What do the newcomers think of Professor Cahill?

Image Credit: Dominic Daly

With Professor Dolores Cahill making headlines, Nathan Young asks prospective medicine students how, if at all, the controversies around misinformation and free speech have affected their choice of University.

During the Covid-19 Pandemic, UCD Professor Dolores Cahill has become a prominent figure in anti-lockdown circles. She has featured in a widely discredited documentary The New Normal, attached herself to a company selling holidays with the explicit purpose of challenging lockdowns and travel bans initiated in response to the current pandemic, and organised a protest in Herbert Park against restrictions on St Patrick’s Day. Her position in the UCD School of Medicine has raised more than a few eyebrows, with supporters claiming that it shows her expertise on health issues, and detractors pointing out her blatant falsehoods; such as linking mask-wearing in youth to low IQ. UCDSU recently called publicly for an HR investigation into Professor Cahill for endangering others with her organising of a protest. UCDSU has also been hosting town hall meetings over the past year with medicine students who feel she does not represent the school well.

The reputation of the school is important to many people; prospective employers, UCD medicine graduates both nationally and internationally, and other institutions that conduct research, for example. One group whose opinion can have a huge impact on UCD in a very short period of time, however, is prospective students. The University Observer spoke to several students considering studying medicine in Ireland next year, both through the graduate entry system and straight out of secondary school. Students interviewed have chosen to remain anonymous.

Speaking to The University Observer, one student, ‘Mary’, said “I believe [Professor Cahill] would affect my decision to study medicine at UCD because of what she was saying at the protest about children not wearing a mask because their brain will be starved of oxygen, and if she believes that and thinks that and she’s teaching then she could be teaching a lot of misinformation”. Mary is not alone. Another student, ‘Mark’, agreed with Mary’s points, saying “It definitely made me more weary of the course and who my lecturers would be. It definitely made me do a deeper dive of what the course content was. Normally you would just look at the CAO and at the course content on the website, but once she said something like that [linking masks to IQ],...that was kind of terrifying. Introducing that as a lecture to first years could give a lot of misinformation. She did say many untrue things and unsubstantiated things”. He described the lack of action against Professor Cahill by the school as “a bit ridiculous”.

However, some of the students who were perturbed by Professor Cahill’s comments were at least somewhat reassured when they researched other lecturers in UCD. Mark said of his research “I found most of them mock her, they are not great fans. John Gilmore, one of the lecturers there...he was mocking her that she shouldn’t be spreading unsubstantiated claims”. John Gilmore is an Assistant Professor in the UCD School of Nursing, and last month he told The Irish Times that medical academics had a “responsibility around public health”, and that “It is concerning that people are getting a lot of misinformation and disinformation ... I believe the science provided by NPHET”.

For Mark, “UCD is the closest and most easiest option”, and it is still his first preference. He said if another college were as affordable “I would have changed from UCD then”, but that his second option, RCSI, “is way more expensive, because they don’t offer as great HEI support, and also it’s in the city centre so it’s just way more expensive”. He stated, “If I had the choice I would not choose UCD”.

‘Jane’ disagrees. According to her, “Obviously I would be basing it on the calibre of the education I would be hoping to receive at the end of the degree. If it were a consort of academics associated with the college that could sway a decision, I don’t think what an individual expressed, away from the university, would sway my decision. I was reassured after UCD came out after she had made those claims and said she’s not teaching this semester and they respect that she has academic freedom to express her views outside campus regardless of her role on the campus”. Jane does not believe Professor Cahill’s expression of views has yet impacted her ability to perform her duties although says it is “unusual to see somebody so educated expressing views that are so [different] to what NPHET and HSE guidelines are”.

Jane also stated that if she met a student who chose to avoid UCD over Professor Cahill she stated “I would definitely debate them. From a biased perspective, I did Psychology in UCD so I know the college well and can look past one lecturer...I would encourage them to look at the broader influence of UCD and what it’s achieved”. When asked about how international employers may view a UCD medicine degree in light of Professor Cahill’s infamy, Jane stated: “I think there’s other factors, like your experience and your clinical skills that they would look at, rather than just one individual”.

The free speech angle is a contentious one. UCDSU president Conor Anderson cited Professor Cahill’s “propagating [of] medically-inaccurate conspiracy theories in service of a far-right political agenda” as UCDSU’s reason to call for an investigation into her under the universities act. It is understood that several academics who would consider themselves opponents politically of Professor Cahill’s views have been cautious of setting a precedence that weakens academic and speech freedoms for others on campus. The students’ takes on this topic were also in contention. Jane stated “Unless her expression of views is hampering with her duties in her position in UCD I don’t think you have any need to take action or reprimand because you don’t want to go out looking for people to lose their jobs. She’s done incredible research in translational medicine”. Mark took the ‘free speech is not freedom from consequences’ stance, saying; “she was allowed her free speech but it was damaging in nature. This is just to discredit her from what she said because even UCD stepped back from what she said”. Unlike Jane, he is in favour of Professor Cahill losing her job. He is also a supporter of UCDSU’s calls for an investigation, saying: “The Students’ Union having to do this is kind of ridiculous, I feel like UCD should have stepped up and said no. They[UCD] should have stopped her right there”

With no public response from UCD to UCDSU’s calls for an investigation into Professor Cahill, the debate around free speech and academics freedom is set to continue. Students, even those who are engaged on the issue and cautious of Professor Cahill, are nevertheless looking at a myriad of other factors in their choices, but while they may still choose to attend UCD, they don’t want that to be seen as an endorsement of Cahill herself. For others, it’s a non-issue. The real test will be several months from now when they are themselves students in the UCD School of Medicine.