Clash of the centuries

Trinity College Dublin staff follow ancient traditions in the election of their head, but one voter fears their loss as the state encroaches

April 14, 2011

On 1 August, the campanile bell of Trinity College Dublin will toll to announce the inauguration of a new provost. In a way unique in the Republic of Ireland and increasingly rare anywhere in the world, it is those who teach and research in the country's oldest university who elect its head every decade. And this month, that's exactly what we did.

Trinity was founded as the College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity of Queen Elizabeth Near Dublin in 1592, but now functions as a traffic island in a city that has burst its bounds and flows ever outwards. Late medievalism still thrives there in some ways, this election being one of them. The nearest equivalents can be found in the Oxbridge colleges and in the election of rectors by students in the ancient universities of Scotland. However, this was Trinity's moment.

As a relative newcomer, it was my first chance to vote. Thus, on a bright spring morning I registered and collected my ballot papers - one of some 500 people doing so - and waited for the proceedings to start.

The election campaign had been waged over several months, primarily in the form of well-produced manifesto documents, invitations to meetings with candidates and open hustings events. There were emails and websites, too, but it was a largely traditional affair.

I was intrigued to know how the election would work in a technical way. Hundreds of people had to cast votes and be housed, fed and watered over the course of several hours. Would the lavatorial infrastructure in the college's 18th-century dining hall be up to the challenge of the bladders of so many elderly scholars?

But on the day, it all went remarkably smoothly. The junior dean, senior dean, proctors, stewards, the registrar and his staff all did their obscure medieval or up-to-the-minute technical things, and a four-round process, with one candidate eliminated in each, was carried out under the watchful gaze of portraits of the great, the good, the venal and the downright lucky among the provosts, scholars and fellows from centuries past.

The 21st century met the 16th as the proceedings were relayed by video to other parts of the building. And centuries bumped against each again, when a lengthy announcement outlining rules and procedures for voting was followed by an even longer fire evacuation message. Still, sealed in the building as we were, papal conclave-style, with doors locked and guarded, it was as well to know these things.

Respect for the conventions of the proceedings precludes my saying anything about the numbers or patterns of votes cast, but, like an oversized version of Thunderdome, five entered and one left victorious: Patrick Prendergast.

Following the first vote, I found a seat beside an elderly medievalist, the kind of person who seems almost to be the embodiment of the history being made on an occasion like this, an assiduously polite man in what can sometimes seem an increasingly uncivil world. And there he and I sat on hard wooden chairs, politely not speaking to each other for several hours, watching characters, many of whom I had rarely, if ever, seen before: a fellow who sat clutching his brow as though his head was so full of thoughts it might burst; a lecturer in something artsy, with a propensity for wearing pinstriped suits and sitting crossed-legged, gnome-like, in public places; the noisy, square-headed star of popular Irish television history programmes; the college's Gaelic poet in residence; the absent-minded mathematician who, deep in conversation, delved his hand into his pocket, removed it and shed a small fortune in unspent salary, like a magician producing doves.

Elections can, of course, bring mixed blessings. Be careful what you wish for and be even more careful whom you vote for. But universities, for all their faults, were founded on ideas of collective self-regulation and cooperation - the principles of the guild.

Unfortunately, whatever its medieval or early modern provenance, the very continuation of an election of this kind is threatened by the encroachment of state power. The argument is that if Irish universities are primarily funded by the Irish state, their heads should be appointed by that same state. Elected politicians are not always keen on outbreaks of popular decision-making, and it's as well to remember that we live more in a demotic than a democratic age, where populism is preferred over collegiality.

Of course, that said, collegiality can sometimes seem to be in short supply in universities themselves, even those with ancient roots and rights. Nonetheless, this election was a snapshot of collegial life at its best, an expression of what's possible.

Last thoughts? If I'm spared and am still here in 10 years' time, and if power has not ebbed away from college electorate to rapacious state, next time I'll bring my own cushion.

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