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28 May 2024  

NUI Pays Tribute to Dr T. K. Whitaker


On the centenary of his birth on the 8th of December 1916, the National University of Ireland pays special tribute to Thomas Kenneth "Ken" Whitaker, Chancellor of the University from 1976 to 1996.

Let us remember that we are not seeking economic progress for purely materialistic reasons but because it makes possible relief of hardship and want, the establishment of a better social order, for the raising of human dignity, and, eventually, the participation of all who are born in Ireland in the benefits, moral and cultural, as well as material, of spending their lives and bringing up their families in Ireland.
(T.K. Whitaker)

During this Decade of Centenaries, and particularly in this centenary year of the 1916 Rising, we have paused to reflect on the momentous events in the founding years of the State. The University also finds it highly appropriate to honour an individual born in the year of the Rising and who over his long life has contributed in a profound way to shaping the history of the State since then.

Ken Whitaker, a native of Rostrevor, Co. Down was born on the 8th December 1916, educated at the Christian Brothers’ School, Drogheda, and obtained a Masters degree in Economic Science from the University of London by private study. He rose, with great distinction, through the ranks of the Civil Service and at the age of 39 was appointed Secretary General to the Department of Finance. Ireland in the 1940s and 1950s was in the grip of deep economic depression, and Whitaker’s vision as an economist culminated in the publication in 1958 of ‘Economic Development’ a study upon which the first programme for Economic Expansion in Ireland was built. This publication, which became known as ‘The Grey Book’, laid out Whitaker’s plan for an end to protectionism and the introduction of free trade. It marks a major turning point in Irish economic history.

The National University of Ireland acknowledged Whitaker’s great contribution to reviving the economy in 1962 when he was conferred with a DEconSc honoris causa (Download Citation).

Whitaker’s illustrious career spans a period of political, historical and educational change in Ireland: in 1960, he played a pivotal role in the establishement of the Economic and Social Research Institute; he arranged and attended the historic meeting at Stormont between Seán Lemass and Terence O’Neill in January 1965; he retired from the Department of Finance in 1969 to become Governor General of the Central Bank, during this time Ireland acceded to the EU; he was nominated to Seanad Éireann in 1977 and 1981 and was a member of the Council of State, 1991 to 1998; as President of the Royal Irish Academy, he was an ex officio member of the Board of Governors and Guardians of the National Gallery of Ireland from 1985 to 1987.

On the death of Éamon de Valera in 1975, the position of Chancellor of the National University of Ireland became vacant. Dr Whitaker was elected Chancellor by Convocation on May 5th 1976 and retained this position until he resigned on December 31st 1996. During his time as Chancellor, with university restructuring on the government agenda, he ably steered NUI through turbulent waters, achieving a consensus among the presidents of the NUI colleges in favour of a set of proposals for Government on the proposed legislation. This according to Ronan Fanning was ‘arguably Ken Whitaker’s greatest achievement as Chancellor’, concluding in his contribution to the Centenary Essays published on the NUI centenary in 2008 that ‘Ken Whitaker was the sculptor of the reconstituted National University of Ireland that ultimately emerged in the Universities Act of 1997’.

Whitaker is a family man with a deep love of the Irish language, his career reflects these values and bears witness to his life-long commitment to Ireland’s economic, social, cultural and political development.. In recognition of which, in 2001 the general public voted him ‘Irishman of the Twentieth Century’, and in 2002, at the People of the Year Awards, he received ‘The Greatest Living Irish Person’ award.

Garret FitzGerald once said of Ken Whitaker: ‘He shared all the great qualities of the first generation of civil servants – but with the crucial addition of imagination …’

Download Introductory Address Delivered 1962

pdf Citation:  

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