – and this is the most crucial aspect of university management – the UCC deficit is more than the whole of all the state’s other university colleges combined.  On top of that Wrixon has left a divided and unhappy institution behind him.  The fact that there is a general increase in the number of people wanting to attend all third level institutions is hardly down to Professor Gerry Wrixon but he is apparently unabashed at claiming the credit for the phenomenon as it relates to UCC for himself, nevertheless.   The Irish Times is well aware of all of these facts and yet it consistently chooses to ignore them in most of its coverage of the issue. Moreover, the paper has effectively refused on a number of occasions to hear evidence and other information offered to it by member’s of UCC staff – an extraordinary situation for a paper pretending to be concerned with serious investigative journalism.

From the point of view of media coverage, it is interesting to contrast the summary of Malone’s report offered by Niall Murray in the Irish Examiner on the 3rd February.  He begins his article with the following:

“PERSONAL mistrust and animosity were common at management level in University College Cork during Professor Gerry Wrixon’s presidency, an inquiry carried out for UCC’s governing body revealed.” (10)

From Murray’s piece it is clear that the report carries rather more criticism of Professor Wrixon than Flynn’s item in the Irish Times would lead anyone to believe, although Murray too confirms the central thrust of Malone’s ‘findings’ to be supportive of Professor Wrixon’s ‘vision’.  However, given all that is known about the context in which the report was conducted, the weighting in favour of Wrixon which the Irish Times has given to its conclusions is worrying.  The paper’s reporting of the affair throughout its dragging history can only have played a major part in exacerbating the mistrust and anger felt by many at UCC.  What the effect on UCC staff and management of its coverage of the latest report will be, remains to be seen.  Readers of the IT should in any case be aware that what they are reading may not at all be a full and fair account of all perspectives on a given situation.  Given her stated philosophy, is it not the case that Irish Times reports are more likely to be a presentation of selected facts as Geraldine Kennedy would prefer you to see them?

Miriam Cotton
Editor
MediaBite
February 5th 2007
1. Irish Examiner 29/09/2006: Ex-UCC president calls for mismanagement claim probe http://archives.tcm.ie/irishexaminer/2006/09/29/story14571.asp

2. Irish Examiner 14/10/2006: Hanafin to ‘clear up’ UCC debt allegations
http://archives.tcm.ie/irishexaminer/2006/10/14/story15793.asp

3. Indymedia: An open letter from Professor Desmond Clarke to President Wrixon
http://www.indymedia.ie/article/78749#comment169636

4. Irish Independent 15/11/2006: Questions over investigator inflame college controversy
http://www.unison.ie/irish_independent/stories.php3?ca=9&si=1723910&issue_id=14890

5. Irish Independent 22/12/2006: College rejects bullying claims by staff
http://www.unison.ie/irish_independent/stories.php3?ca=50&si=1745837&issue_id=15039

6. Irish Times 30/09/2006: UCC complaints referred to HEA
http://www.ireland.com/newspaper/ireland/2006/0930/1158591216121.html

7. Irish Independent 15/11/2006: Questions over investigator inflame college controversy
http://www.unison.ie/irish_independent/stories.php3?ca=9&si=1723910&issue_id=14890

8. Irish Times 30/01/2007: A new era begins at UCC later this week when Michael Murphy takes over from Gerry Wrixon in the president’s office
http://www.ireland.com/newspaper/education/2007/0130/1169680961452.html

9. Irish Times 02/02/2007: Inquiry clears ex-UCC head of corruption
http://www.ireland.com/newspaper/ireland/2007/0202/1170363380048.html

10. 03/02/2007: Report highlights ‘mistrust and animosity’ at UCC
http://archives.tcm.ie/irishexaminer/2007/02/03/story24593.asp

11.  18/09/2006:  ‘Wrixon + 8 Million: UCC – 60 Million
http://www.indymedia.ie/article/78472

 

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