‘There has to be a line’: Anger in UCD over Dolores Cahill but uncertainty about what can be done

‘There has to be a line’: Anger in UCD over Dolores Cahill but uncertainty about what can be done

A number of University College Dublin (UCD) alumni, students, and staff have voiced their concerns about the continuing association of the institute with Professor Dolores Cahill. Speaking with The Beacon some have argued that Cahill’s actions and comments have made her continued employment untenable. Or, at the very least, that the university must do something more to deal with the issue. 

But others have expressed discomfort at the idea of the UCD administration removing Cahill from her position. Academic freedom, they suggested, could be put at risk if the university sacks the professor because of her comments and behaviour.

Crossing a line

Hannah, a postgraduate political science student, told The Beacon that Cahill’s stance on masks raises questions about her previous research. She asked how her work could be seen as “credible” and “How is she teaching these students?”. Bearing in mind the difficulty of getting accepted to study medicine, she pointed out the contradiction of medicine students then being “taught by somebody who doesn’t even believe in science”. 

She also referred to Cahill’s behaviour outside the count centre in the aftermath of the Dublin Bay South by-election last month as “despicable”. Gardaí wouldn’t let Cahill enter the centre as she refused to wear a mask. At one stage a garda allegedly put their hand on the UCD professor’s arm to stop her from forcibly entering the centre whereupon Cahill accused them of assaulting her. These claims, Hannah said, are “horrible” and “such a kick in the teeth to so many rape victims”.

All of this is having an effect on the reputation of the university. She said she’s aware of people choosing other universities over UCD to study at as a result of Cahill’s ongoing relationship with the institute. In her opinion UCD should remove Cahill from her position but legalities and issues of tenure likely prohibit the university administration from doing so. But, in spite of this, she insisted “There has to be a line”. And Cahill has crossed it.

Conspiracies and misinformation

Since the start of the pandemic Cahill has promoted conspiracy theories about COVID-19. 

On social media and at large anti-mask and anti-lockdown rallies around the country she’s claimed that COVID is not as dangerous as it is. At such a rally last August 2020 she told a crowd of roughly 1,500 people that they could use hydroxychloroquine to combat the virus. And therefore  “We have a treatment. We don’t need a lockdown”. She then went on to declare there was a conspiracy to destroy stocks of the medication around the world. 

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has advised against the use of hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19, saying it can result in “serious heart problems” as well as causing other safety issues. And World Health Organization (WHO) has also recommended against its use, writing that taking it “for prevention had little or no effect on preventing illness, hospitalization or death from COVID-19”.

But this hasn’t stopped Cahill from continuing to make outrageous claims about the virus and the actions of governments in trying to combat it. In November 2020 she again appeared in front of a large crowd at an anti-lockdown rally. There she told them that COVID-19 is “seasonal”and only makes people ill and symptomatic “between December and April”. She also said masks were ineffective and, in fact, “cause permanent brain damage”. During the same speech she divulged that a bomb would be set off in Rotterdam in order to “cut the food supply” and usher in martial law.

But even before these comments UCD students had grown tired with Cahill and the university’s lack of action. In June that year a number of students signed an open letter condemning statements Cahill had made at the time about COVID-19 and the pandemic. In the letter they insisted that Cahill was making claims “inconsistent with current science and epidemiology regarding COVID-19”.

Cahill was until March of this year the chair of the far-right Irish Freedom Party (IFP). But her comments even made her position there untenable. As a result, she was essentially forced out by party members. In a letter he wrote to her, IFP president Hermann Kelly told Cahill that she’d made “Unsubstantiated statements” about COVID-19 and the pandemic. And that these “have caused great unease with members of the party” and “been detrimental to the public image of the Party”.

Frustration

With Cahill’s behaviour and comments going apparently unchallenged by UCD, patience seems to have worn even thinner amongst the alumni, students, and staff. And they’ve echoed Hannah’s comments and concerns.

George, a science student said he’s “disappointed and frustrated” at the current situation. Having such behaviour and comments associated with UCD is “embarrassing” and has been “deeply worrying” in light of her position in the School of Medicine. When asked if he believes Cahill’s actions are having an effect UCD’s reputation he replied “Definitely, there’s no two questions about it”. He also pointed out that online searches for Professor Cahill bring up articles covering her behaviour and her links to UCD.

As for what university authorities should do, it’s felt this is complicated given issues of academic freedom and tenure. “Ideally it would be great to see Professor Cahill taken as far away from the limelight as possible and try and limit the association” between her and UCD. But, George goes on to point out, it’s unclear what grounds are available for UCD to take action against Cahill. Regardless, he reveals there’s “a lot of anger, a lot of disappointment, and a lot of frustration” at the lack of accountability for “something that’s been going on for a while”. 

Christian, a fellow student believes likewise and said he understands that the professor “is highly unpopular” amongst students and staff. Going on, he said the high fees UCD charges “should be reflected in the standard of professors in the staff”.

In March UCD announced that Cahill was no longer teaching in the School of Medicine and there were no plans for her to resume teaching in the coming months. At the time of writing this piece her academic profile is still featured on the UCD website though, which lists her as a member of staff in the School of Medicine.

That same month hundreds of students signed a petition calling for her resignation. And the then president of the UCD Students’ Union also wrote to the UCD authorities requesting they investigate Cahill, asserting that she’s promoting “medically inaccurate conspiracy theories in service of a far-right political agenda”.

Academic freedom versus accountability 

Michelle, a frontline nurse and graduate of UCD, was blunt in her assessment of Cahill and UCD. 

“I don’t know how UCD expects anyone to hold the same respect for nursing and medical degrees from UCD when a UCD professor so confidently spreads misinformation and remains employed by UCD”, she told The Beacon. As a nurse Michelle related that she wears a mask while working 12 hours with no effect on her oxygen levels. 

Given this, she argued that if Cahill “really believes her anti-mask view then perhaps she’s struggling with very basic functions within the human body”. And if that’s the case, “That in itself is worrying”. She understands though that UCD “may have their hands tied” when it comes to Cahill’s employment. 

Another alumnus and prominent activist, John, had much of the same to say. He’s found her behaviour “disgraceful and disgusting”. But, like Michelle, he doesn’t believe UCD can do anything “as long as she doesn’t break any university regulations”.

Speaking to The Beacon, a lecturer in UCD also noted this fact. They maintained that even though what Cahill says is incorrect and upsets people, that is not grounds for dismissal. And if it was, it would set a dangerous precedent that could undermine academic freedom.

A fellow staff member also has the same concerns. “I would totally disagree with her viewpoints”, he related. And that her behaviour “definitely has had an effect on UCD’s reputation”. But firing her “may set a worrying trend” which could result in left-leaning staff being “dismissed for activities outside UCD”. 

UCD president Andrew Deeks also holds the same views. In a bulletin he sent to staff in March he made reference to “a number of recent events”, apparently meaning Cahill. Around the same time she’d made comments at a St. Patrick’s Day anti-lockdown rally in which she linked children wearing masks to a reduction in IQ levels. Deeks insisted that UCD adheres to policies of academic freedom which allow staff “to question and test received wisdom, to put forward new ideas and to state controversial or unpopular opinions and shall not be disadvantaged, or subject to less favorable treatment by the university, for the exercise of that freedom”.

As long as the situation remains unchanged though, Michelle made it clear that UCD won’t be getting any donations from her and other graduates: 

I have discussed this with many alumni of UCD nursing and medicine and also with others outside the health sciences. We have all agreed that we will not be giving a penny to UCD as alumni given how badly they have handled this.

While working as an intern on the wards Michelle and her colleagues “weren’t allowed to wear a surgical mask in the corridor”. She had to watch “full units of staff get wiped out with COVID-positive tests, some of whom never were able to return to work”.

She believes Cahill is fortunate she’s gotten off so easy during the pandemic. “I’ve seen the value of these masks”, Michelle relates. “She is lucky she has never had to”.

For reasons of privacy the names of those interviewed for this article were changed.

Featured image via Flickr – Leandro Neumann Ciuffo

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