We want buskers and we want orchestras

Career and Executive Coach Mary Cummins talks with University College Cork (UCC) President, Professor John O’Halloran, discussing leadership, the challenges and opportunities in higher education, the importance of diversity, and his vision for the future of UCC.
We want buskers and we want orchestras

Professor John O’Halloran, President of UCC: 

“WE want our graduates to be recognised as well-rounded, curious, self-aware individuals who continually learn new skills, are open to new ideas, and make things happen”, said Professor John O’Halloran, ecologist, distinguished academic, chair of the Board of Fota Wildlife Park, and current President of UCC.

“We aim to prepare our students to live, learn and lead in a shared, co-created future, and enable them to take an active role in advancing the just and sustainable evolution of our communities, our society, and our local and global economies.

“While our students are with us, we want them to become world ready and work ready, but we also place an emphasis on personal development. We want our students to understand who they are, what values they hold and how they can become who they want to be.

“We want buskers and we want orchestras. People who might be working on their own who’ll be buskers, and then we want choirs and orchestras working together,” said Professor O’Halloran from Boreenmanna Road, Cork.

A proud graduate of UCC, initially completing a degree in Zoology, Professor O’Halloran credits his own parents for their constant support and encouragement to do what he was interested in, despite that being different.

“Being a bird watcher was a bit eccentric, but I remember my father saying to me in my final year, just do your best”.

Taking up the role of President last September having acted as interim president prior to this, Professor O’Halloran describes the main challenges within higher education as funding, inflation, and climate change.

“Third level education has suffered from underinvestment in recent years and must be improved in order to generate significant returns for the Irish economy and wider society. We are making some inroads now, but we have a long way to go when it comes to investment from the State and this must change”, he said.

“UCC has not been immune to the significant impacts of inflation and is acutely aware of the challenges it presents to our students, researchers, and staff.

“The greatest challenge of our time is climate change, and we have very ambitious sustainability targets at UCC. Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals is a challenge that all of society must rise to and at UCC, we will do all we can to support society in these efforts towards a better world”.

Referring to the greatest eternal opportunity of higher education as being to help level the playing field, diversity, and accessibility are extremely important to Professor O’Halloran.

“We have to ensure that the door to education is open to all. 23% of our students come from non-traditional pathways. I am never challenged about the idea of diversity because it’s core to everything I do. Everybody has an important role to play”.

Elaborating further on the opportunities, he said: “There is opportunity in discovery and at UCC, everything we do is underpinned by our world-class research,” specifically referring to the launch last year of a new initiative called UCC Futures.

This is an ambitious new programme of research prioritisation, coupled with an innovative academic recruitment strategy that will build a foundation for economic, societal, and cultural resilience and prosperity.

“I am super excited about the opportunity that this initiative brings to support innovation and translation of research into tangible solutions which will address emerging societal needs and global grand challenges to secure a better future for all,” he added.

Mary Cummins: Career and Executive Coach, Trainer and Facilitator.
Mary Cummins: Career and Executive Coach, Trainer and Facilitator.

Querying Professor O’Halloran’s views on leadership, he stated: “I have a bias towards action. I think in addition to action it is important that a leader has empathy. We can forget quickly that a pandemic occurred and still continues. It had a massive impact on people, and everyone was impacted differently. As a leader of an institution, you have to think about that a lot. I think a great leader listens, and also leads by action. I listen more than I speak.” Discussing drop-out rates which have climbed above pre-pandemic levels in many universities, Professor O’Halloran is proud that UCC retention rates of first year into second year are the highest in the country.

Similar to trends witnessed elsewhere, anxiety and low mood have been common presentations to student counselling at UCC.

“For some students, particularly those in the early phase of their student life, their student experience has been different to that experienced by students pre pandemic. What is crucial now is to look at what we have learned from the pandemic, to build on what elements of both our service offerings and delivery were of benefit to our students, and to continue to support students as they move to engage with a new level of on-campus student experience next semester”.

In conclusion and contemplating his vision for the future of UCC, Professor O’Halloran stated: “My ambition is to lead UCC through the next phase of transformation to secure the future of our university and make our planet a better place through further ambitious research, high-quality education, and first-class staff and student support. It is an exciting period for Cork and we are keen to keep playing a role in this chapter".

Mary Cummins is a Career and Executive Coach, Trainer and Facilitator and can be contacted by e-mail at: info@careerchanger.ie

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