Professor P G (Gerry) McKenna

Professor P. G. (Gerry) McKenna

Professor P G (Gerry) McKenna DL MRIA has been a pioneering and visionary figure in higher education. A former Dean of Science, Pro Vice Chancellor (Research), and ultimately Vice Chancellor and President of the University of Ulster (1999-2006), he was the key architect in the transformation of the University from a largely teaching-only institution in the 1980s into one with a strong reputation for research and knowledge transfer by the beginning of the new millennium. He internationalised the University through collaborative research and teaching linkages with leading universities in the United States, Hong Kong, China, India, Malaysia and Australia.

Gerry McKenna was the progenitor and driver of Ulster's highly successful research and knowledge transfer strategy which saw the University develop from a low research base to become one of only twenty universities to obtain two 5* ratings (in Biomedical Sciences and Celtic Studies) in the 2001 UK-wide Research Assessment Exercise. At this time, Ulster was ranked 27th in the UK for 'research power'. An internationally distinguished researcher in the areas of DNA repair and mutagenesis, McKenna built his subject area, biomedical sciences, from a zero base at Ulster in the early 1980s into a leading international centre by the mid-1990s.

McKenna has been a hugely innovative force in teaching and learning. Among many teaching initiatives, he established the University of Ulster as a leading UK centre for e-learning through ‘Campus One’ and for widening access, particularly through the ‘Step Up Programme’ focussed on disadvantaged areas. Under his stewardship, Ulster became the most extensive provider of undergraduate and postgraduate healthcare programmes in the UK, many initiated directly by him, and rose to being the 8th most popular university for undergraduate applications in the UK and the largest university on the island of Ireland. It was shortlisted for the Sunday Times 'University of the Year' in 2001.

McKenna has been centrally involved in developing many national and international initiatives including the establishment of Universities Ireland (as founding chair), and being co-founder of the Heads of University Centres of Biomedical Sciences (HUCBMS), the US-Ireland R&D Partnership and the Irish Universities Nutrition Alliance (IUNA). Locally, he was a pioneer of knowledge transfer, influenced by his many collaborations and associations with the United States. He was also co-founder of the Northern Ireland Science Park and developed incubator facilities for start-up companies across each of the University of Ulster’s campuses. He chaired the Northern Ireland Foresight: Life and Health Technologies Report. He founded research graduate schools in each of the University of Ulster’s faculties and established the innovative Master of Research programme and a number of professional doctoral programmes within the University.

A Professor Emeritus of the University of Ulster, Gerry McKenna remains highly active in higher education circles; advising institutions and organizations, nationally and internationally, on research strategy and policy, biomedical and healthcare education, business planning and biotechnology. He is President Emeritus and current Hon. Executive Secretary of the Heads of University Centres of Biomedical Sciences which celebrated its 25th Anniversary in 2018.

Professor McKenna is currently Vice President of the Royal Irish Academy and Chair of the North-South Standing Committee. He is a member of the Academy’s Council, Life and Medical Sciences Committee, and Council-nominated Members Committee. He was a member of the Quality Assurance Agency’s Benchmarking Working Groups for Biosciences and Biomedical Sciences, and the Royal Society of Biology’s Education Advisory Committee. He is a member of the University of Kufa's International Advisory Board and is Chair of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University's Advisory Committee for Health Technology and Informatics. He is founding Chair of the Management Board of the Benburb Priory Library and Museum. He is also Chair of the Independent Advisory Group for the University Alliance Doctoral Training Alliance (DTA).

Gerry McKenna has received many plaudits including: Membership (and Vice Presidency) of the Royal Irish Academy, Freedom of the Borough of Coleraine, Honorary Doctorates from the National University of Ireland and Queen’s University Belfast, Coleraine Business Person of the Year, Keys to the City of Portland Maine, and Honouree of the Harvard Friends of Celtic Studies, and the Flax Trust, New York. He is Deputy Lieutenant for Co. Londonderry.

Major Academic, Research and Knowledge Transfer Developments led by Professor Gerry McKenna MRIA


1980 - development of BSc (Hons.) Biomedical Sciences (Medical Laboratory Sciences) programme at the New University of Ulster (NUU)

- development of UK's first BSc (Hons.) Nursing Studies programme for registered nurses

-  co-founder of the Northern Ireland Diet and Health Study


1985 -  founding Director of Biomedical Sciences Research Centre at the University of Ulster (UU)


1985 - development of UK’s first MSc Biomedical Sciences programme


1987 - development of BSc (Hons.) Human Nutrition programme


1989 - receipt of 3 rating for Biomedical Sciences in Research Assessment Exercise (RAE)


1989 - development of UK’s first approved BSc (Hons.) Radiograpy programme


1992 - award of 4 rating for Biomedical Sciences in RAE


1993 - founding chair of UU’s Research Policy and Practice Committee; resulting inter alia in establishment of policy of research selectivity


1993 - establishment of Irish Universities Nutrition Alliance (IUNA)


1993 - development of UK’s first BSc (Hons.) Clinical Science programme


1993 - co-founder of Heads of University Centres of Biomedical Sciences (HUCBMS)


1994 - development of Faculty of Science at UU


1995 -  development of BSc (Hons.) Optometry programme at UU


1995 - development of franchised human nutrition and dietetics programmes with the University of Hong Kong


1996 - award of highest possible, 5*, rating for Biomedical Sciences in RAE and hugely improved overall RAE performance as a result of policy of research selectivity


1996 - development of Master of Research (MRes) programme

- establishment of Northern Ireland Centre for Food and Health (now Nutrition Innovation Centre for Food and Health) (NICHE) with EU Structural Funds


1996 -  establishment of UU’s first Research Graduate School in Faculty of Science followed by development of Research Graduate Schools in all faculties


1996 - development of UU’s first professional doctoral programme (D Med Sci)


1997 - establishment of UUTECH Ltd - to promote knowledge transfer including spin-out companies

1997 - establishment of BSc (Hons.) Equine Studies in association with the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE)

- establishment of UU Visiting Scholars and Research Student exchange
programmes with leading US universities

- co-founder of Universities Challenge Fund (NI) to support spin-out companies

- co-founder of Northern Ireland Centre for Entrepreneurship (NICENT)


1999 - establishment of ‘Step Up’ programme - to support students from disadvantaged backgrounds in gaining access to high demand university programmes


2000 - co-founder of Northern Ireland Science Park (NISP)


2000 - reorganisation of UU faculty structures on academic lines including the development of faculties of Life and Health Sciences, and Social Sciences

2000 -
award of funding from Atlantic Philanthropies to support development of plans for refurbishment of Foyle Arts Centre to house creative arts at Magee campus

- establishment of UU Science Research Parks (UUSRP) Ltd with subsequent funding from the Northern Ireland Science Park to develop Science Research Parks at Coleraine and Magee

- establishment of Department of Quality Assurance and Enhancement led by a Pro Vice Chancellor - leading inter alia to a hugely positive transformation of the University's performance in teaching and learning as assessed by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA)

- award of highest possible, 5*, rating for Biomedical Sciences and Celtic Studies in RAE and 3 other 5 ratings as part of a further major improvement in the University's research performance


2001 - co-initiator and -architect of Support Programme for University Research (SPUR) 1 (£40m) with funding from Atlantic Philanthropies and the Department for Employment and Learning (DEL) - resulting in the establishment of the Centre of Molecular Biosciences (CMB) at Coleraine and the Academy for Irish Cultural Heritages (AICH) at the Magee campus


2001 - establishment of research pavilions at Magee campus


2001 - establishment of UU ‘virtual campus’, Campus One, to promote e-learning (including inter alia the development of the world's first fully online Master's programme in Biomedical Sciences)


2001 - UU shortlisted for Sunday Times University of the Year


2002 - establishment of Science Innovation units with funding from Atlantic Philanthropies and NI government at Magee, Coleraine and Jordanstown campuses to house fledgling spin-out companies

2002 - establishment of Ireland Funds' international lecture programme by international statespersons and installing John Hume as Tip O’Neill Chair

2002 - establishment of ‘Sir Derek Birley’ Learning Resource Centre (library) with funding from Atlantic Philanthropies at Jordanstown campus

2002 - establishment of academic linked programmes and collaborations with Liaoning Province in China

2003 - founding chair of Universities Ireland - to promote cooperation between the 9 universities in Ireland

2003 - establishment of new Learning Resource Centre (library) with funding from Atlantic Philanthropies at Magee campus


2003 -  purchase of additional 50 acres at Jordanstown campus to enable future campus expansion

2003 - UU ranked 27th in UK in terms of 'research power' and 20th in QR funding 


2003 - integration of Northern Ireland Hotel and Catering College into UU


2003 - development of BSc (Hons.) Architecture programme


2003 - co-initiator and -architect of SPUR 2 (£60m)supported by Atlantic Philanthropies and the Department for Employment and Learning (DEL) - resulting in the establishment of the Centre for Art, Technology and Design at Belfast, the Transitional Justice Institute at Jordanstown and Magee and the Centre for Media Research at Coleraine and Belfast


2003 - award of £10m government funding for Belfast campus refurbishment

- UU research income exceeds £44m

- UU becomes one of the top 10 (8th) most popular UK universities for undergraduate applications and the largest university in Ireland


2004 - establishment of 10 ‘Research Institutes’ at UU to maintain and promote world class research in selected areas

2004 - establishment of collaborative linkage with Babson College, Mass. to develop joint programmes in entrepreneurship  


2004 - establishment of ‘Harry Ferguson Engineering Village’ at Jordanstown with funding from the UK Joint Infrastructure Fund (JIF), EU Structural Funds, the Department for Employment and Learning (DEL) and the Department for Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI), incorporating centres in bioengineering, nanotechnology, sustainable energy and fire safety technology


2004 - founding Northern Ireland chair, US-Ireland R&D Partnership - to promote collaboration between leading research centres in the US and Ireland


2004 - funding agreement with Invest NI to establish Intelligent Systems Centre at Magee campus