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President's Inaugural Address

 Presidents Inaugural Address

Pictured at Professer Don Barry's Inaugural Address as President of the University of Limerick are from left, Mr Sean Donlon, Chancellor, University of Limerick; Mr John O'Connor, President Emeritus, UL; Professor Don Barry, UL President; Dr Garrett Fitzgerald, Chancellor, National University of Ireland and Dr Ed Walsh, Founding President,  University of Limerick.


Print Version of President's Inaugural Address

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I have chosen to speak today about undergraduate education. As many of you will know, it is a subject close to my heart and indeed the teaching of undergraduates here at UL, at UCC and at Yale has been one of the great joys and privileges of my career. I passionately believe that undergraduate education is at the very heart of the university mission and is the foundation stone of all great universities. 

This afternoon, I want to focus on the role of the undergraduate curriculum in meeting the needs of our students, our citizens, and our workforce in the 21st century - in a new and fast changing world - a world that could not even have been imagined when I first started school in Mallow in 1961 and a world whose future continues to become more rather than less unpredictable.

I want to reflect on the subject in the light of my experiences as a student and as an academic both in the United States and in Ireland .

The development of undergraduate education in the United States and in Europe has been profoundly affected by the thoughts of two men - Wilhelm von Humboldt and Cardinal John Henry Newman - both of whom wrote extensively on the subject of university education in the 19th century. At that time a new impetus had been brought to educational thinking as scientific discovery and technological invention progressed in tandem to create the industrial revolution. There was a widespread view that universities were lagging a long way behind the pace of change being experienced. Mmm - That has a familiar ring to it!!

In 1810 Von Humboldt established a university in Berlin with the unity of research and teaching as one of its basic principles. The teaching efforts of all academics were geared to the kinds of specialised work that produces either future investigators or future professionals whose work depends upon a sophisticated knowledge base. This led to a downgrading of the importance of undergraduate teaching and indeed to the contracting out of the first two years of college work to local academies so that faculty could devote themselves to research and advanced level teaching.

Newman had quite a different view of the purpose of an undergraduate education. In 1852, he wrote his treatise called "The Idea of a University", a work still widely regarded as the most influential attempt to define a university education. Newman defends the value of learning for its own sake and vigorously opposes the notion of specialisation.

Newman writes so beautifully that it is hard to resist quoting him. According to Newman, undergraduate education "is the education which gives a man a clear conscious view of his own opinions and judgments, a truth in developing them, an eloquence in expressing them, and a force in urging them." He goes on to say that "the man who has learned to think and to reason, who has refined his taste, and formed his judgment, and sharpened his mental vision, will be placed in that state of intellect in which he can take up any one of the sciences or callings with an ease, a grace, a versatility, and a success, to which another is a stranger."

The US situation 

During the early years of the 20th century, undergraduate curricula at the major American universities gradually changed in the direction of a compromise between Newman and von Humboldt. There developed the idea of a curriculum underpinned by the twin notions of distribution and concentration. Distribution demanded that the curriculum should ensure a broad education for the student while concentration demanded that the curriculum should encourage a student to study one particular subject in depth. These twin notions of distribution and concentration still underpin the undergraduate curricula at the major American universities today.

I want to spend some time talking about the undergraduate curriculum at Yale University . I do this for two reasons. The first is that Yale is consistently rated among the top five universities in the US with one of the most sought after undergraduate programmes in the country. The second reason is a personal one. I did my PhD at Yale and spent a number of semesters there as a Visiting Professor. During that time I taught undergraduates and so I am familiar with the undergraduate curriculum at Yale and I have explored with faculty at Yale the thinking behind the curriculum. 

As stated in its Prospectus, Yale "does not primarily train students in the particulars of a given career" but, instead, "its main goal is to instil in students the development of skills that they can bring to bear in whatever work they eventually choose". The Yale curriculum is a classic example of the American compromise between breadth and depth.

An undergraduate at Yale must take 36 courses over four years.

Breadth is achieved by requiring students to take at least two courses in the arts and humanities, two courses in the sciences, two courses in the social sciences, two courses in quantitative reasoning, two courses in writing skills, and at least one course to further their foreign language proficiency. Thus at least 11 - or almost 1/3 - of a student's total of 36 courses are employed to meet the requirement of breadth.

Depth is achieved by requiring students to select a major from among the more than 70 major programs available. A major program usually includes twelve courses in a single discipline taken for the most part in the final two years. In its prospectus, Yale justifies the idea of selecting a major as follows: "To study a subject in depth can be one of the most rewarding and liberating experiences a person can have. Although no one should specialize to the neglect of breadth, knowledge advances by specialization, and one can gain some of the excitement of discovery by pressing toward the outer limits of human knowledge in a particular field."

These main structural elements of the Yale undergraduate curriculum are replicated at the vast majority of the leading American universities. In particular, the combination of breadth and depth exemplified by the Yale curriculum is a defining characteristic of an American undergraduate education.

The Irish Situation

And now I want to turn to the Irish situation.

I began my own undergraduate education in 1975 when I enrolled as a Science student at UCC. In my first year I took courses in Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics, and Mathematical Physics. At the end of first year I decided to pursue a degree in Mathematical Sciences. For the rest of my time at UCC all of my courses were courses in the Mathematical Sciences.

In 1979 I moved to Yale to pursue a PhD in Statistics. Many of my class mates were Americans who had pursued undergraduate degrees like those I have described earlier. Comparing myself to them it was clear that I knew a lot more mathematics than they did but far less about art, literature, philosophy and politics. I probably found the transfer to PhD studies easier than they did but most of them completed their PhDs at or about the same time as I did.

How different is today's undergraduate education experience to the one that I knew and - let's be clear - loved in UCC in the 1970s? What has changed in the undergraduate curriculum that we see today - more than 30 years later? 

There is now some element of elective choice by students in practically all undergraduate programmes in Ireland . The most common use of elective choice is to allow students to specialise in later years in particular areas of their main discipline.  Elective options that allow students to explore other disciplines outside of their main area of specialisation are much rarer. 

There has been a very welcome focus on how we teach, on the need for innovation in teaching and improvement in the learning experience. I am proud to say that UL has been at the forefront in terms of excellence and innovation in Teaching and Learning.

As regards curriculum structure, we have seen progress in terms of the move to modularisation and semesterisation - yes UL did it first - long before Bologna . And while I'm going through this temporary bout of immodesty let me note in passing that UL led also in terms of its cooperative education programme, in place since 1972, and involving real exposure to the workplace as an intrinsic part of the undergraduate experience. Thank you Ed Walsh for your vision, your foresight, and your courage.

But how different are the fundamentals of the undergraduate curriculum experienced by students today versus the 1970s? How does the Irish curriculum fare when faced with the criticisms of the European curriculum expressed in the 2005 Communication of the European Commission entitled "Mobilising the Brainpower of Europe"? Have we moved from a curriculum that is organised and more often than not compartmentalised within the traditional disciplinary boundaries? Have we implemented the profound revision of the curriculum considered necessary to encompass transferable skills as well as specialist knowledge? Do we see real change in terms of the breadth of student learning so as to develop the interdisciplinary capability required in a world where knowledge creation increasingly falls outside the boundaries of traditional disciplines? I believe that the answer to all of these questions is almost certainly NO and that, in fact, the curriculum in its fundamental approach and focus has remained virtually unchanged from that which I encountered in the 1970s.

In comparison to the US , we in Ireland have a strong tendency to sacrifice breadth for depth. And the extent of specialisation at undergraduate level is greater now than it was back in the 1970s. Here are some undergraduate courses that school leavers signed up for in CAO 2007 and I have deliberately included one from each of the seven universities: Early Childhood Studies (UCC), Genetics and Cell Biology (DCU), Theoretical Physics (Trinity), Forestry (UCD), Business Information Systems (NUIG), Computer Aided Engineering and Design (UL), Finance and Venture Management (NUIM). The titles and indeed the content of these programmes reflect a move towards specialisation very early in one's progress up the ladder of educational attainment. Nowhere in Ireland is there an undergraduate programme with the breadth of experience encountered by students in the most sought after undergraduate programmes in the United States .

Why does any of this matter in the real world? Let's listen to what some leading employers have had to say.

Here is Paul Ryan, Vice President of Avocent speaking earlier this year: "The difficulty now is that universities are not producing graduates that meet industry needs. A long hard look needs to be taken at the various curricula universities have in place to ensure that they not only support the technical skills required but also to ensure that students' business aptitudes are being developed."

Here is Paul O'Riordan, Managing Director of Oracle speaking in June of this year: "We need to ensure that industry and education are aligned so that we are developing people with the right skills." 

The "right" skills however are not so easy to agree but few would argue with the 2004 Report "Ahead of the Curve" which identifies the need for a workforce of lifelong learners not just skilled at a specific task but versatile and adaptable. Future enterprise, it states, will place a premium on well rounded and creative individuals. Innovation as a primary goal will require a particular mindset that involves curiosity, creativity and problem solving, the capacity to combine skills from different disciplines, the ability to continually question established ways of doing things and the ability to apply knowledge and intuition to improve them.

In my own experience of talking to employers, they invariably describe Irish graduates as capable, hardworking and smart. However, when pushed to talk about the undergraduate curriculum, certain reservations begin to emerge and, in many ways, employers are closer to Newman than the universities are.

One reservation is that undergraduate education in Ireland is too narrow, focussed too much on intensive training in a narrow base of technical skills and failing to cultivate creativity and the ability to think outside the box. Another is that universities do not put enough emphasis on the development of communication skills among students and, in particular, of the skills needed to formulate an argument and to express that argument both orally and in written form. A final observation by employers that I will share with you is that our undergraduate curricula are overly concentrated on training students in skills that will be obsolete soon after they graduate rather than on providing students with the knowledge, skills, and habits of mind that will make them into lifelong learners capable of adapting to rapidly changing circumstances. These views are well articulated by Robert Allen, the former Chairman and CEO of AT&T when he says in a clear echo of Newman: "We want today what we wanted yesterday; the graduate with the mind engaged, the soul inspired. Students schooled, not only in the rigors of a specialty, but also in the social, ethical and political implications of what they do. To expect less in these times is to risk much more."


In 2006, almost 17,000 students graduated from Irish universities with an undergraduate degree. With our ambition for our society and for our economy, we cannot afford to neglect this critical dimension of what we do. Ireland is widely recognised for the quality of its graduates but an excellent reputation is never a permanent achievement. We must constantly challenge if we are to meet the needs of our students and of society now and in the future. I believe that it is timely that we renew our focus on undergraduate education as a critical pillar of what we do and that we challenge the WHAT as well as the HOW of undergraduate teaching. Does our current undergraduate curriculum prepare our students for the challenges of today's rapidly changing environment?  Does it nurture creativity and develop a capacity for innovation? How good is the fit in terms of long-term employability and the needs of enterprise? How well does our current model compare with that of our competitors?  What can we learn from current international trends in curricular reform?

I am not arguing against the need for a career focus for students or the need for specialist skills and professional training.  Neither is this an argument about teaching versus research. On the contrary- I go with the view expressed in a quote that I read recently to the effect that "Research is to teaching as sin is to confession. If you don't participate in the former you have very little to say in the latter". What I am seeking is reflection on the potential of a renewed undergraduate curriculum to contribute to our shared ambitious vision of Ireland at the forefront of a knowledge society.

In conclusion, my personal belief is that the aim of an undergraduate education should be to educate students to be independent, knowledgeable, rigorous, and creative thinkers with an intimate appreciation for the structure of ideas, for the beauty of ideas, and most importantly for the power of ideas. The motto of this University is "Eagna chun Gnímh" which translates as "Learning for Action".  Appreciating the power of ideas is the essence of learning for action. 

I would like to end by thanking all those involved in organising this event. Thank you all for sharing this occasion with me. Thank you for your good wishes, your advice and your support. Encouraged by that support, I look forward with confidence to continuing to build on the UL ethos of creativity, relevance, inclusiveness, and connectedness which has served so well the learning, research and societal needs of the region and of the country.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir. Thank you.  

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