End-of-year appraisal

After 12 months as Reading’s v-c, David Bell reflects on the pleasures (and occasional pains) of leading the institution

January 24, 2013

As the end of my first year at the University of Reading approached, someone at the institution suggested that I should have my head examined. Was this a sign, I wondered, that only the mad or the bad need apply to be a vice-chancellor?

I was reassured - I think - when it was explained to me that researchers were looking at brain scans of chief executives from various sectors to examine their decision-making processes.

But that got me thinking: what kind of decision-making process had led me to become a vice-chancellor?

After all, apart from a brief sojourn as a tutor at The Open University in the late 1980s, I had not previously worked in higher education.

I realised very quickly that it was good to be back in an institution (an educational institution, that is). I was lucky to spend a decade in the rarefied world of national government, but just occasionally, it felt as if you were accountable for everything and responsible for nothing.

In the university, I feel I am part of a community. Indeed, since Reading has everything from buses to bedrooms, security to sport and libraries to leisure, it is like being in charge of a small town.

I have been reminded, too, of the buzz that comes from being in a place of learning. Despite the many other pressures that bear down on my diary, I have committed myself to making time each week to listen and talk to as many staff and students as possible.

This has made my transition from Planet Whitehall easier. More importantly, I have learned, and continue to learn, a huge amount about the complicated organism that is a university.

When I started, I had little idea if I was doing what vice-chancellors were supposed to do. I wasn’t clueless (well, maybe a bit) as I had run other organisations before, but leading a university is not like running a business or a government department.

Finding the right metaphor is not easy. Is a university a series of overlapping tribes or a loose confederation of interests? I can say with some certainty that it is not “corporate”, but it has to be run as a business.

Equally, it is more - much more - than a collection of individuals who happen to inhabit the same space. Understanding the culture of their university is, I suspect, work in progress even for the most experienced vice-chancellor.

Looking back over my 2012 diary, I am struck by how much of my time was spent on the public-facing part of the role (perhaps a career as a diplomat would have been better preparation), but luckily this played to my naturally outgoing style. Projecting the university to the outside world is a key role for any vice-chancellor.

There were moments of elation when a strong new appointment was made, a major research grant was procured or a student group put on a brilliant performance. There was also the unalloyed “feel-good factor” at graduation time, even though I felt like dipping my hands in a bucket of ice after the x-thousandth handshake last summer. But “doing strategy” is hard work when so much is shifting around you. And there were also lessons learned about the frenetic activity as the end of term approaches and the natural competitiveness between vice-chancellors, despite their public good manners.

One memorable event last year built on the Reading tradition of naming halls of residence after dead vice-chancellors (a fate I hope to avoid for a good while yet). In September we reopened Childs Hall, titled in honour of the university’s first vice-chancellor, W.M. Childs, who wrote that “universities are living things; they feel, think and do … they sometimes do beautiful and remarkable things; they dream and imagine”.

My 12 months in post pale into insignificance against the nearly 40 years Childs spent at Reading in various roles, but I now have a sense of what my illustrious predecessor meant: roll on the next 39.

Sir David Bell has been vice-chancellor at the University of Reading since January 2012. Previously he was permanent secretary at the Department for Education.

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