Professor Mary McAleese - winner of the 2016 Gilbert Medal

Award date
May 2016

Professor Mary McAleese was the recipient of Universitas 21's 2016 Gilbert Medal for Internationalisation, awarded in May 2016 at the Presidential Meetings in Singapore.


Professor McAleese was inaugurated as the eighth President of Ireland in 1997 where she served for two terms, fourteen years in all. The theme of her Presidency was ‘Building Bridges’, exemplified by her sustained attempts to reach out and negotiate constructive  discussion between different communities in Northern Ireland, including her work in brokering the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. Her widely admired work during her Presidency was underpinned by her longstanding commitment to national and international issues of justice, equality, educational opportunity, social inclusion, anti-sectarianism and reconciliation.

Since the end of her Presidency Prof McAleese’s work has focused on her commitment to the reform and enhancement of international higher education. She returned to personal study, taking a Licentiate in Canon Law; she has been Boston College Burns Library Visiting Scholar in Irish Studies (2013-2014) and is currently the Judge James J. Clynes Visiting Chair at Notre Dame Law School. In September 2011 EU Commissioner Androulla Vassiliouto appointed her to chair the European Commission High Level Group on the Modernisation of Higher Education in Europe. This role recognised her considerable capacity to bring together and direct educational and political leaders from across Europe in order to successfully deliver international educational policies and strategies capable of reforming the fundamental nature and quality of 21st century European higher education, recognising education’s crucial role in individual, societal and economic development.

On receiving news of the award, Professor McAleese said:

What a huge surprise! I am just plain thrilled and so grateful to Universitas 21 for such an honour. I’m very much looking forward to meeting everyone and receiving the award in Singapore.

Professor Sir David Eastwood, Chair of the U21 network and Vice Chancellor of the University of Birmingham, one of U21’s founding members, commented:

The Gilbert Medal recognises those whose actions have had a significant impact on international higher education. It is difficult to think of someone who fits that description better than Mary McAleese.  From her first days as a student at Queen’s University Belfast and then as a Lecturer in Law at Trinity College Dublin, Professor McAleese has combined her academic work with a commitment to the community and communities in which she works.  This was exemplified during her time as President of Ireland (1997-2011) when we were delighted that she was able to open our meeting held at University College Dublin in 2008.  Since her Presidency of Ireland ended, she has returned to academe, writing a major EU report and latterly teaching at St Mary’s university in the UK.  Mary McAleese continues to have a significant impact on international higher education and is a role model to many around the world.  She is a worthy recipient of this year’s Gilbert Medal from Universitas 21.

UCD President Professor Andrew Deeks, who nominated Professor McAleese for the Gilbert Medal, said:

Prof McAleese has a renowned international reputation as a scholar of note in her own right. Added to this are her national and international achievements while holding the highest office in Ireland. The fact that she has chosen, since the end of her Presidency, to use her skills and influence to tackle complex, previously intractable matters in higher education on an international level should be a matter of considerable celebration for the whole higher education sector. We are surely lucky to have a champion of Prof McAleese’s calibre with an interest and concern for international higher to devote her time, skills and high-level leadership to making quality change a reality on the international stage.