The Interview UK
The University of Limerick
Director of Human Rights, Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion

Marie Connolly

Coming out of a global pandemic, Higher Education (HE) institutions have to find new and creative ways to create a sense of belonging on campus through innovative inclusion strategies — and this is no easy undertaking.

Dr. Marie Connolly, Director of Human Rights, Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) at the University of Limerick, sat down with Charles Sin, Co-host of The Interview, to speak about the huge strides the university has made in its EDI efforts over recent years.

Marie's Journey

Charles: What brought you to your current role?

I've always worked predominantly with staff. My background is in HR, but I'm always driving the gender equality agenda. I've driven gender equality in previous roles before I joined the university, and on joining the sector fifteen years ago, I continued. In 2021, it became a key focus of my role when I was appointed the inaugural Director for Human Rights, Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion. I have always wanted to work with students and young people, so that's what brought me to the university in the first instance. I studied here as a mature student and absolutely loved coming here. I wanted to work with students and have a particular interest in the whole area of social justice, equality, inclusion, and diversity. 

Charles: How do you foster a sense of inclusion on campus?

It's been very difficult to re-engage both staff and students since the pandemic. I think students have become very siloed during Covid; they were given a very unappealing way to learn, working from their bedrooms at home, and many students became very isolated, very unsure of themselves. This made it hard to get back on campus; it took quite a while to get the students back, but it's wonderful this academic term because we have definitely seen more vibrancy around campus. 

We've been trying to involve the students more fully in engaging with each other. It's difficult, and we haven't cracked that yet, but that's been our aim. Not being back on campus for so long has damaged that sense of community, so we are trying to get to that place again. 

Charles: I'm curious about your work on EDI topics.

First and foremost, we place a focus on engaging staff on EDI. Our work initially focused on gender equality, and you do find that staff see that as a women's agenda, so we have spent a lot of time driving change. This comes from giving the staff the data and showing them where the inequalities exist. It's not all about women. It's about other areas where there is an intersectional difference between women and other areas of potential bias. It’s also about gender and the non-representation of men in different disciplines as well. So I think we've eased ourselves into the broader EDI agenda in that way. 

This is very new to Ireland. The UK is ahead of Ireland in that regard. So we're just learning, and we're going with our students. The students drive a lot of the agenda in this space. The HE sector is also catching up because they've undertaken race equality surveys. And now, we have more data to say there are issues that we can see, and we have the data to prove it. This is what we are doing to get that engagement up around EDI.

Charles: Student engagement is a related challenge here; where do you see students and staff engaging the most and the least?

I see staff and students engaging the most on issues around sexual harassment and sexual violence because there is overlap there and an issue everyone can see. We are developing a policy on sexual violence covering staff and students; rather than having this as a student-only issue, we accept that those issues overlap. We're a community that works together, so staff and students have come together because they're very engaged and concerned about this topic. 

I also see them coming together in relation to race-related issues. There is an overlap between the experience of students and staff. They may have felt isolated in the past. Now, they can see a big community. We want to ensure staff and students don't have to face that feeling alone.

Charles: I understand your university has had some news regarding Athena Swan. Could you tell me some more about that?

It has just been released that we're the first university in the Irish Higher Education sector to be awarded a Silver Institution Athena Swan Award by AdvanceHE, which we are exceptionally proud of. UL originally led on gender equality, but now we have expanded to a broader charter and a larger framework. This means that it is incorporating the intersectional piece.

We showed that when you identify what the issues are within your institution, which we did in 2018, and you put specific actions around those issues to address them, you actually can deliver the impact.

In order to achieve a silver award, we had to demonstrate the impact of the actions we committed to in our 2018 submission. There is a particular section on culture in organisations, looking at the area of dignity and respect relating to sexual harassment, as well as an area on inclusivity and what we're doing in that space. We showed that when you identify what the issues are within your institution, which we did in 2018, and you put specific actions around those issues to address them, you actually can deliver the impact.

Charles: Student safety is a big concern for many of the university leaders that we speak to. What's your approach to this issue? 

Our campus has become much more global and internationalised, and we have seen incidents of racial harassment on and off campus. Our first thing is to send out very strong messages. We create videos to say that no incident of any type of racial harassment, any type of hate crime, any type of transphobia, or any type of harassment will be tolerated at our university. 

We have also rolled out the Speak Out anonymous reporting tool. While that doesn't give us the information we need to investigate, it gives us an idea of the culture on the campus, of incidents happening in a particular area, and we are able to deal with them. But it also gives us the data to go to students and say that we know these incidents are happening and want to help.

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Charles Sin
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