MTU: Putting our students at the heart of all we do

Mary Cummins sat down with Professor Margaret Linehan, accomplished academic and author, and Head of School of Humanities at Munster Technological University (MTU), Cork. They talk job satisfaction, diversity and inclusion, resilience, leadership and keeping the student at the centre.
MTU: Putting our students at the heart of all we do

Professor Margaret Linehan, Head of School of Humanities, MTU, Cork campus.

IT has been said that far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing, a philosophy that certainly seems to hold true for Professor Linehan.

“I am driven by being in a position to make life better for our students. I am passionate about putting our students at the heart of all we do, and will always advocate for students. I believe in bringing out the best in students and encouraging them to achieve their full potential. I witness this on a daily basis with my postgraduate students, who start out with their research being very unsure, and after a few years of conducting their PhD research, become experts in their fields.

“This really is job satisfaction for me. It’s not all about education either. It’s more support sometimes, emotional support, so I’m a great believer in having a holistic approach. They have to be well-rounded, it goes far beyond education.

“I am also driven by publishing with my students, again offering them the opportunities to present their research findings, and seeing them grow in confidence. We have some wonderful students, and many may not have the support or backup from home so I believe it is really important to allow students to grow and flourish and to be there for them.

“Some may be the first in their families to attend third level, some may have been reared in foster care so it is all about giving them the support when they need it. We never know what home circumstances students are coming from, so it is really important to bring out the best in them”.

Not knowing what she wanted to do upon leaving school, Margaret, a native of Macroom, started working full-time in Cork City Library. She later attended UCC as a mature student, while working full-time. UCC offered a part-time Bachelor of Business Studies in the evening. It was four nights every week for four years, while simultaneously holding a full-time busy job in the Children’s library. It was tough.

This was just the beginning of a wonderful academic career for Margaret. Following a Master’s degree, she later completed a PhD which looked at why more senior women in organizations do not move internationally. This is the area of research that she still goes back to and is most passionate about. While doing her PhD, Margaret was lecturing part-time at both MTU and UCC and built this up to a permanent lecturing post at MTU. She was promoted to senior lecturer, and then Head of School of Humanities, a post she currently holds.

Included in a whole catalogue of achievements, Margaret has published more than seventy articles in peer-reviewed journals, is the founder and co-editor of Irish Business Journal, published 16 academic textbooks, and sits on various editorial boards for many international journals.

In 2016 Margaret was presented with the award of Companion of the British Academy of Management, the first Irish person to achieve this accolade, in “recognition of her outstanding contribution to the field of management.”

On asking Margaret who and what have been her main influences, she stated: “The main influences in my early years were my parents. They always instilled a sense of helping people and were involved with various charities. My husband has also been a huge influence and is always there to support me in whatever venture I undertake. One of my lecturers, Dr Jim Walsh, was a big influence on my career and I was very influenced by his ‘can do’ attitude.

“Jim’s advice to me was ‘say yes to everything and drink loads of coffee’, advice which I still follow with my own students! I believe by saying yes to invitations can open more doors and you never know where any invite may lead to.”

Margaret is a strong and passionate advocate for equality, diversity, and inclusion and is the chair of the Athena SWAN Self Assessment Team at MTU, a process that is committed to removing barriers and promoting an inclusive culture.

In addition to this, she sits on a number of working groups and committees including her work with the Cope Foundation which supports people with an intellectual disability and/or autism. Margaret also works with St Anne’s day nursery and supports the homeless in Cork.

“My parents treated everyone equally and our house was always an open house for people less well off than ourselves in society. I clearly remember people calling in for food or a hot meal when they had no homes of their own. My father was a member of the local St Vincent de Paul Society, so I grew up with voluntary work being part of my DNA.

“I really enjoy my work with Cope Foundation, which involves delivering advocacy classes to people with intellectual disabilities. I believe I can learn so much from them. They are so willing to learn and also so honest with their various situations.

“I am also privileged to sit on the Ability@Work board, which is also part of Cope Foundation and is about giving employment opportunities to those with intellectual disabilities. I am delighted that we in MTU have employed two young people in our canteen at present. I am a firm believer in ‘giving back’ and am happiest when helping people.”

In discussing resilience with Margaret, she said: “I believe resilience is now more important than ever since we entered the pandemic. It is important to adapt to different situations, for example, meeting students over Zoom for their research meetings was a big step that none of us were prepared for.

“It is amazing how we can adapt to whatever is ‘thrown’ at us. Resilience is an important trait for getting through every day, particularly for those tough days. Building up resilience by having a good work-life balance is extremely important. Switching off after work, and focusing on one task at a time also builds resilience.

“I also believe in taking my work seriously, but not taking myself too seriously. Looking after physical health, particularly during the pandemic helps build up resilience. Every morning, I am up and out the door for a run for about 40 minutes, which helps to clear my head and get me ready for the day. I don’t check emails after work in the evenings and at weekends. I am either on or off.”

On exploring Margaret’s views on leadership versus management, she said: “Leadership is a higher echelon. You have to lead people and you lead by example as well. I’m a great believer in that, whereas management is different. Management is more about the task, the operational task, so I would look at leadership as being more strategic and having the vision and the wherewithal to bring people with you. This is a very important trait in leadership.

“I would never ask someone to do something I wouldn’t do myself. I’m always there with my sleeves rolled up – if I have to move boxes, that’s grand. I’m not precious about that. I think you have to lead by example and also you need principle. I think the principle is very important as well. Sometimes it’s not always the popular decision that you take, but that’s okay with me. If I believe in something, I’ll stick by my principles. I think it’s important that you let the people that you’re leading know what you’re about.

“I think during the pandemic people may have been very isolated, maybe living at home in their own rooms, so I’m very conscious of people living alone. I think people have to lead differently now because we don’t know what people’s circumstances are. I think especially for young mothers, they have the child-care going on and maybe elder care as well, so I think you have to be conscious of everyone’s home situation because we never know what people coming into college, what backgrounds they have. That’s for both staff and students but I think definitely leadership is different because of the pandemic.”

Mary Cummins, Career and Executive Coach, Facilitator and Proprietor of Careerchanger.ie.
Mary Cummins, Career and Executive Coach, Facilitator and Proprietor of Careerchanger.ie.

In querying what advice Margaret would give to those who struggle to find career fulfillment and also what guidance she gives to students and young graduates transitioning into the world of work, she says the following:

“Be true to yourself. Know your values. Try not to be swayed by others, and if you are not happy in your career, go on to something else.

“I believe that having good friends at work and outside work is important. I have a very eclectic group of friends outside work. I also believe in hard work as this leads to fulfillment. I much prefer being too busy and having lots of things to tick off my list every day.

“As I always say to students when they look for career advice, there is always a career for everyone. I think a very important piece of advice is to surround oneself with positive people. I also think that negative people suck the energy from people who are positive. A good laugh never goes astray. It is important to remember the old adage ‘all work and no play etc’!

“Being in the present is also very important and we can’t control everything so another piece of advice is not to try to change things we can’t change, but focus on what we can change. I also believe in making a decision and sticking with the decision and not regretting that I didn’t make a different decision, we could always be going over what if?

“I believe in putting things in perspective, in our roles, if we make a mistake it can almost always be rectified, and sometimes I have to remind colleagues that we are not performing open-heart surgery! We are not in a life or death situation, so perspective is important.”

In terms of Margaret’s plans for the future, she wants to try to publish more. She is always delighted to get an opportunity to take part in research that will make a difference in the lives of people and also in organisations.

“I am very fortunate to have a career that I really enjoy and can make a positive difference to the lives of our students. I am delighted that I am able to make a positive difference to the lives of people.”

Mary Cummins is a Career and Executive coach, Facilitator and Proprietor of Careerchanger.ie. She can be contacted on 087 8290207 or via her website Careerchanger.ie

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