Atlantic Philanthropies and Dublin City University

Eoin Kinsella

This essay is extracted from Eoin Kinsella, Dublin City University, 1980–2020: Designed to be Different (Dublin, 2020), which contains more detail on Atlantic Philanthropies’ involvement with DCU. See also Conor O’Clery, The billionaire who wasn’t: how Chuck Feeney secretly made and gave away a fortune (New York, 2007).

Atlantic’s support for Dublin City University began in 1989. That was the year that the National Institute for Higher Education, Dublin (NIHED) became DCU, following the recommendation of an international study group appointed by the Irish government. NIHED had opened its doors in Glasnevin in November 1980, on the grounds of the former Albert Agricultural College, admitting just 191 students for that first academic year. Plans for NIHED’s development over the next decade were ambitious, with an enrolment of 5,000 students envisaged by 1991. That ambition was dependent on a programme of capital investment throughout the 1980s totalling c.£33m, all to be provided from public finances. Given the unforgiving economic climate that prevailed during the 1980s, it is perhaps no surprise that the Irish government was unable to follow through on its commitments. Despite the paucity of resources and financial support available, the extraordinary efforts of the staff at NIHED succeeded in creating teaching and research programmes considered to be of university standard. Yet even with its new status and name, problems of funding and a lack of resources remained. Addressing the university’s first graduates in October 1989, Dr Daniel O’Hare, DCU’s president, issued a plea for increased government funding by noting that the university was suffering from a ‘crippling lack of space’.[2] Large-scale philanthropic donations (often in the form of major endowments) are an integral feature of the funding landscape in the American and – to a lesser extent – United Kingdom higher education systems. In Ireland, where the funding of education at all levels is primarily seen as the responsibility of government, the concept was practically unknown prior to the 1990s. NIHED/DCU received small levels of philanthropic and corporate support during the 1980s, vital for an institution starved of resources. However, nothing could have prepared the university for the scale of the investment it would receive from Atlantic Philanthropies. Atlantic’s involvement with the Irish higher education began with the University of Limerick. The success of that engagement convinced Chuck Feeney of the potential for the creation of a knowledge economy in Ireland, resourced by philanthropic donations. Atlantic’s engagement with the remaining Irish universities began with DCU, the relationship initiated by a carefully orchestrated meeting. In 1989 O’Hare attended a charity dinner function in Dublin. O’Hare was unaware that the seating arrangement, which placed him next to a quiet, unassuming American, was no accident:

‘We were chatting and were getting on quite well … And of course anybody that sat down with me for dinner in those years or any other time, what did I speak about? Only my nearest and dearest NIHE Dublin. I was not in fundraising mode. I was just sharing with a chap who seemed to be interested in higher education, what the problems were. And the problems were we were successful, but we had terrible problems with accommodation … He said, ‘What’s your latest project that you’re looking for funding for?’ I said it was a research and development building … And he said, ‘What kind of money are you talking about?’ I said, ‘It’s very expensive’ – if I had only known who I was talking to – ‘it’s about a million pounds’. ‘Would you mind’, he says, ‘writing up a little piece for me on it and let me have it?’[3]

It was on the basis of this conversation, and the outline submitted in response to Feeney’s request, that in January 1990 Atlantic pledged its first philanthropic support for DCU, totalling £700,000. DCU then leveraged this sum to secure a further £750,000 from European Community Structural Funds. As a result of this sudden injection of capital, DCU completed two separate projects: the R&D (Hamilton) building, and the Computer Applications (McNulty) building. It was a salutary lesson in the power of philanthropic support in leveraging exchequer and European Community funding. Atlantic typically required its donors to use the promise of their funding to attract matching donations from alternative sources, whether government or other philanthropists, thus potentially doubling the impact of Atlantic’s contribution. While the philosophy that underpinned Feeney’s desire for anonymity was informed by several considerations, perhaps none was as important as the concept of leveraging matching funding. If Feeney remained in the shadows, ‘some other individual might contribute to get the naming rights’ to a building or other initiative.[4] Two other major additions to DCU’s campus demonstrate the power of Feeney’s approach. The opening of the John and Aileen O’Reilly Library in 2000 marked a significant improvement in the facilities available to staff and students, trebling the previous library’s seating capacity. The cost of building the library (c.€28m) was funded by a mix of state investment and philanthropy, including major donations from Atlantic (€6.5m) and Anthony O’Reilly (€3m), for whose parents the library was named. Two years later the university opened the Helix Performing Arts Centre, a stunning addition to the university’s campus intended to provide a focal point for the arts in north Dublin. More than half of the construction cost was met by Atlantic, with significant additional funding from a variety of sources, including Tim Mahony of Killeen Investments, for whom one of the performance halls is named. The Helix and Library buildings arrived at the end of a construction boom on campus, which drastically reduced the space available for future growth, and for sports. In recognition of the strategic risk this posed to the university’s future, governing body adopted a strategy of acquiring any adjacent land that might become available. Once more Atlantic’s support was crucial. Some of its largest donations to DCU enabled the purchase and development of additional land, adjacent to the Glasnevin campus, in 1995 (35 acres, €10.6m) and 2000 (10 acres, €20.5m), thus almost doubling the size of the campus. Beginning in the late 1980s, community engagement has been a core feature of DCU’s outreach activities, with a particular focus on providing educational opportunities for students coming from disadvantaged circumstances. The university’s hinterland incorporates areas with contrasting economic fortunes, a contrast especially stark in the 1980s when unemployment rates in Ballymun town, located just two kilometres away, were as high as 60%. There were virtually no admissions to NIHED/DCU from Ballymun Comprehensive, a fact that did not go unnoticed within the locality or the university. In February 1989 Ballymun Job Centre Co-op requested a meeting to discuss the development of a closer relationship between community and university. From this spark DCU’s Access Service grew, with support from Atlantic Philanthropies crucial to the early development of the Service, an innovative and influential programme created to increase the number of disadvantaged students entering and completing third-level education. The Service evolved from the Ballymun Initiative for Third Level Education (BITE), established in 1989 as a partnership between DCU, Ballymun Job Centre Co-op and Ballymun Comprehensive, with financial support from the Irish American Partnership (itself a beneficiary of Atlantic Philanthropies). The success of BITE encouraged DCU to expand the geographic focus of its efforts to encompass much of North Dublin, including Coolock, Darndale, Finglas, Cabra and Ballymun itself. The North Dublin Access Programme was established in 1996 and received a grant of €445,000 from Atlantic Philanthropies in 2000. Its effect on the composition of DCU’s student body has been extraordinary. Just 1% of student admissions to DCU in the academic year 1990/91 came through its Access programmes; in 2018/19 that figure had climbed to 9.5% (320 students), with a total of more than 4,000 availing of the Access Service over the past three decades.

Between 1990 and 2013 Atlantic invested €116m in DCU, making it the third largest recipient of funding in Ireland, after UL and TCD. As many of these donations imposed an obligation to secure matching funding, the true value of Atlantic’s support for DCU was significantly higher. All but two of Atlantic’s sixty-nine donations were made between 1990 and 2003. Just over €107m of the total donated was invested in ‘bricks and mortar’ projects, rapidly accelerating the physical development of the Glasnevin campus during the 1990s. As a regular visitor to the university, Feeney took an interest in campus developments. Of all the buildings constructed using Atlantic’s funds, Feeney displayed most interest in what seemed like the least interesting – the multi-story car park. His interest in seeing architectural plans and being guided through designs could occasionally prove tricky, particularly while he insisted on retaining anonymity. Viewing plans for a sports centre in the company of Danny O’Hare and the head of Student Services, Barry Kehoe, in 1991, Feeney made some casual suggestions for alterations to the design. Unaware that Feeney’s organisation was contributing more than half the cost of the centre, Kehoe rejected them out of hand. Horrified, O’Hare kicked his colleague under the table until he took the hint and became more amenable to Feeney’s comments. When pressed afterwards to explain himself, O’Hare recalled Kehoe’s previous training for the priesthood and decided to trust his discretion: ‘This is the man … through whom the money is coming. Do give him a little bit more of your ear than you normally give to people, including myself!’[5]

Feeney was forced to reveal that he was the source of Atlantic Philanthropies’ funding in 1997, yet steadfastly refused to accept recognition in the standard forms associated with major philanthropy. His name is not attached to any building, scholarship or research institute at DCU, while no plaques indicating his transformational contributions to the university are found on the campus. The university has, nonetheless, found other ways to honour his legacy. DCU Educational Trust inaugurated its Medal for Transformation Through Philanthropy in 2017, to honour donors to the university who demonstrate a ‘vision, generosity and sustained passion for change that is truly extraordinary’. Feeney was the first recipient, marking one of the few times he has accepted personal recognition for his philanthropy. Danny O’Hare’s response to Atlantic’s first donation to DCU in 1990 spoken of its effect on the university’s staff:

‘I wish to acknowledge the extraordinarily generous contribution to which your letter of 18 January 1990 refers. This news was received with delight by our senior staff; it constitutes a magnificent boost to morale and, most importantly, to our research capability … It is rather difficult – even impossible – to convey to you in writing the great delight which your generosity has generated on campus’.[6]

In September 2012 DCU joined with the eight other universities on the island of Ireland to confer a joint honorary doctorate on Feeney, the only one of its kind ever awarded. That joint honour was prompted not just by Atlantic’s contributions to individual universities, but also by its role in the creation of the Programme for Research in Third-Level Institutions (PRTLI) funding scheme in the late 1990s. Established following an approach to the Higher Education Authority from Atlantic Philanthropies, PRTLI fundamentally altered the research capacity of the higher education sector. Danny O’Hare recalled first hearing of the proposal that perhaps £120m would be made available in funding to Irish universities during a meeting between representatives of the Conference of Heads of Irish Universities, Atlantic and the HEA: ‘We nearly fell off our seats. There was a prospect of a hundred million being put on the table. I forget much of the conversation, I suppose I was so amazed at it.’7 As the 1990s were drawing to a close, government investment in higher education research was just 11% of the EU average. In proposing a massive investment in university facilities and people, underpinned by a grant of close to €100m that was to be matched by the government, Atlantic succeeded in radically reshaping the landscape of Irish higher education funding.

When asked to reflect on Atlantic’s impact in Ireland, John R. Healy, former head of Atlantic’s Irish operations and later CEO of Atlantic Philanthropies, noted the difficulty in measuring success: ‘One of the big difficulties about philanthropy, unlike business for instance, where you either make a profit or loss, is that it is hard to know what the result of your investment has been, or whether or not you have made a difference. There is a causal line, but it is often hard to draw a connection.’ With regard to the third-level sector, however, Healy was in little doubt as to Atlantic’s impact: ‘There is no question in my mind that money invested in third-level infrastructure encouraged the government to make similar investments, and that has transformed the research landscape in Ireland.’8 Brian MacCraith, former president of DCU (2010–20) and a member of staff at the university since 1986, witnessed the transformation first hand:

‘Investments by Atlantic Philanthropies … have had a major influence on the dramatic development and impact of DCU since its formal establishment as a university in 1989. In the 28 years since, DCU has achieved international recognition for the quality and impact of its research, its focus on the student learning experience, and its emphasis on social inclusion and equity of student access to educational opportunities

None of this would have been possible, at least in this timescale, without the support and investments of Atlantic. The growth and transformation of DCU has benefitted – and will continue to benefit – tens of thousands of students, and Irish society in general’.[9]

[2] Irish Times, 21 Oct. 1989.

[3] Daniel O’Hare interview, 12 Oct. 2005 (Atlantic Philanthropies Oral History Project).

[4] Quotation from New York Times, 5 Jan. 2017.

[5] Daniel O’Hare interview, 12 Oct. 2005 (Atlantic Philanthropies Oral History Project).

[6] Danny O’Hare to John R. Healy, 13 Feb. 1990 (Atlantic Philanthropies Archive, Cornell University Library,

Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Grant #7018).

[7] Daniel O’Hare interview, 12 Oct. 2005 (Atlantic Philanthropies Oral History Project).

[8] Liam Collins, The Atlantic Philanthropies: Republic of Ireland (New York, 2017), p. 22.

[9] Collins, The Atlantic Philanthropies: Republic of Ireland, p. 8.