The Upstart Who Built a University and Took Ireland to a New Level; as Students Protest over Charges, Ed Walsh Tells Philip Nolan How He Had to Fight Teachers, the Church and Even the Hidebound Existing Colleges When, Aged Just 29, He Was Asked to Create the Country's New Tier of Third-Level Institutions
Byline: Philip Nolan
It's hard to imagine this happening in Ireland now but Ed Walsh was just 29 when he was headhunted in 1970 to found the National Institute for Higher Education in Limerick. A decade earlier, he left his native Cork to study nuclear and electrical engineering at Iowa State University and became an assistant professor at 24, the youngest in the college's history.
After a move to Virginia Tech, where the Civil Rights movement sparked a lifelong passion for plurality and inclusion, he returned home to the stultifying bureaucracy of the Department of Education.
But, by dint of his unyielding ambition, admirable cunning and the occasional Scud missile of a missive despatched to Marlborough Street, he not only oversaw the birth of the NIHE, he also steered it to metamorphosis into the University of Limerick in 1989, the first university created since the foundation of the State.
That alone would have sealed his reputation as a visionary but it is not his only achievement. By introducing continuous assessment, by tailoring the courses available to the needs of industry, by establishing on-thejob training as a vital part of the education process and by attracting philanthropic investment, he revolutionised the third-level education system.
Now in his early 70s, he combines the gentlemanly charm of another age with progressive views on education and - true to the title of his autobiography, Upstart - is as trenchant as ever in his views on how we run education in Ireland.
'I was hugely happy in the work environment in the States,' he recalls. 'My wife, Stephanie, and I met in Ireland before I left and we conducted our courtship by post. We wrote to each other each day and some days, two letters would arrive and other days none. We probably communicated more effectively than if we were meeting each other at home.
'Then the kids started arriving and we decided to move home. I had accepted a post at UCD but I received a telegram asking me to consider the job in Limerick and I did.'
Fresh from the US, where merit is rewarded and universities are self-governing, Dr Walsh temporarily was adrift.
'I walked up the steps of the Department of Education and I really didn't know if the secretary was someone who took the minutes or had an important job,' he recalls.
'That was my strength - I could do outrageous things on the basis that I didn't understand how the system worked.'
The lethargy in the country was another shock. 'There were little pockets of development but the rest was exactly as I had left it a decade before,' Dr Walsh says. 'In fact, it probably was even more disillusioned. Emigration was very high.'
The previous taoiseach, Sean Lemass, who retired in 1969, had been 'trying to open the shutters and bring in the fresh air'. One of the big success stories was the Shannon Free Airport Development Company (later simply Shannon Development), created in 1959.
'A quarter of all manufacturing output in Ireland in the early Seventies was coming out of the zone run by SFADCo,' Dr Walsh explains. 'But the firms coming into Shannon were saying, "Look, we have no difficulty getting assembly-line workers, fine young men and women coming off the farms but we just can't find managers and we have to bring them in from England".'
The existing universities seemed to have little interest in correcting the skills deficit. 'Galway was asleep,' Dr Walsh says bluntly. 'Cork was nasty and negative and felt threatened because here we were, coming into Munster, onto their patch.
'I did the courtesy calls to them and I had lovely afternoon teas with silver service in front of roaring fires in presidents' offices and they rejoiced in saying, of course all knowledge is valuable to us and our mission is to pursue it.
'But Europe was moving to establish technological colleges. We went to see the University of Eindhoven and it was absolutely delightful. …