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“Alarmed and worried” UL Chancellor says Rhebogue scandal is a “very serious governance problem”

University of Limerick (UL) Chancellor Brigid Laffan spoke with members of the public amidst ongoing pressure for President Kerstin Mey to resign.

The controversy comes after the university paid over €5.2 million market price for twenty homes in the Rhebogue area.

The university already faces a €3 million impairment charge following an overpayment for Dunnes Stores in Limerick City to set up a new campus. 

The Chancellor says: “It is shocking. That it happened so soon after Dunnes Stores, I find it completely shocking and alarming.”

On Tuesday, Mrs Laffan received a letter from the Higher Education Authority (HEA) expressing “deepest concerns in relation to the governance and culture” of UL and also “the potential impact of the reputation and financial stability of the university.”

She says the letter is “what no chancellor of a university wants to receive”.

The HEA formally invokes a Section 64 investigation in which UL will be under “extreme oversight” as the Governing Authority conducts its review. The terms of reference for the investigation will be decided in late April.

Chancellor Laffan discovered the issue of Rhebogue in her second meeting with the Governing Authority since taking office in November 2023. She says: “I became extremely alarmed and worried about what I heard.

“I knew that we had a very serious governance problem around the capital acquisition of Rhebogue.”

Currently, the Governing Authority is engaging with stakeholders. Mrs Laffan adds: “It is really important for this university that trust is maintained in us by those who fund us and those who regulate us.”

She says her priority is “to ensure what happened with Rhebogue never happens again.”

The Chancellor concludes: “I have no interest in being Chancellor of this university talking about property for the next four years and I won’t.”

Professor Eoin Devereux spoke on behalf of the university’s sole trade union UL Unite, saying: “The issues we face are not only about bricks and mortar, they are about fundamental day-to-day operations of this fine proud university.

“We do not need another UL solution for a UL problem.”

UL Staff expressed their frustrations with the ongoing situation.

Professor Stephen Kinsella in the Department of Economics says: “I have spent most of my week reassuring the investors in the Immersive Software Engineering Programme that their money is safe – there are jobs associated with that.”

Professor Eoin Reeves who has worked with UL for the past 34 years says he is “really saddened by the turn of events,” adding: “For too long in this university, we have been accustomed to a patronising form of communication from the centre.”

Postgraduate Student Union employee Aimée McKenzie, spoke of her experience sitting on the Governing Authority, saying the GA “don’t empower people enough. They take things as read.”

She suggests that GA members should be encouraged to “read the documents, really understand them, ask the tough questions, and if they don’t get the answer, not to pass things.” 

Chancellor Laffan agrees that reform is needed: “When I talk about the university to change, I include the Governing Authority in that.”

Retired UL employee Eamonn McQuade says that the university’s core values have been lost, “where buildings became more important than the content of the buildings.”

Professor of Software Quality in the Department of Computer Science Ita Richardson says: “I think that we’re in danger of not being trusted with money and that is going to affect our research badly unless we can turn this thing on its head.”

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