The UCD University Club under construction at the site adjacent to O'Reilly Hall. (Image: Brían Donnelly)

UCD President Andrew Deeks has dismissed the possibility that a proposed boycott of the controversial €14 million University Club will have a material effect on the number of faculty and staff who use it. In an interview with The University Observer, President Deeks stated that he would be “very surprised if, after the Common Room is closed, that all those 500 will actually boycott the University Club.”

Asked whether he would accept an invitation from the Common Room Committee (CRC) to visit the Common Room and address arguments for its continued existence, Deeks stated that while he was “happy to engage with them” in relation to transitional issues such as that of the Common Room’s three employees and transferring membership, this would only happen “once they realise that this is absolutely inevitable and there’s no chance that this decision is going to be reversed.”

University Management and the CRC have locked horns over the forced closure of the 43-year-old staff and faculty Common Room on the First Floor in the Newman Building. The doors to the Common Room, through which many former-Ministers, ex-Taoisigh and notable academic visitors have come, are scheduled to close for good on 21st December 2018. The space the Common Room currently occupies will be refurbished and converted into academic space, which President Deeks and University Management insist is in “great shortage”.

This claim, however, has been challenged by Professor Thomas Unger of the UCD School of Mathematics and Statistics, in a report seen by The University Observer. The report, carried out in Week 6 of Semester 1 used the University’s URooms Booking System to identify the level of available teaching space at any given time. Prof Unger’s report finds that “there is not a single time slot when there are no spaces available for use”, with up to 87 teaching rooms available at 9am across Belfield campus on Friday and between 9 and 67 rooms available at midday throughout the week. 137 teaching spaces were available at 5pm on a Friday, the most at any one time, while 12.00pm on a Tuesday left 9 rooms available, the lowest of any time during the week.

In response to claims by staff and the CRC that refurbishments which widened corridors in the Newman Building had led to a reduction in overall teaching space, President Deeks stated that the intention behind the refurbishments was that it “will make better use of space and make it much more appealing space.”

“This will involve knocking out solid walls and replacing it with glass walls. The objective in terms of the refurbishment of the Newman Building is to upgrade the facilities, and all of the feedback I’ve had in terms of the refurbishment that’s already been done in there has been very positive. So, I’m a little bit surprised to hear that people are concerned that corridors are being widened and space is being lost – as I said, the overall intention is to improve the space both in terms of the quality of that space and the utilisation of that space.”

Addressing the gap between the closure of the Common Room and the opening of the University Club, planned for the end of Semester 2, President Deeks pointed to the 18-month period between the closure of the old Student Bar and the opening of the current Clubhouse Bar at the Student Centre. “The situation is quite different for the Common Room because there are multiple tea rooms within the Newman Building and we will also be providing more”, Deeks said. “There is also the Clubhouse Bar if academic members or members of the Common Room wish to have a drink in these, effectively three months.”

“If they want to have a drink there are facilities on campus for that. It’s a relatively short period of time and, as I said if the students can survive for almost two years without a bar, then I think our academics should be able to survive three months.”

Central to the disagreement is the issue of control, Deeks states, claiming that minutes from Governing Authority meetings show that it was clear “at the time the University Club was presented to the Governing Authority… that the Common Room would close as a result.” The University Club will be managed by a team employed by the University and a Club Manager who will oversee the day-to-day operations of the Club. An advisory committee of faculty and staff will have a representative from the CRC and will provide input into the Club’s operations. Deeks, however, admits it has not been “formulated and still under discussion in terms of exactly how that’s to be constructed”.

Although Deeks states that he was surprised by the CRC’s campaign and at the decision of UCD Students’ Union to support the boycott of the University Club, he said that it should not affect their working relationship going forward. “I’m content that we will get over this issue and clearly there is a disagreement that doesn’t have to flow into any other issue. Every issue should be dealt on its merits and the communication I’ve had with the President of the Students’ Union suggests that that will indeed will be the case.”