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”.

Despite its location in the University, the Common Room is run independently and is a separate legal entity. It does not pay rent to UCD.

The Staff Common Room is located on the first floor of the Newman Building (Photo: Billy Vaughan for The University Observer)

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.”

Chairperson of the Common Room Committee Prof Wolfgang Marx has previously stated that opposition to the forced closure was made clear when the Committee “voted against it at the time, where we could, at different levels.” However, the Committee believed that there would be a chance to discuss the retention of the Common Room, allowing it to operate alongside the University Club. “It doesn’t make any sense whatsoever, in anybody’s view I have talked to, except the President,” Prof Marx told The University Observer, “why you would close this place a full semester minimum before the new club opens. Even if you accept the view, which we don’t, that the new one is a replacement”.

Artist’s impression of the UCD University Club, published on JJ Rhatigan’s website. The contractor states that the value of the project is €10 million, however more recent reports have indicated that the cost is in the region of €14 million.

“The President doesn’t care at all about collegiality or what is actually Objective 7 of the University’s Strategic Plan, which is to ‘develop and strengthen our University community’. And this won’t do it.”

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”.

The site of the UCD University Club at dusk (Photo: Brían Donnelly for The University Observer).

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.”

The Common Room Committee received the notice to quit the premises in July and were informed that the area occupied by the Common Room was needed for “teaching space”. The Committee has rejected that a closure on the last day of the exam term would facilitate additional teaching space for the following semester. A list of arguments in favour of retaining the Common Room, received by The University Observer, states that “closing the Common Room a full semester before the University Club can be ready at the earliest is completely unnecessary even from the President’s point of view.” The Committee also dismisses as “not convincing” the argument that there is an “immediate need for teaching space”.

According to the arguments put forward by Marx, who is an Associate Professor of Musicology, the Common Room and University Club serve “different needs and can co-exist alongside each other.” Common Room members have also taken issue with a potential situation in which University Club members may have “millionaires” invited to observe academics and administrators “in the wild”. Concerns have also been raised that the structure of the University Club is too different to that of the Common Room. Presently, members may decide on the annual membership fee, the form of company it takes, the opening hours and the type of events held there. “Nothing of this will be in the hands of members over there. It will be determined by Management.”

The iconic sculpture, Noah’s Egg, by Rachel Joynt was moved to facilitate the construction on the site adjacent to the O’Reilly Hall.

A survey run by the Committee, which received 900 responses from members and non-members, indicates that the main issue raised was “formal versus informal”. Marx states that the Common Room “is an informal place where you want to have a relaxed time. We are not there in order to have a three-star meal… or have some time with a Minister. It is where you meet colleagues.”

Two part-time staff and one full-time barman are set to lose their jobs when the Common Room shuts its doors on 21st December. Prof Marx told The University Observer that the members of the Committee have been “in touch by with UCD HR to say, if that happens, would there be a chance to redeploy them, so to speak – even though it’s technically not the same employer.” With fewer than 100 days until the Common Room is scheduled to shut, Prof Marx stated that UCD HR “haven’t been back to me for a while.”

A weekly bulletin circulated by Professor Andrew J Deeks to staff, seen by The University Observer, stated that the “UCD University Club is now well under way and looking well. We are expecting the Club to open in April 2019, providing a venue for faculty, staff, researchers, alumni and partners of UCD to meet, eat and socialise, and supporting Strategic Key Objective 7 – Develop and Strengthen our University Community.”

“Most world-class universities have a venue of this nature, and the Club will address a significant gap in our facilities. I’ll provide you with more information on how the Club will work over the course of the year.”

UCD Students’ Union Graduate Officer Niall Torris is set to discuss the forced closure at a Union meeting this week. Postgraduate students who are paid by UCD are entitled to join the Common Room.

History Lecturer Dr Conor Mulvagh, who has been a member of the Common Room since he joined UCD staff in 2014, told The University Observer that “there’s a mixture of feelings on the University Club, certainly, but I think the universal feeling at the EGM was that we are very disappointed at the decision… to serve the Common Room with notice to quit.”

Common Room members are expected to host a series of seminars this semester which will seek to “address developments concerning universities all over the world, but of special importance to the UCD community where the Staff Common Room is currently threatened with closure”. These seminars will highlight what many see as a trend towards the commercialisation of the University. Members will highlight what some view as a global trend of university management attempting to assert more control over the affairs of its academic staff on campus. The Committee claim that the Common Room is one of the last entities in UCD which is not managed centrally by the University.

“The view is, essentially, that the University is a corporate company and has to be run like one. Which is also why students are now customers and why all sorts of other things are expressed in a business-like language,” Marx said.

The notice to quit the premises echoes a similar situation which arose in the University of Ulster (UU) at Coleraine in early December 2013. The ‘Occupy Coleraine’ protest lead to a student sit-in which lasted over 3 weeks until water and electricity services were switched off by university management. Management at UU attempted to force the closure of the Senior Common Room (SCR) and convert it into a “corporate dining suite”. Like the Common Room in UCD, the SCR was a members’ only, fee-paying club, described by one student blogger at the time as “the last public non-commercialized space – open to students, staff, and any number of organizations – on the campus”.

In an open letter published in the Belfast Telegraph on 19 December 2013, lecturers from the University and Colleges’ Union declared their support for the student-led occupation. 40 lecturers signed the letter which stated that: “Students are asking for meaningful dialogue with university management, but thus far it is not forthcoming. This is a great shame, because meaningful dialogue is what a learning community is all about.” After the sit-in, a University spokesperson said that they intended to “move forward with the substantial improvement works which will deliver a new range of modern, high-quality facilities for staff and students on the campus.”

During the year, the Common Room has entertained guest speakers such as American historian Timothy D. Snyder. The Committee has also hosted a number of events such as beer tasting, a summer party in the Rose Garden and a charity table quiz.