Is there anyone at the wheel?

Image Credit: teven Holl Architects - Concept design for the proposed Centre for Creative Design

Michael Bergin analyses the collapse of the sale of Richview, and the shelving of the Centre for Creativity.

UCD’s new “Gateway plan,” which was to pedestrianise the front of campus, and see the development of the new Centre for Creativity and Centre for Future Learning, was announced to much fanfare in 2018. Whether you thought it was a fantastic new addition to a modernising university, or a grotesque tribute to ego, everyone had an opinion on what was to become a new Dublin landmark. Love it or loathe it, you certainly knew about it.

Fast forward five years to the news of its cancellation, and there has been minimal noise. The UCD Foundation website, which carries details of the Future Campus Phase II plans, has been quietly edited, so as to remove all mention of the Centre for Creativity, as if it never existed. Instead, every possible effort is made to push the decidedly less impressive Centre for Future Learning as the way forward for UCD. The only students who will be aware of the building’s cancellation will be those who care enough to pick up a campus newspaper, newspapers that are coming under increasingly severe financial pressure.

Obviously, the reversal of such a large-scale and well-publicised project is a humiliation for the university, which it is naturally not keen to publicise. However, the best way to manage bad publicity is to reveal it yourself, on your own terms, and in a manner of your choosing. Otherwise, you risk making a fool of yourself, and your organisation. Students should have been informed that the Centre for Creativity was not going ahead. Many will have been excited at the prospect of going to classes in what was a very futuristic building. Yet not only did UCD keep the shelving of the Centre to itself, it also kept the failure to sell the Richview building to itself. 

The sale of Richview, widely seen as a quaint and nice, but chronically outdated building, was mandated by a Governing Authority vote in 2019. The University Observer at the time had confirmed via sources that the funding for the Gateway Project, of which the Centre for Creativity was a crucial part, was contingent upon the sale of Richview. The intention to convert the Richview building into a model school would have raised obvious concerns regarding the costs of refurbishing and making accessible the building. These seem to have been ignored, or at best, were not deemed to be sufficient enough concerns to dissuade buyers. At present, one can only speculate as to whether or not this was the case.

UCD’s capital investments plan, which took another hit when the College Tribune revealed that 1200 new student beds had been cancelled due to construction costs, now lies in ruins. For as much as this plan has achieved, it seems that it has cancelled or changed plans. A consistent and well-laid out plan, for a university of UCD’s scale, is not a simple undertaking. However, it should have been much more achievable than this. The Governing Authority board were given one hour to debate and make their decision in 2019 to sell Richview. The gateway project had been known about for at least a year at this point. Why was the project announced, when the sale of Richview, clearly a contingent part of the project’s funding, was not properly secured, had not been properly examined, and demonstrably, could not be accomplished?

The whole sorry saga seems to indicate a preference for spectacle and wishful thinking at the higher echelons of UCD’s University Management Team (UMT), over prudence and practicality. Knowing the previous occupant of the Presidential office, this will surprise few.

The current Acting President, Prof. Mark Rodgers, has the unenviable task of making these tough decisions, to ground the university from where his predecessor’s inflated ego had raised hopes. Andrew Deeks enjoyed all of the privileges of making grandiose pronouncements about the future of UCD, while Prof. Rodgers has the responsibility of waking us from our daydreams. His time in office is fated to be one of recession, as hopes are brought into line with reality. He is not totally absolved from blame, as he was the university’s vice-president at the time these decisions were made. However, one wonders what he could really have done to stop the President’s wishes.

Nobody could have seen the war in Ukraine coming, nor the subsequent economic downturn. Inflation due to the war is admittedly a tired old excuse at this point, though giving all parties the benefit of the doubt, it could not have been predicted. What could have been predicted, however, is the difficulty the university would have in selling Richview. A crumbling, poorly insulated building that is clearly in need of renovation is not an attractive proposition, regardless of location.

What cannot be predicted is the reaction that students are likely to have, after the evaporation of large parts of the future UCD that they were sold. Doubtless, many will be nonplussed, and will care little for their university once they have graduated. However, any new capital investments plan that UCD announces will now inevitably be met with less enthusiasm, and a greater deal of scepticism than before.

The extension of the student centre levy means that more capital investment works will be coming, likely to the student centre and surrounding areas. Had the referendum to extend this levy been held today, as opposed to at the height of Deeks’ ambitious future planning in 2019, it is unlikely that it would have passed in quite the same manner. UCD’s top brass would do well to learn from the sorry remnants of the Gateway Project, that student trust is something hard won, and easily lost. 

As it stands, many are unaware who, if anyone, is at the wheel in UCD.