Quite An Education

Nazi taunts, an attractive RTE presenter, a very ugly brawl and a highly surprising intervention by John Gormley….The inside story of a most unedifying dispute involving the President of DCU

Even by academic standards, it is a distinguished CV. A visiting scholar at Stanford University, where he directs an independent non-profit research centre, and the author of two major books on cognitive science, Dr Sean O’Nuallain holds an MSc in psychology and a PhD in computer science from Trinity.

What the official Stanford website does not mention is that between 1987 and 2002 Dr O’Nuallain was a lecturer in computing at DCU or that he is currently locked in a bitter and unprecedented unfair dismissal case against that university – a case that has already ratcheted up a legal bill running into several hundred thousand euro.

Along the way, even by the traditionally vicious standards of academic politics, there has been some fairly spectacular collateral damage. An outraged barrister was sensationally and unfairly branded a thug while Dr O Nuallain’s partner, RTE presenter and singer Melanie O’Reilly claims that it has all been so traumatic she has had to put plans to start a family on hold.

Then there is the man Dr O’Nuallain insists is his nemesis, DCU’s distinguished college president Dr Ferdinand Von Prondzynski – widely regarded as one of the most significant players in the world of Irish third level education, but forced publicly this week to defend himself against the slur that his father was a Nazi. In the background is a suggestion that Green Party leader John Gormley inappropriately attempted to intervene in the dispute.

And on the sidelines are other university staff aghast at the fact that matters which usually are dealt with privately have been thrust on the public stage, lifting the veil on the internecine rivalries and petty politics that are a  hallmark of daily academic life.

In fairness, neither Dr O’Nuallian nor Dr von Prondzynski could be described as conventional academics. A native of Kilkee, Co. Clare Dr O’Nuallain has been a traditional musician sine his early teens and studied classical guitar and bossa nova as well as science.

He has performed at the Lorient Celtic Folk festival in Brittany, the Cork International Jazz festival and Andernos Festival Internationale in France among other venues – in recent years as one half of a double act with his partner, Melanie, a well known Celtic/jazz fusion singer Melanie O’Reilly who is a stand-in presenter on RTE’s Mystery Train programme.

When he’s not teaching computer applications, Dr O’Nuallain has lectured at the University of California campus in Berkeley, near San Francisco, delivering a course called Irish Music:From Sean-Nos to Jazz.

Since he parted company with DCU in 2002 and apart from his largely unpaid work at Stanford, Dr O’Nuallain has been indulging in his great love, Music -partnering Melanie onstage as well as off.

When asked at this week’s Employment Appeals Tribunal hearing if he would have nay hope of getting a job there, he said he didn’t ‘have a hope in hell’ explaining that academics were like athletes and that while he was a good one, he ‘was not an Olympic one’.
For his part, Dr von Prondzynski is also unafraid to step outside the ivory tower. President of DCU since 2000, the 55 year old was regarded, along with Ed Walsh of Limerick and Gerry Wrixon of UCC, as one of the new breed of ‘reforming’ university presidents who shook up the old-fashioned world of Irish academia over the past decade.

Under his patrician reign, DCU – traditionally the poor relation of the third level sector – has become one of the most respected and progressive Irish universities. An outspoken advocate of a return to third level fees and of the points system, uniquely among Irish university heads he publishes a daily blog on the web, in which he muses publicly about everything from litter on campus to national politics.

But it was Dr von Prondzynski’s personal background – not his academic prowess or administrative abilities – that dominated proceedings this week at the Employment Appeals Tribunal, where, in ongoing proceedings, he not only denies that Dr O’Nuallain was constructively dismissed but is attempting instead to show that, in breach of his contract, the Clareman effectively resigned his post.

Although his family originally came from Poland, Dr von Prondzynski is the direct descendant of a 19th century Prussian general. His grandfather fought for Germany in the First World War and his father – who held the rank of captain in the Wehrmacht – in the Second. Later his father bought a country estate in Co. Westmeath, where Ferdinand was raised and where he attended Headfort prep school before completing his education at a German gymnasium and Trinity.

The row began in 2002, when a letter dismissing  Dr O’Nuallain as a computer applications lecturer at the university at Ballymun was dropped through his letterbox. The following year, a Rights Commissioner ruled that Dr O’Nuallain should be reinstated to his post with no financial loss, a ruling the college ignored, claiming he had ‘repudiated’ his contract.

All of this might well have remained hidden from public view had Dr O’Nuallain not commenced writing a blog, or online soapbox, called the University Blog on Academic Tenure in Ireland. On the blog, Dr O’Nuallain called Prof von Prondzynski ‘a liar’ and ‘a person without honour’ and described three university colleagues as, respectively, a criminal, traitor and an idiot.

But the most incendiary post questioned whether the professor’s father was a member of the Nazi party, if he had fought in the Second World War and whether he was coerced to do so or was a willing combatant. “My father was born in Germany and yes, he was in the German army in the Second World War, as most Germans of that age were and had to be’, the professor told the tribunal. He was wounded several times and eventually died of those wounds years later’.

He said the inference that his father was a Nazi crossed the line and was totally unacceptable, and has caused great anguish to his wife (described in a separate blog entry by Dr O’Nuallain as ‘not even Irish’) and to his special needs son when they read it. Dr O’Nuallain accepted this, saying ‘I apologise for a lot of the language used in the blog. It was over the top. I apologise for the excessive language’.

Yet at a later hearing of the tribunal, he appeared to go over the top once again. This time, the focus of his ire was Tom Mallon, counsel for DCU who walked out of the proceedings after Dr O’Nuallain called him a ‘thug’. Appalled, the tribunal chairman, Kate O’Mahony, declared the insult unprecedented and said Mr Mallon had always acted in a wholly professional manner. In fact, if anyone has ever acted unprofessionally, it was arguably Dr O’Nuallain who was suspended for a month after an altercation with a colleague during, Dr O’Nuallain claimed, his hair was pulled, his neck grabbed and his genitals punched.

Nor can he seemingly resist any opportunity to take a pop at university bosses or fellow academics such as politics professor Tom Garvin and UCD’s ‘new academic corporatist/neoliberal president’ – he managed to criticise both in something as simple as a book review he posted on amazon.com, the online retailer, where he appears particularly hard to please but writes very entertainingly.

Professor von Prondzynski sticks to his claim that Dr O’Nuallain resigned his post due to an extended absence from the university. Barrister Padraic Lyons, counsel for Dr O’Nuallain, instead maintained that Professor von Prondzynski in sending the letter in 2002, effectively entered into a disciplinary action, and said the professor must have understood this when letters were sent to him by the Trade Union, SIPTU, stating that Dr O’Nuallain’s intentions to remain as a lecturer at DCU. In evidence, Dr O’Nuallain’s partner Miss O’Reilly, said the loss of Dr O’Nuallain’s job had been ‘devastating’ and claimed the pair had not been able to start a family because of the loss of his salary.

There was further controversy this week when it was claimed that John Gormley TD later leader of the Green Party, contacted Professor von Prondzynsi in 2002 to plead Dr O’Nuallian’s case, only to be told that any discussion of it would be unethical. In fact, the professor said, he had been forced to ask the Green Party to remove material about green technology that had been written by Dr O’Nuallain from the party manifesto because the data was ‘inaccurate’, and also to protect the reputation of the university from claims that it was taking in too many students and that failure rates were higher than average.

However the professor denied he was attempting to gag the lecturer. ‘In one instance, I was called by a minister and got a lashing’ he told the tribunal. ‘My response to the minister was that [Dr O’Nuallain] had the right to make these statements because of his academic freedom.

Dr O’Nuallain said he had forwarded unopened correspondence to Mr Gormely because it represented an ‘illegal and invalid’ industrial relations process. ‘There was victimisation going on here’ he claimed. ‘I was having the harassment of people dropping in letters by hand to my home at 10.30 on a Friday night, hiding in the bushes.’ He said the charge that he had failed to carry out his duties was ‘spurious’ and left him embarrassed and ashamed that he could not support his partner. ‘I believe it was they (DCU) who were acting outside the law in attempting to drag me into something which was a violation not just of my rights but the rights of every staff member and ultimately public servants in Ireland’.  At a subsequent sitting of the tribunal, he pointed out: ‘It is seven plus years later and the reason its is unresolved is that this management here doesn’t believe in negotiation’.

Professor von Prondzynski took a different view, saying that if this was still 2003, he could understand Dr O’Nuallain’s hurt – but this dish is cooked for a long time and it should be cold at this point’, adding that he never, in 30 years of academic life, dealt with a situation where a lecturer steadfastly refused to engage with his superiors to resolve the difficulties.

This is not the only such case in which DCU is involved. In 2007, Professor Paul Cahill was reinstated after a successful High Court action against the college, though he has not been allowed to return to teaching and is instead concentrating on research work. In that case, Mr Justice Frank Clarke said the college had failed to follow all of the appropriate procedures. The verdict was upheld by the Supreme Court after an appeal by DCU, which ran up a legal bill of 1.2 million euro defending the action.

Obviously, there already are also significant costs in the case of Dr O’Nuallain. Revenge may indeed be a dish best served cold. But in this case, for whichever side eventually picks up the bill, it will inevitably be an expensive one.

Philip Nolan,

Irish Daily Mail

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