Professor P. G. (Gerry) McKenna


Professor Patrick Gerald (Gerry) McKenna DL MRIA

Professor Gerry McKenna is an internationally recognised and highly respected biomedical scientist (geneticist). A former Vice Chancellor and President of the University of Ulster (UU),he was a key progenitor and implementer of the University's transition from a local, relatively parochial, university into one with a strong national and international reputation. He achieved this through his vision that whilst the University must serve and drive the economic, social and cultural needs of the local population and region, it could only achieve its goals through also participating in, and where possible exceeding, the attainments of internationally outstanding universities elsewhere. This was best exemplified through his development of his own subject, biomedical sciences, from a zero base at UU to becoming the leading UK centre for teaching and research in this area; his exceptional record in taught programme innovation; and his development of a selective research strategy for the University which culminated in Ulster being one of only 20 UK universities having two of the highest rated, 5*, departments in the 2001 periodic UK Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), and its follow-through to having 3 departments  ranked in the top 3 in the UK in the subsequent 2008 RAE - a feat matched also by only 20 other universities. In parallel with this, he was a central figure in developing a vision of knowledge transfer in Northern Ireland which culminated in the development of the Northern Ireland Science Park to facilitate the development of spin-out companies from Ulster and Queen's University Belfast (QUB). 



Gerry McKenna was born on 10 December 1953 into a farming family in the townland of Lisbanlemneigh situated between Benburb and The Moy, Co. Tyrone, Northern Ireland. He was the youngest of five children. His parents were Gerald (Gerry) Joseph (born 1922, died 1989) and Mary Teresa McKenna (nee Smyth, born 1918, died 1989). His father, whom he was named after, was a soft fruit and vegetable grower, and marketeer. The young Gerry attended the local primary school, St. John's in The Moy, before progressing to St. Patrick's Academy in Dungannon. Always a keen biologist with a particular interest in genetics and evolution, he moved in 1972 to the, then, New University of Ulster (NUU). He graduated in biology with first class honours in 1976 before transferring to Queens University for research studies, graduating with a PhD in genetics in 1979.

McKenna obtained a lectureship in human biology and genetics at NUU in 1979. He was promoted to senior lecturer in 1984 in, what was by then, the University of Ulster. He was the founding Director of the Biomedical Sciences Research Centre which was established in 1985 and was appointed Professor and Head of the Department of Biological and Biomedical Sciences in 1988. He became the founding Dean of the newly formed Faculty of Science in 1994 before progressing to the post of Pro Vice Chancellor (Research) in 1997. Two years later, in 1999, he was appointed Vice Chancellor of the University. He was appointed President in 2000. McKenna was the first Irish-born Vice Chancellor of UU. He retired as Vice Chancellor in 2005, and as President in 2006.

Gerry McKenna married Phil McArdle in 1976. They have two sons, Gerald and James.


Early Career

McKenna's appointment to NUU in 1979 began the development of what, in retrospect, can only be described as a remarkable career in research, course innovation and development, and research management. NUU was, at that time, a relatively small and struggling university. It had a limited research base and had difficulty in attracting students, a problem compounded by the Northern Ireland 'troubles'. McKenna was mentored by the founding professor of biology at NUU, the distinguished ecologist Amyan Macfadyen, and quickly established himself as an innovator in both course design and research. Remarkably for one so young and inexperienced, he designed the programme,  wrote the course document, conducted the various negotiations with government, the professional body (the Institute of Medical Laboratory Sciences, later the Institute of Biomedical Science), the state registration body (Council for Professions Supplementary to Medicine), the Northern Ireland Health department, and the local profession, leading to the introduction of the honours degree programme in Medical Laboratory Sciences (later retitled Biomedical Sciences) at NUU in 1980.


University of Ulster

McKenna, like many others at NUU, was shocked at the outcome of the Northern Ireland government-sponsored report by Sir Henry Chilver into higher education in Northern Ireland in 1982. The report recommended a greatly curtailed NUU but was superseded simultaneously by a government decision to amalgamate NUU with the Ulster Polytechnic (UP) to form a new institution, the University of Ulster (UU), incorporating the campuses of NUU at Coleraine and L/Derry (Magee) and UP at Jordanstown in Newtownabbey and York Street in Belfast. Despite his misgivings of the propriety of such actions by government, and cognizant of the inherent weaknesses in the leadership of NUU, he came relatively quickly to embrace the concept as offering the opportunity for the development of a strong institution of the size and scope to make a major impact on the economic, social and cultural development of Northern Ireland. He was encouraged by his perception of the ability and dedication of some of the designated senior officers of the new institution; in particular its first Vice Chancellor, Derek Birley, and the Pro-Vice Chancellor for Academic Planning, Norman Gibson. McKenna thus began his inexorable drive to ensure that the new institution and, in particular those parts with which he was associated, would ascend to a recognised level of academic respectability. The University of Ulster came into being formally in October 1984.


Vision and Strategy

McKenna was clear in his vision that a university worthy of the title must contribute to knowledge as well as imparting it. Fiercely committed to his country and region, he believed that the future for Northern Ireland lay in high technology developments based on a strong university sector innovative in taught programmes and research; a belief  reinforced strongly through many visits to the United States, particularly to North Carolina and Georgia, where he also observed the commitment of some leading universities to knowledge transfer, including support for science parks, university spin-out companies and licensing deals based on university-led scientific discoveries. He felt strongly that Northern Ireland must embrace these concepts if it was to progress from civil strife to becoming the vibrant knowledge-based economy which he felt was both possible and attainable.  In holding these views, he was a relatively lone but increasingly prominent voice within UU.


The Path Travelled

McKenna's apparently smooth progress within UU belies the many hurdles he overcame in his upward transition. His innovative achievements were exceptional in the face of much internal opposition from those opposed to change and its associated challenges.

He established in 1985 the first Masters programme in medical laboratory sciences/biomedical sciences in the UK. He revised this in 1997 to replace the professional Institute of Biomedical Science (IBMS) 2-part Fellowship programme with the concurrent result that Northern Ireland became the first region in the UK to have all-graduate entry to the biomedical science profession. He also initiated the development of nutrition and dietetics training in Northern Ireland, establishing, in 1987, the BSc (Hons) programme in human nutrition.

In 1989, McKenna led the transfer of radiography education from the, then, local schools of radiography into the University, thus establishing the first UK government-approved radiography degree programme in the UK. In leading the transition of radiography to all-graduate entry, McKenna developed, in parallel, a qualifications framework to provide holders of the Diploma and Higher Diploma of the College of Radiographers with routes into postgraduate Masters level study, thus ensuring that existing non-graduate members of the profession were not left behind as a result of the new education model. This framework was subsequently adopted by a College of Radiographers Working Group under McKenna’s chairmanship as the model for the whole of the UK.

He did not rest on his laurels; in the early 1990s, he established optometry, clinical sciences and podiatry degree programmes and, towards the end of the decade, the highly innovative and interdisciplinary Master of Research (MRes) programme. He also established a number of professional doctorate programmes. In all of these endeavours he was supported by a number of like-minded colleagues who shared his ambitious view of what was possible and attainable.


The Research Agenda

Parallel with his achievements in taught programme development, McKenna was firmly convinced that the University of Ulster must establish a strong research base. A highly talented and internationally recognised researcher with over 200 scientific publications and 25 PhD supervisions (7 of whom progressed to full professorships in universities in the UK, US, Canada, Iraq and Hong Kong), he established a major reputation for research in the areas of DNA repair and mutagenesis. Most significantly, he built determinedly, in a relatively short period, a research empire in biomedical sciences covering a number of areas including human nutrition (leading inter alia to the formation of the highly successful Irish Universities Nutrition Alliance; IUNA), cancer biology and ageing, molecular and cellular biology, diabetes, vision science and bioinformatics, which has endured. He founded, in 1985, the Biomedical Sciences Research Centre and was its first Director. At that time the fledgling University of Ulster was having to come to terms with the reality of being a university within a national academic environment that associated university status with having a respectable research base. McKenna relished this challenge, working assiduously with successive Pro Vice Chancellors with responsibility for research to develop a research strategy for the University.  He was a committed adherent to Wilhelm von Humboldt's early 19th century vision of a university based on the unity of research and teaching, upholding the ideal of research without restrictions and providing a comprehensive education for its students. Ironically, for one who had an unparalleled record in developing taught programmes, his name became synonymous with research developments. 

McKenna's association with research strategy was reinforced when at the request of the then Deputy Vice Chancellor, Norman Gibson, he became, in 1992, the founding chair of the University's subsequently influential Research Policy and Practice Committee. McKenna, while also holding the position of Dean of the highly successful Faculty of Science, was indefatigable in promoting the research agenda, including developing a highly selective research strategy, recognising that areas and individuals with genuine research talent must be nurtured and supported meaningfully and sensitively. This involved the appointment of research coordinators for each selectively supported research subject area, with whom he worked closely to implement, at subject level, his vision and strategy for research in the University. In effect McKenna, with Gibson’s support, removed responsibility for the management of research and research funding from Deans and Heads of Departments/Schools; allocating the funds directly through the Units of Assessment. This was a radical departure from previous practice. The fact that it was accepted with only limited resistance reflected both McKenna’s strength of personality and argument and a lack of interest in or knowledge of research among most university managers at that time.

In the effort to develop a research culture, McKenna was resolute in insisting that the University should only appoint and promote individuals on the basis of talent and performance.

McKenna believed strongly that research students were the life blood of research, particularly in the sciences and engineering and that they should be afforded increased status and support in the University. Accordingly he put in place rigorous monitoring processes for research student progress and established training programmes inter alia: in project planning, relevant research techniques, public presentation of data and results, and university teaching. His efforts produced dramatic results; increasing externally funded studentship numbers and shifting Ulster’s previously moderate record for research degree completions to one of the highest in the UK. He also oversaw the introduction of a number of professional doctorates in vocational areas. In support of his belief in the importance of research students and research support staff to the University's overall research performance, he established a research graduate school in each faculty and supported strongly the introduction of the UK Research Concordat to assist the development and career enhancement of research staff.

Meanwhile his own research area, biomedical sciences, flourished. It combined the talents of previously unsung researchers supplemented with exceptionally talented individuals recruited selectively from elsewhere. McKenna allowed their talents to blossom within a highly supportive, focussed and strategic framework. By 1996, Biomedical Sciences at Ulster had attained the remarkable, and highest, 5* rating in the periodic Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). This meant that it was the top-rated biomedical department for research in the UK; a position it retained through successive RAEs in 2001 and 2008. By the middle of the first decade of the current Century it had become the largest and highest rated research unit in any subject area in Northern Ireland. McKenna led by example; in 2001 he was the only serving vice chancellor in any subject in the UK to be included in a 5* submission.

It would be difficult to overestimate the impact that the achievement of a 5* RAE rating in 1996 had on UU, its staff and its external image. Suddenly it had leapfrogged from being an essentially regional university to one which commanded international respect. This encouraged academics in other areas, selectively supported at UU by McKenna, to believe that they too could attain the highest reaches of academia. It was a hugely transformative event in the evolution and history of the University of Ulster and for higher education in Northern Ireland.

Although coming from a science background, McKenna was hugely supportive of the social sciences and humanities. He brought focus and performance measures to these previously uncoordinated areas while demonstrating sensitivity to the particular needs and constraints of each discipline which won respect across the University. As an example he recognised the latent talent within the University's School of Art and Design and worked to support and nurture it into one of the leading art schools in the UK. Equally, he supported, selectively, activities in Celtic Studies such that it also moved to the top of UK rankings for research (5*), and attained an 'excellence' score for teaching. (At this point UU was home to two out of only three 5* rated departments in Northern Ireland). McKenna was particularly adept at identifying research leaders and in providing them with the tools to succeed. In a relatively short time period, he was able to mastermind the University's development into a highly respectable middle-ranking university with a number of genuinely international research strengths (by 2008 UU housed 6 of the 11 departments in Northern Ireland ranked in the top quartile for RAE research performance in the UK). In 2004 he established a number of research institutes in areas of research strength thus reinforcing the policy of research selectivity which he had pioneered in the early 1990s.The growth in research activity at UU is exemplified by the upward shift in externally funded research grants from £5.4 million in 1997-98, when McKenna took over as Pro Vice Chancellor (Research), to a peak of £43.9 million in 2002-03 during his period as Vice Chancellor. During this time he moved the university up the research rankings to 27th place in the UK in terms of 'research power' and to 20th position in QR (Quality Research) block grant funding. Equally striking was his personal support and mentoring of individually distinguished researchers such that in the 10 years following his election to Membership of the Royal Irish Academy (RIA), Ireland's most senior academic body, the number of UU Members increased,from a modest base, by more than 6-fold.


Knowledge Transfer

McKenna was a pioneer in Northern Ireland in promoting knowledge transfer. He established in 1997 UUTECH Ltd, a university company designed to facilitate the exploitation of intellectual property generated from university research. This led to a number of spin-out companies being formed inter alia in biotechnology, information technology, advanced materials and nanotechnology. He established innovation centres ('incubators') on each campus to nurture them through their early stages. He was a fierce proponent of the development of science parks, again influenced by his American experiences, and was a co-founder of the Northern Ireland Science Park (NISP), established in 1999. McKenna established, with the support of NISP, science research parks at the Coleraine and Magee campuses to house companies emerging from the innovation centres. By 2005 over 20 companies employing more than 250 people were located in UU science research park facilities.

McKenna chaired the Northern Ireland Foresight: Life and Health Technologies panel, which was sponsored by the Northern Ireland Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment in association with the Northern Ireland Growth Challenge. The panel brought together many disparate interests in charting a way forward for the sector. His report, published in 1997, has been highly influential. By 2005, the sector included 60 companies with a turnover of £400 million annually and employed over 4,000 people. The report was built upon by the Northern Ireland Department for Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI)-sponsored 2008 Matrix Exercise carried out by the NI Science Industry Panel.



McKenna was responsible for many innovations as Vice Chancellor of UU. He reorganised the senior management structure, asserting the primacy of academics in academic and research planning. This included the establishment of a Department of Quality Assurance and Enhancement under a Pro Vice Chancellor which resulted in the University emerging from a prolonged period of relative mediocrity in terms of assessment by the national Quality Assurance Agency to achieving 'excellence' ratings routinely (13 out of 15) across a wide range of subject areas. He also reorganised the faculty structures on academic lines, bringing the health professional areas together with biomedical sciences into a faculty of Life and Health Sciences; enhancing the University's commitment to the social sciences through the establishment of a Social Sciences faculty; exploiting the potential synergy between the University's  schools of the Built Environment and Art and Design through the establishment of a highly innovative architecture programme; and developing specific campus strengths and synergies through reducing inefficient duplication of subjects across more than one campus.



McKenna internationalised the university through the development of collaborations with leading institutions in the United States, Hong Kong, China, India and Australia. As a frequent visitor to the United States (he spent a sabbatical in 1995 studying the governance, missions and operational issues at leading US universities, including the University of California at Berkeley where he was a Visiting Scholar), he was impressed by the unselfish support of influential members of  local communities for their universities. He was influenced particularly by observing the development of science parks and incubation facilities to support start-up/spin-out companies based on innovations (intellectual property) generated from within universities. This led to a number of influential and enduring relationships between Northern Ireland and the US, with for example the North Carolina Biotechnology Centre and the Georgia Research Alliance, as well as collaborations with universities and companies in Boston, New York, San Francisco and Denver.

As a committed internationalist who felt that his university, and Northern Ireland, had much to gain from external associations, McKenna undertook a number of international initiatives including the appointment, sponsored by the Ireland Funds, of the Nobel Peace Laureate, John Hume, to the Tip O'Neill chair in peace studies, leading to a series of lectures by international statesmen and women including President Bill Clinton, Kofi Annan, Romano Prodi, Bertie Ahern, Pat Cox and Senator Hillary Clinton. He also initiated an innovative programme of highly successful research placements and visiting scholarships which operated with leading US, Australian and European universities. In a spirit of true partnership with other countries, he initiated the practice of holding major graduation ceremonies overseas, including ceremonies in the US, China, Hong Kong, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

His internationalist and outreaching approach led to his direct endorsement and support for the development of e-learning initiatives through the establishment of a 'virtual campus', Campus One, such that by 2003 UU was the leading provider of on-line programmes in the UK with students enrolled from over 70 countries. Overall student numbers increased by 20% during his tenure, from 20,132 to 24,389, making UU the largest university on the island of Ireland.


Local External Relations

Despite the fiercely competitive environment which existed between UU and its most obvious competitor, the other local, and much older university, Queen's University Belfast, and defending resolutely UU's independence, McKenna recognised that there was much to be gained by both universities finding common cause in promoting key tenets of what a university constituted and what was achievable within the Northern Ireland environment. As a graduate of both UU and of QUB he was always more likely to attempt to find a shared vision with Queen's than predecessors from either university had found possible previously. In this he was fortunate in having as his counterpart the Canadian George Bain as Vice Chancellor of QUB. Bain, previously principal of the London Business School, and whose mother was a Northern Ireland native, was a highly able and relatively pragmatic vice chancellor who found, in McKenna, someone whom he respected and could work with assuredly.

The shared vision that existed between UU and QUB during McKenna's tenure as Vice Chancellor at UU led to many historic and enduring achievements. These included: the reversal of the savage cuts in research funding imposed on the Northern Ireland universities in 1997; the development of the Northern Ireland Science Park (co-sponsored by McKenna and Bain); the establishment of the hugely successful US-Ireland R&D Partnership, of which McKenna was the founding Northern Ireland chair; the development of the Support Programme for University Research (SPUR), funded jointly by the Northern Ireland Department for Employment and Learning (DEL) and Atlantic Philanthropies, which brought £100 million in new infrastructural research funding to the two Northern Ireland universities; the formation of the Northern Ireland Centre for Entrepreneurship (NICENT); and the establishment of Universities Ireland, bringing together, for the first time, the 9 universities on the island of Ireland in a spirit of cooperation and collaboration (with McKenna as the founding chair).

McKenna has been an ardent and consistent promoter of increased collaboration between universities in both parts of Ireland and between Irish universities and their counterparts in Great Britain. He was responsible inter alia for the formation in 1993 of the highly successful Irish Universities Nutrition Alliance (IUNA) which brought together leading scientists at UU, Trinity College Dublin and University College Cork. (IUNA now also includes University College Dublin). McKenna, as chair of Universities Ireland (UI), hosted the first joint meeting of UI and Universities UK at the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin in 2004.  


Access and Links with Further Education

As Vice Chancellor, McKenna encouraged strongly the development of closer linkages with further education; transferring all sub-degree programmes to that sector and strongly promoting the development of franchised foundation degrees (over 60 such programmes were developed during his tenure in partnership with FE colleges). In this approach he was influenced by his experience of analysing similar initiatives between universities and community colleges in the US; in 2002 he led a group of academics and representatives from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), Universities UK, and the Department of Employment and Learning for Northern Ireland on a fact-finding mission to North Carolina to examine the linkages and articulation between universities and community colleges.

McKenna's commitment to widening access was exemplified by his enthusiastic support for the development of the highly successful  and widely acclaimed 'Step-Up Programme' which supports, proactively, the entry to university science, engineering and related professional programmes of children from socially and economically disadvantaged backgrounds. During his tenure as Vice Chancellor, UU was consistently among the top 5 UK universities for widening access to students from the lower socio-economic groups.



An expansionist by nature, McKenna combined his academic vision and planning with the physical development of the UU campuses. He planned and oversaw the most significant building and refurbishment programme in the University's history. This was based on his conviction that academic vision and planning must determine physical infrastructure development and not the reverse. Most of the development was funded from external competitive sources and included: the Learning Resource Centres (Libraries) at the Magee and Jordanstown campuses; the purchase and refurbishment of the Foyle Arts Centre at Magee; the establishment of the Centre for Molecular Biosciences at Coleraine; the establishment of Science Research Parks at Coleraine and Magee; the development of Science Innovation Centres at Magee, Coleraine and Jordanstown; the establishment of the Harry Ferguson Engineering Village at Jordanstown (incorporating new centres for Fire Safety Engineering, Nanotechnology, and Sustainable Technologies together with the Northern Ireland Bioengineering Centre); the Rehabilitation Science Centre at Jordanstown; the Academy for Irish Cultural Heritages (AICH) at Magee; the Transitional Justice Centre at Magee and Jordanstown, the development of the Coastal Research Centre, the Northern Ireland Centre for Food and Health (NICHE) and the Media Research Centre at Coleraine; the Intelligent Systems Centre at Magee; the Centre for Art Technologies and Design at Belfast; and the new Halls of Residence at Magee, Coleraine, and Jordanstown.

McKenna won the funding necessary from government for the refurbishment of the York Street campus in Belfast. He was responsible for the expansion, in 2003, of the Jordanstown campus by nearly 50%, through the purchase of an adjacent 50 acres to allow for further development and, in 2004, for the incorporation of the Portrush-based Northern Ireland Hotel and Catering College into the University. He was also responsible for the agreement between the University and the Northern Ireland Sports Council to establish the Sports Institute for Northern Ireland (SINI) at the Jordanstown campus.

Gerry McKenna was an avid and consistent supporter of the expansion of the University in the North-West. He was extremely pro-active in plans to expand the Magee campus through the potential opportunity arising from the proposed relocation of Foyle and Londonderry College, thus freeing its site adjacent to the Magee campus. In support of this he redistributed student places from Jordanstown to Magee across a number of subject areas as well as expanding greatly research and knowledge transfer activities there. In 2003 McKenna initiated and championed a proposal to develop a cross-border medical school centred at Magee. 

The developments during McKenna's tenure as Vice Chancellor saw the value of the University's fixed assets (land and property) rise by £93 million to £231 million at a time of modest property price inflation, whilst maintaining constant trading reserves in the region of £30 million. It says much for McKenna's financial acumen and fundraising ability that at no point during his tenure did long-term borrowing rise above £11.5 million; a  figure in the bottom 10% for the university sector.



The establishment of the highly successful Heads of University Centres in Biomedical Sciences (HUCBMS) in 1993 was the brainchild of McKenna working in association with colleagues from Bradford (Terry Baker), Cardiff (John Clarke) and Portsmouth (Ray Jones). The mission of HUCBMS is to promote the development and enhancement of biomedical sciences teaching and learning and research. HUCBMS has been a highly effective and respected organisation with major inputs to relevant national policy formation and practice. It has a membership of over 60 universities from the UK and Ireland, mainland Europe and overseas. The successes of HUCBMS were celebrated at a 25th Anniversary reception in the House of Lords in 2017.


External Recognition

McKenna's continuous stream of innovations and initiatives enhanced greatly the University's reputation locally, nationally and internationally. This was reflected in UU being shortlisted in 2001 by The Sunday Times as 'University of the Year'; being one of the leading UK universities for widening access; and by 2003 becoming the 8th most popular UK university for applications to undergraduate programmes.

Gerry McKenna has received a number of plaudits for his achievements. These have included: Membership of the Royal Irish Academy; honorary degrees from the National University of Ireland and the Queen's University of Belfast; Freedom of the Borough of Coleraine (becoming only the second individual, and the first in 25 years, to receive this honour); Coleraine Business Person of the Year; Keys to the City of Portland, Maine; Honoree of the Flax Trust, New York; Honoree of the Friends of Harvard Celtic Studies, and the award of the title President Emeritus of the Heads of University Centres of Biomedical Science (HUCBMS; which he co-founded).


Principles and Values

Perhaps unsurprisingly, in the resolute pursuit of his vision for UU and his uncompromising views on the role of the university, McKenna trod on a number of toes. As Vice Chancellor, he inherited a proposal that UU should embark on a shared venture with the Belfast Institute of Further and Higher Education to build a joint campus in West Belfast, an area particularly affected by deprivation and the impact of the Northern Ireland troubles. This would have involved the selling-off of the University's Belfast York Street campus. McKenna was opposed to the project, believing that it was poorly conceived and planned. He felt that the joint campus would result in major governance and financial problems. He believed also that the West Belfast area needed greater investment in primary, secondary and further education, rather than what he perceived to be a probably unfocussed HE/FE 'white elephant'. In recognition that the initiative was making little progress, he took the brave but politically unpopular decision in 2003 to withdraw from the project. Before doing so he went to considerable lengths to protect previously committed funding to be directed towards the development of a FE/Community College in the area.

An assiduous and tireless fundraiser, who attracted unprecedented levels of philanthropic funding for the University, including over £40 million from the United States, McKenna was,  above all else, a strategist who felt that the University should not be blown off course by opportunistic ventures with short-term impact but leading, inevitably, to longer-term problems. Accordingly, he declined resolutely, despite considerable pressures, a number of representations from external, and internal, interests to engage the University of Ulster in activities and schemes which he felt were academically and financially unjustified and unsound, and would prejudice the aims and objects of the University. These included a proposal to take over property in Enniskillen. It also included repeated attempts during 2003 and 2004 to persuade him to close the highly successful and readily expandable Jordanstown campus of UU and to purchase property in central Belfast and build a new campus there. McKenna dismissed the proposal as essentially a property development-driven and instigated scheme which was devoid of academic or business merit or rationale, unaffordable, and would shift permanently the University’s balance of commitment away from the North West. Moreover, it would involve the unnecessary closure of the University's most popular and financially successful campus. The proposal was resurrected after his retirement.1

McKenna has been a major contributor to many public and voluntary sector initiatives including chairing a number of influential committees throughout the UK, Ireland and overseas. Locally, he was for a number of years Vice Chair of the Ulster Cancer Foundation.


University Retirement

A tough and determined but fair leader, McKenna stepped down as Vice Chancellor in 2005 following anonymous criticisms by some senior colleagues of his management style. This was accompanied by an orchestrated and scurrilous media campaign.  His retirement remains controversial, given his unparalleled record of achievement and particularly as it coincided with two highly favourable independent reports on the management and direction of the University under his stewardship; namely, the report of the independent and statutory 7-Year Review Committee on the University's progress chaired by Sir Graeme Davies, Vice Chancellor of the University of London  (and former Chief Executive of the Higher Education Council for England, HEFCE) and the periodic audit on financial management carried out by the audit team from HEFCE. The 7-Year Review (1998-2005)2 which was undertaken after his retirement and with which he had no direct involvement, covers almost exactly his period as Vice Chancellor. It commended in laudatory terms the University's exceptional and remarkable performance over the review period in teaching and learning, research, innovation, knowledge transfer, access, local and international outreach, and the financial management which made these achievements possible. It recommended unequivocally that the University should continue to develop on the pathway charted over the review period.


Benburb Priory

McKenna became actively involved in 2009 in a project to establish a library and museum at Benburb (Servite) Priory, close to his birthplace in Co Tyrone. The Servite Order, which dates back to 1233 in Florence, Italy, came to Benburb in 1948. As a result of reorganisation and consolidation of their various priories in Ireland and Great Britain in 2,000, the rare Servite library holdings (some dating back to the 16th century) and archives were transferred to Benburb, where they remained uncatalogued and unconserved. A project Board was established (with McKenna as chair) to develop a plan to establish a library and museum including the conservation and cataloguing of the collections and to make them accessible to a wide audience. The Board obtained funding (£1.4 million) from various sources to support the conservation and refurbishment work and oversaw its development including the addition of collections relating to the O’Neill clans and diaspora and local history from earliest times to the present day. The Benburb Priory Library and Museum, which opened in 2017, is a major heritage and education centre supporting lectures, discourses, seminars, meetings and research involving individuals and groups of all ages. McKenna chairs the Library and Museum Management Board.

McKenna has also played a leading role in the substantial restructuring of the governance and management of Benburb Priory including developing revised management structures, changes in respect of maintaining charitable status and financial reorganisation and the development of a new trust, Order of Mary Servite Trust, which has overall ownership and oversight of the Priory. He chairs the Board of the Trust.

Royal Irish Academy

McKenna has led a number of reports and position papers for the Royal Irish Academy, Ireland’s leading academic body, ranging from HE funding in Northern Ireland to the implications of Brexit. He was elected to the Council of the Academy, in 2017, also becoming an Academy Vice President. He chairs the Academy’s North-South Committee and is a member of the 7- Academy Group which includes inter alia the Royal Society and the British Academy. He was a co-founder and is co-chair of the Celtic Academies Alliance involving the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the Learned Society of Wales. He chaired a major review led by the Academy during 2019-2021 on Higher Education Futures which reported in November 2021 and included the publication of reports on higher education values, the future landscape of HE, equality diversity and inclusion in HE, the role of HE in regions and place, and re-imagining the future of research across the island of Ireland. He was Senior Vice President of the Academy from 2020-2023 and chair of its North-South Standing Committee from 2017-2024.

McKenna has led important RIA initiatives in association with the John and Pat Hume Foundation to promote the strategic and planned economic, social and cultural development of the Greater North-West of the island of Ireland. These efforts have been focussed on redressing the sustained under-investment in tertiary education, transport and communications infrastructure in the region by successive administrations in both jurisdictions.  

Other Current Activities

Gerry McKenna has had a lifelong and sustained commitment to public service which continues. He remains highly active in academic circles, particularly through the Heads of University Centres of Biomedical Sciences (HUCBMS); he is President Emeritus and Honorary Executive Secretary. 

McKenna advises and provides consultancy support to a number of institutions throughout the UK and overseas on university management and governance, research strategy, business planning, biotechnology and programme development. He continues to publish articles and reports on a range of topics including: the implications of Brexit, research policy, knowledge transfer, university funding and institutional ethics.


Relevant References

1. Gerry McKenna. University of Ulster Belfast Development; University Autonomy, How Far Should It Go? Irish News, February 2009. University of Ulster Belfast Development University Autonomy How Far Should It Go

2. University of Ulster: 7-Year Review, 1998-2005