Leaders’ Insights: Patrick G O’Shea, UCC

23 Mar 2017

Patrick G O’Shea, UCC president. Image: Tomás Tyner/UCC

Patrick G O’Shea is the new president of UCC.

Prof Patrick G O’Shea grew up in Cork and emigrated to the US after obtaining a BSc in physics at University College Cork (UCC). He previously worked for the University of California and Duke University.

Before returning to Ireland in 2017, he was vice-president and chief research officer of the University of Maryland, just north of Washington DC.

Describe your role and what you do.

As president of UCC since February 2017, I am the CEO of the university. If UCC were a city, it would be about the size of Kilkenny. Our staff deal with people of all ages, from newborn babies in our INFANT centre to our centenarian Mary McGrath, the oldest student in our Learning Neighbourhoods programme.

The role of a university is very complex today. At its core is teaching and learning, but now, in addition, you have research and innovation and support for economic and community development.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

I try to focus on what’s important. The mission of the university is to provide excellence in teaching, learning, research and service – things that ultimately improve the lives of people. The focus is on how we house, heal, feed and fuel our people better in an advanced society that is just, safe and free.

What are the biggest challenges facing your sector and how are you tackling them?

Lack of resources. A colleague said to me recently: “Dreams without resources rapidly become a hallucination.” One of the key necessities in the Irish education system is to generate resources, not just for education but also for other sectors that we are uniquely positioned to do. A strong economy is necessary for strong universities. Equally, strong universities are necessary for a strong economy. Therefore, we will work with the other sectors, industry and the Government, to grow the economy, the resources and support for our institutions.

What are the key sector opportunities that you’re capitalising on?

We’re looking very closely at developments in nearby countries, which may bring great opportunities for us in education, research and economic development. We’re seeing a lot of interest now from international students coming to Ireland as opposed to going to other countries, where they might have gone before. There is also a lot of interest in investing in Ireland as it will remain a European country with close ties to the US, the UK and the EU.

What set you on the road to where are you now?

A dissatisfaction with the status quo and the desire to create more value than I consume in my life. I started as a scientist as a negative reaction to my father, who was a salesman, but now I understand that everything I do is selling ideas in the marketplace of life, so I’m returning back to my roots. I was motivated to come back to Ireland to give something back to the country. I view it as a time of opportunity following the recent austerity, and it’s great to see all of the construction cranes around the country. 

What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?

I used to be over-worried about failure, which may have resulted in excessive micromanagement. Success is really the fruit of failure, so you have to allow people enough freedom to fail, to learn from those mistakes and then succeed even better.

How do you get the best out of your team?

I now understand that it is important to compliment, acknowledge, thank and serve staff – that’s how you get the best out of people. Acknowledge them, thank them and compliment them when they do something good and do something for them, as opposed to asking them to do something for you. That is how you build loyalty and respect; that is how you can reward people in ways that go beyond simply money. Money is something that we typically don’t have to give. Compliment, acknowledge, thank and serve is a good vehicle for rewarding people and getting the best out of them.

STEM sectors receive a lot of criticism for a lack of diversity in terms of gender, ethnicity and other demographics. Have you noticed a diversity problem in your sector? What are your thoughts on this and what’s needed to be more inclusive?

Yes. We can cite statistics about UCC’s 45pc women to 55pc men in terms of demographics overall in our academic staff, but STEM is still an issue. The university has plans to create a level playing field so people have the opportunity to succeed on an equal footing. We are forming an office of equality, diversity and inclusion to develop, promote and steward these values. We have received a bronze Athena SWAN award, which recognised our efforts to promote gender equality in higher education – but a lot still remains to be done.

Who is your role model and why?

Ernest Shackleton, an Irish man who was an explorer and who risked greatly to achieve greatly. He went into extreme danger, survived, brought all his people back and understood the importance of not only achieving the goal, but also making sure his people were safe. As an academic leader, I am an explorer.

What books have you read that you would recommend?

The Innovators by Walter Isaacson, which deals with the history of innovation. While focusing on the computer industry, it has tremendous insights on the social, economic and business aspects of the development of technology, covering almost 200 years.

Another one I’d recommend is Triumph of the City by Edward Glaeser, which talks about the importance of modern urbanism in promoting societal, economic and environmental development.

What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?

Exercise. I cycle to work every day because I want to be fit, but in my job, I don’t have the time. By forcing myself to cycle (because I don’t own a car), I get that exercise and I arrive here and return home in a good mental state.

Great coffee, an excellent support staff and a convivial work environment also help. In spite of the university being in a maelstrom, I work in an office conducive to reflection and thought. Unusually for an Irish office in an old building, it has got lots of windows and, at this moment, the sunlight is streaming in.

Want stories like this and more direct to your inbox? Sign up for Tech Trends, Silicon Republic’s weekly digest of need-to-know tech news.