By next May, the most influential figure in Trinity will be a relatively unfamiliar face. For the first time in ten years a different figure will grace the threshold of Ireland’s most coveted academic address, number one Grafton Street. In the coming weeks the Trinity student population will have the opportunity to cast their votes on who will succeed John Hegarty as the Provost, the national and international representative of the college, chairman of the Board, and a position that wields considerable influence over the student population.
However, these 16,000 votes cast by students will account for a meagre percentage of the overall vote in an election dominated by the college’s senior academic staff, a figure of merely 1 – 2%. Even at 2% that’s approximately 0.00000125% of the vote per student (1.25 x 10-6, Hamilton students). It may seem almost inconceivable that the entire student body can represent such a small percentage in the election of the leader of their college. Such thoughts prompted a motion last March to see the percentage of the vote allocated to students increased, but was opposed by 159 of the 239 Fellows of the University.
The arguments for and against pose interesting questions: Would the mandate of the Provost be strengthened by a greater percentage of student vote? Would an awareness of the student’s support of their leadership encourage the Provost to give an even greater concern to student welfare when passing decisions? Would the candidates place more emphasis on acquiring student votes if they carried a greater weight?
Or should students who are only enrolled in Trinity for a brief period in the Provost’s term be entrusted with greater voting responsibility?
Despite its imperfections, the election process in Trinity is intended to be a democratic one encompassing a wide sector of those on campus, from academics to administrative staff to students, regardless of how insignificant their votes may seem. So are we in fact a privileged yet persistently discontented few? Given that we are granted a right that eludes most of our peers, can we justify looking for more? In stark contrast to Trinity, all other third level institutions in Ireland favour a selection process in the appointment of their President (the equivalent to the Provost). Through this kind of selection process a restricted committee handles the applications before deciding upon a candidate, a system that ensures most staff–let alone students–have no say in the appointment. During the 2003 selection of UCD President Hugh Brady, students and virtually all staff were even left completely unaware of identity of the candidates running for the position. Although this level of secrecy may be intended to remove all political aspects of the appointment, the selection process also serves to eliminate the input of the students and staff – the very people whom the decision affects most.
So although the student percentage of the vote in the Provost elections may seem insignificant, perhaps we should be grateful it even exists. Neither the University Act 1997 nor the Trinity Statutes on the Provost mention student involvement in the election. The Statutes restrict the main electorate to 659 of the college’s full time senior academic staff, i.e. those who have held position for at least a year previous to the date of the election. However, it makes no reference to the student or administrative staff’s portion of the vote.
When students last cast votes on the election of a college Provost, the Celtic Tiger had recently emerged and Shaggy feat Rayman’s ‘Wasn’t Me’ was the Number One single in the Irish charts. The ensuing decade has seen the country transformed, yet John Hegarty has remained constant as the figurehead of Trinity. Lady Gaga’s ‘Born this Way’ currently dominates the Irish charts. It’s impossible to determine how musical preferences will have shifted by 2021, but by that stage whoever is elected as Provost in the coming weeks will be departing from the post. Perhaps by then students will have acquired a more substantial portion of the vote. More alarmingly, there may be no voting at all.