Conducting material

Malcolm Gillies on music, leadership and youth

June 28, 2012

It is coming up for five years since I became a vice-chancellor in London. I’m told this is the average length of vice-chancellorial office in the UK. By US standards I’m still a youngster, as the average president there is now more than 60 years old.

July 2007 seems a long time ago; certainly a lot longer than five years. Back then, Gordon Brown had just become prime minister. Despite sub-prime smoke signals from the US, a financial conflagration didn’t seem on the horizon. And universities were pretty comfortably off, sometimes even a bit neglectful of their teaching mission - or so it seemed to me, coming from abroad.

Then, one Friday in September that year, people started queuing outside Northern Rock branches - and the world has never been quite the same since. Now you can push tens of billions to support this bailout or that “stimulus” and it hardly makes the headlines. That is because it doesn’t seem to make much difference: Europe is contagiously sick; the UK is part of Europe.

The questions I’ve been asked over those five years have sometimes been bewildering. The Princess Royal asked me once why I had come to the UK. Caught off guard, I could only think of the answer I gave at immigration control: “Skills shortage, Ma’am,” I cheekily replied, to the bemusement of other London vice-chancellors in the reception line.

But here’s one of the most persistent questions I am asked: “How does a musician manage to become a vice-chancellor?” (This question is rarely asked by musicians, I hasten to add.) It is as if this is some kind of confidence trick or freak event, that vice-chancellors should somehow always be engineers, sociologists, medical doctors or corporate executives. Actually, musicians are now quite proportionately represented in the ranks of British vice-chancellors, and there are many highly proficient amateurs and music lovers besides.

I think a common view is that the required skill sets are a long way apart. You know, mathematicians add up, humanists write, engineers build things, but what do musicians do? They play and listen, often at the same time. And there is that mysterious complexity of an activity that is brainy, yet also physical and deliberately emotional. Playing and listening, and even being in tune with feelings, are pretty useful skills to a vice-chancellor, especially in these more student-centred days.

Over this past week, perhaps because of a flurry of interest in a new generation of conductors, I have twice been asked if being a vice-chancellor is like being an orchestral conductor. Having done a bit of both, I have to say it is a superficially appealing comparison.

Hey, the orchestra even looks a bit like a well-scrubbed-up university, with its four faculties (like the woodwind), their departments (like the trumpets) and the rank-and-file lecturers (back-desk violas), all in their time-honoured positions.

And, I’m sure many would agree, conductors are a bit like vice-chancellors, too, in that they don’t actually do anything. They are the highly paid ones, up there on the special podium (often with a sturdy guard rail to make sure they don’t fall off), who don’t actually make a sound (or who don’t do teaching or research?) but wave their arms around instead, apparently directing the traffic.

That’s not quite fair, however, for even directing that aural (or academic) traffic is often a non-trivial exercise. In really inspired hands, the conductor does something quite alchemical: making the music something much greater than the sum of its trafficking parts. Then, it is like the dish of a master chef where the base ingredients are utterly transformed into something quite exceptionally other.

But something has happened in the world of conductors over the past 20 years. More and more of them seem to be Finnish, and all born young to greatness. While the inherited image of the conductor (or vice-chancellor) is often a man whose “life begins at 60”, as Andrew Clark pointed out recently in a Financial Times article titled “The modern maestro”, this new breed of conductors is young and not always male.

The secret of the Finns’ success seems to lie in their approach to the music: humility over narcissism. The promotion photos often tell the story in an instant - the sweeping dramatic gestures of the aspiring superstar, or the economical servant of the music, giving it full rein to speak for itself. One seeks to control the music, the other seeks to set it free.

I guess it is the same with vice-chancellors. Their obituaries suggest there are two types: those who “left their stamp indelibly on the institution” (often through great building campaigns), and those who preferred to draw something out from the learning community that is the university.

Clark’s observation that the 60-plus conductor is no longer the norm prompts the thought that an age revolution may - and should - be on the way for university leaders, too. Why don’t we have 30- or 40-year-old vice-chancellors, like these magnificent young conductors? Is having years of “experience” really such a prerequisite to high office? Some of our most successful movers and shakers in private higher education suggest it isn’t.

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