Crossing the Line: verbatim play probes tension at top of universities

Premiere of work based on 16 frank interviews with vice-chancellors and the chair of governors

June 11, 2015
Laurel and Hardy
Source: Getty
Discord: a member of the audience questioned whether it was possible for a governor to both ‘coach’ and ‘punish’ a v-c

A new play based on interviews with vice-chancellors and chairs of governors that hopes to throw fresh light on the often fraught relationships at the top of universities has had an early public airing.

Crossing the Line – which uses lines from the interviews but anonymised to protect individuals – was offered as “a provocation” to an invited audience at Regent’s University London last week.

It is based on work by Judith Ackroyd, pro vice-chancellor and dean of the Faculty of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, and Jill Robinson, executive dean for the Faculty of Health and Sciences at University Campus Suffolk, who carried out 16 frank, wide-ranging interviews with vice-chancellors and chairs of governors.

Both of them, according to Professor Ackroyd, are “fascinated by the idea of performing research” and developing “more holistic modes of sharing findings”. As well as standard academic outputs, therefore, they also identified the key themes and invited writer Richard Conlon to dramatise the material. He did so using verbatim quotations from the research structured by a parodic version of Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood.

The play offered examples of what can go wrong between those leading universities and, according to Professor Ackroyd, may help to fill in the silence that often greets the question of “What do you think the v-c/chair doesn’t tell you?”

One revealing anecdote comes from “Chair Miller”, who recalled a vice-chancellor friend telling him: “‘I’ve got on really well with all my chairs…You couldn’t get a cigarette paper between me and my chair.’ Six weeks later, he didn’t have a job.”

Other chairs offered views such as: “The v-c is an employee like any other” and “We are here to keep the v-c’s ego in check”. They also reflected on the ideal of the “critical friend” and how to strike the right balance between “steering” and “rowing”, being too “cosy” and being too “challenging”. 

One of the vice-chancellors also worried about the dangers of “mega-ego…when we put on these emperor’s robes”. Another wondered about the trend for “appointing old, on short tenures”, when “probably four of the most successful vice-chancellors in the land at the moment…were appointed young and have long tenures”.

A third expressed his belief that “boards should have higher education expertise on them”, since “we talk a language, we talk gobbledygook. Can you imagine a company making chocolate and not having somebody on the board that knows something about chocolate-making?”

Audience members offered further thoughts on the factors that can prevent vice-chancellors and their chairs from working together as harmoniously as they might. One was “the lack of a sophisticated shared vocabulary”. Another was staff “making the governing body their power base” as a way of undermining the vice-chancellor. Someone asked whether it is still possible for the same person to coach the vice-chancellor and to hold them to account.

Even more fundamental was the question from a well-known vice-chancellor: “Are we going to have to start paying and professionalising the role of the chair?”

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Article originally published as: Work of friction: play probes tension at top (11 June 2015)

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