IT wasn’t until he was sitting his Leaving Certificate examinations that Des Fitzgerald started thinking about his career choices.
“I applied for the bank and didn’t get the job. I applied for the post office and I didn’t get the job. All the things that people did in those days and I didn’t get them. I applied to an insurance company and I didn’t get that either.
“I never thought about going to university and then I got this letter from Dublin Corporation offering me a scholarship to go to university and I looked to see what the longest course was to see how I was going to make as much out of this as I could.
“So that’s how I studied medicine,” he explains
Sitting in the stunning surrounds of the president’s office at Plassey House, Dr Fitzgerald explains his role, the head of thousands of academics and students who make up the vibrant community of the UL campus.
With more than 1,700 staff and students, Dr Fitzgerald says his role governs operations, corporate functions and capital programmes associated with UL.
With an annual turnover of €270 million, accountability for the significant level of government funding is paramount
He is also responsible for the “academic programmes within the university and in particular responsible for the strategy of the university.”
Reporting back to the Governing Authority, a body of 29 people made up of elected members and public representatives, Dr Fitzgerald says that “part of the role of being president is ensuring proper governance of the institution.”
“This job is difficult at the moment, but what I hope for in the next ten years is that we will be pressing forward with a very ambitious agenda that will be rewarding for everybody in the institution.”
The 65-year-old Dubliner said that he never turned away from medicine but became increasingly more interested in how and why people were getting sick and felt a responsibility to find out more.
Research followed and “that’s how I became interested in universities and it evolved from that question of why”.
4,700 students will graduate from UL this year, more than double the number of graduates 15 years ago.
“This year we have about 16,400 registered so it is phenomenal growth, but particularly in the last 15 years that growth has been extraordinary.
“UL is a community of academics and students and it is what John Henry Newman said about what the idea of a university is, a community and within that community you create and impart knowledge”.
“It is quite different from the mission of a commercial company and the importance of the university to the region is quite different. We have to do things in a business-like fashion but our mission is to educate people and in doing that we contribute to the community. “
“About two-thirds of our students stay in the Mid West and that means we are not just educating and training people to go somewhere else. They are staying in the region and contribute to the economy.
“We are particularly proud of the feedback we get from the companies on the quality of the graduates .”
“Primarily, we have to be a regional university, we would then look to the National Development Plan, but I would be concerned that a lot of the investment would be on the East Coast and not here and I think that is a much closer threat.”
“What we need to do when we are thinking about development in the region is to include the university in that because I think that hasn’t happened in the past.
“UL is 4km from the city and is somewhat remote. You wouldn’t know when walking around Limerick city that there are 24,000 post graduate students in the region counting LIT and Mary Immaculate College so we are looking at that as an opportunity.
“There are huge resources in the city. I lived there for six months before I lived on the campus and I could see opportunities there for the university.
“The unique programmes on offer in UL could attract students from outside the Mid West.
“Artificial intelligence, aeronautics, robotics and the performing arts are unique programmes that should be national programmes. There is an expectation that when they are established here and funded with public funding that they would become national programmes.
Referring to the controversy over the university’s accounting practices and its treatment of whistleblowers, Dr Fitzgerald said he “would like to get to a point where all the challenges we have been dealing with in the last while would be in the rear view mirror and we could look to the ambitious future.
“There are lots of interesting things happening here and there are lot of things that have been developed on this campus that are quite unique.
“I think there should be more effort put into the way that we engage with students when they are deciding on their third level choices so that they have a better understanding of what they are getting into.
Dr Fitzgerald says that UL is trying to get to potential students early and give them as much information.
“I would advise them to do what you want to do, follow your heart because if you follow your points, you could well be disappointed but if you follow your heart you will get into something you are interested in college and you will do well.
“There are many other things that will happen along the way which will determine what happens, and essentially that is what happened to me. I stepped out in medicine and then I went into doing medicine and research in a laboratory.
So from having not even thought of going to university, to now being a president of a university, the journey has been an eventful one.
And along that journey, satisfaction has come in many forms for the University of Limerick president, who retains a love of the water through sailing and swimming.
“The thing I most enjoy as an academic is the opportunity to think about something and work out a problem and then solve it rather than taking other people’s solutions.
“You see a challenge, you work your way through it and you solve it”.