V-c spotting

They may (almost) all be white men in suits but that doesn’t mean that all vice-chancellors are the same, says Jack Grove. So which tribe does your v-c belong to?

November 15, 2012



Credit: David Lyttleton


Scrolling through some of the 20,000 tweets made by Dominic Shellard, vice-chancellor of De Montfort University, it quickly becomes clear that he is not a typical university head.

“New Jack Reacher book arrives Thursday. I absolutely cannot wait!”; “Just done a gym session…chilling now in the cafe”; and “Sounds ace!” are all messages that could easily have come from an excitable fresher newly arrived on campus.

But does this steady stream of football banter, jokes with students and staff, and off-the-wall observations on life - mixed with more official university announcements - offer some lessons for more traditional vice-chancellors?

According to Katrina Gulliver, a research fellow in history at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich, who has studied Twitter use by academics, it does. Shellard’s communication with staff and students across the university is impressive, she thinks, and “he seems to make a good effort to reply to everyone who tries to engage him”.

An expert on post-war British theatre, Shellard’s unconventional approach does not stop with tweets. Last week, he danced to the music of 1980s power-ballad queen Bonnie Tyler alongside 1,000 others for a world record “flash mob” attempt. In the run-up to the charity event, he tweeted short video clips of his “rehearsals”, donning a blond wig and demonstrating his dance moves.

Such stunts, and Shellard’s irreverent style, may not be to everyone’s liking but they are certainly attention-grabbing and serve to combat the “grey administrator” or “careerist” labels sometimes applied to university leaders.

Shellard’s approach is atypical but are there skill sets, characteristics, backgrounds and styles of leadership that the vice-chancellors of today more commonly share? Here, Times Higher Education examines some archetypes.

The social media-savvy v-c

Dominic Shellard’s use of Twitter is a hallmark of his accessible style and other vice-chancellors have also embraced the medium.

Almost as prolific a tweeter is Patrick McGhee, vice-chancellor of the University of East London. His 14,000 or so messages focus on witty observations about higher education and politics and his spiky, opinionated tweets give him visibility as higher education stories break. “Patrick McGhee clearly ‘gets’ Twitter,” observes Gulliver. “He posts regularly about the sport he’s watching and other aspects of his life. He seems like the kind of person it would be fun to have a drink with.”

While Twitter can be an excellent way to drum up interest, university leaders who use it to advertise their institution to students and the world must exercise caution, Gulliver warns. Some accounts, she says, feel too corporate and “seem more like a PR feed, with lots of tweets that just read like press releases”.

Shellard avoids this by sending out lively messages to his 4,000-plus followers about quirky, unusual events at De Montfort or by praising the achievements of students and staff. His “cheerleading” highlights university partnerships such as one with the shoe designer Manolo Blahnik - who is judging a student design competition - and another with the Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, who offered an internship after De Montfort sponsored the premiere of his musical Finding Neverland.

Craig Calhoun, the new director of the London School of Economics, could be one to watch in the Twittersphere in coming months. Unafraid to speak his mind, politically engaged and comfortable with the medium’s informal style, Calhoun was quick to arrange a live Q&A session on Twitter with staff and students. The session generated more than 400 questions - from government policy on international visas, and differences between US and UK students, to his gym workout routines - and was hailed by one student as a refreshing contrast to the “splashy PR” press releases generated by many universities when a new head takes office.

But the key challenge for senior university administrators who use social media is to “strike a balance between seeming approachable, and yet retaining the gravitas of their position”, says Gulliver.

The Whitehall warrior

Former senior civil servants are increasingly found among the ranks of university leaders.

With their experience of running vast Whitehall departments, implementing new policies and rubbing shoulders with ministers, it is easy to see why cool-headed mandarins can appear a good bet for appointment panels.

Recent arrivals from the Civil Service include Sir David Bell, former permanent secretary at the Department for Education, who took over at the University of Reading in January, while Sir Adrian Smith (a former principal of Queen Mary, University of London) moved from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to lead the University of London in September.

Others include Stephen Marston, vice-chancellor at the University of Gloucestershire, who arrived from BIS (where he was director general for higher education funding and reform) in August 2011.

Appointing well-connected civil servants who know how best to promote universities to government at a time of financial uncertainty is beneficial, believes Michael Shattock, former registrar at the University of Warwick. “Universities are worried about upsetting the government at a time when finances are so imperilled,” he says. “So having someone like David Bell at Reading could be very useful for the sector.”

While his own preference is to appoint vice-chancellors who have come through the more traditional academic route - “someone who will have sympathy with academics” - he adds that, “it is no bad thing to have people from other walks of life”.

Other heads familiar with Whitehall include Sir Keith O’Nions, president and rector of Imperial College London, a geology professor who later held senior posts in the Ministry of Defence and other government departments.

The rise of the Whitehall technocrat, however, may also have its drawbacks.

Those used to operating behind the scenes can grow used to the shadows and baulk at openly criticising policy, cautions Shattock, who believes vice-chancellors should be public figures. “In the old days, people used to hang on the words of university vice-chancellors as they gave their address at the start of term,” he says.

“They would tear into the government on various issues and it would be in the newspapers the day after. People like Peter Swinnerton-Dyer at Cambridge - a brilliant speaker and very influential - Noel Annan at University College London, and the heads of the old ‘civic’ universities such as Manchester and Leeds were very prominent figures.”

The business bigwig

They’ve made it in the City, bossed the boardroom but how will they fare in the hallowed groves of academe?

Often boasting a successful research career before entering business, émigrés from commerce boast streetwise business skills, managerial experience and offer universities the tantalising prospect of pulling in more funds through entrepreneurial activity.

Examples include Sir Christopher Snowden, vice-chancellor at the University of Surrey, a former chief executive of a high-tech electronics firm and the next head of Universities UK, and David Maguire, vice-chancellor of the University of Greenwich, a former chief scientist at a Californian software company.

Neil Gorman, vice-chancellor at Nottingham Trent University and a veterinary scientist, was global director for science and technology at Mars, Incorporated, the confectionery and pet food giant, after leading its UK research division.

Sir Howard Davies, who ran the City regulator the Financial Services Authority, was later director of the London School of Economics before resigning last year over the school’s links to the former Libyan dictator Mu’ammer Gaddafi.

These appointments, too, reflect the changing landscape of higher education funding, reflects Shattock. “Pre-1980, universities were looking primarily for academic leaders as they were 80 per cent funded by the state,” he says. “The job was primarily academic, with the registrar or the bursar looking after the business end.

“By the 1990s, the job had changed. The proportion of income coming from the state had fallen and was continuing to fall. “Pre- and post-92 universities are much more dependent on their own decision-making for their survival. Management had to be added to academic leadership.”

Other industry movers and shakers in higher education include Dame Nancy Rothwell, who is a non-executive director of the multinational drug giant AstraZeneca as well as vice-chancellor at the University of Manchester.

A THE survey earlier this year showed that 51 university leaders had paid roles besides their day jobs, often in industry.

But Fred Inglis, honorary professor of cultural history at the University of Warwick, feels that the influx of more managerial vice-chancellors embodied in business leaders has had a chilling effect on free speech within universities. Vice-chancellors of previous eras were primarily academics, so were happier to accept criticism and embrace maverick thinkers or their outspoken critics, he thinks. “Randolph Quirk at the University of London understood just how quarrelsome and fissiparous an organisation his was. He actually left it more open and democratic than he found it,” he says. “Gareth Roberts at Sheffield was also of the old school. He never spoke the unspeakable jargon of managerialism and appointed chairs, in his own words, to ‘people I like, who have a First and some proper irreverence’.”

Writing in THE earlier this year, Inglis argued that vice-chancellors have “become chief executives” and that “the language of managerialism has rotted from within the never-very-strong value of solidarity drifting through the academic body”. He accused today’s vice-chancellors as a group of “timidity and acquiescence” and said they had “done almost nothing to defend the idea of the university, not as a business but as a fortress of civilisation”.

The international globetrotter

With the globalisation of higher education continuing apace, a new class of jet-setting vice-chancellor has emerged.

This type is equally comfortable running a university or research council in the UK, US or Australia.

Australian vice-chancellors currently plying their trade in Britain include Malcolm Gillies, the embattled leader of London Metropolitan University; Martin Bean, vice-chancellor of The Open University; and Christina Slade, the new head of Bath Spa University, a former dean of humanities at Macquarie University in Sydney.

Those who have headed the other way include Paul Wellings, former head of the University of Lancaster, now running the University of Wollongong, and the newly retired Steven Schwartz, an Australian who left Brunel University in 2006 to run Macquarie having previously headed Murdoch University in Perth.

Imports from the US are also on the rise. Former Rhodes scholar Sir Rick Trainor runs King’s College London and the LSE’s Calhoun is a sociologist originally from the US. He has taught at universities in China, France, Eritrea, Sudan and Norway.

A few years as provost of Yale University features on the CVs of both Andrew Hamilton, vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford, and the former University of Cambridge head Alison Richard. The Irish-born political scientist Louise Richardson is now in charge at St Andrews University after teaching at Harvard for many years.

However, such well-travelled academic leaders are not always embraced by their new universities. The former University of Auckland leader John Hood, who also has a business background, divided opinion during his time in charge at Oxford and his reforms were opposed by many scholars.

Casting the net widely does not always guarantee that the right candidate is selected, believes Shattock, who has sat on several appointment panels. “Lord Patten really fought to bring John Hood to Oxford but Hood ended up upsetting a lot of people,” he claims.

The late starter

Not all university leaders come through the usual channels.

Nick Petford, vice-chancellor at the University of Northampton, was a van driver before becoming a mature student at Goldsmiths, University of London, and a geologist at the universities of Cambridge and Kingston.

“I left school at 16 and started work in a factory,” recalls Petford. “I did a range of jobs - I was a refrigeration engineer, drove a van - but this was not some type of sabbatical period. This was what I thought my life was.

“The second time I was made redundant, I enrolled on an access course at Southwark College while I was on the dole. It’s amazing to think I was driving a van at the start of the 1980s but by the end (of the decade) I was a Cambridge don.”

Others have also taken unusual paths to the top of higher education.

Mary Stuart, vice-chancellor of the University of Lincoln since 2009, moved from South Africa to England in the 1980s and worked as a drama teacher in London. Health problems associated with the birth of her twin daughters meant she had to leave her job, and she and her husband were evicted from their rented bedsit. The young family were briefly housed in a hostel for the homeless before they were offered a council house. While looking after her baby daughters, Stuart took an Open University degree in sociology, kick-starting her academic career.

Only 20 per cent of Britain’s vice-chancellors attended private school (26 per cent went to state comprehensives, 39 per cent went to grammar schools and there are no data on the remainder), according to a THE survey published in March 2011, but Petford believes that university heads are nonetheless “a quite homogeneous group in terms of class”.

“There is not much diversity within the body of vice-chancellors,” he contends. “They don’t reflect the students who they serve, particularly in terms of women and ethnic minorities. Whether we should try to do something about it is a different question altogether.”

Yet the diversity of university leaders has certainly increased since the 1960s, according to the historian Lord Briggs, one of the first university leaders to come from a working-class background.

“There was a definite contrast between vice-chancellors of my generation and those before me,” reflects Lord Briggs, who grew up in a working-class area of Keighley, Yorkshire, before attending Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge and leading the University of Sussex from 1967 to 1976. “There was a very small group of people before the Sixties who became vice-chancellors - sometimes they were even related to each other. There were the two Morris boys - Charles and Philip - who ran Leeds and Bristol, respectively.”

The local and long-serving head

While most universities typically experience a change of leader every five to seven years, others are happy for their chief to stay put.

“Changing leaders every four or five years is bad for an institution,” argues John Craven, who is stepping down next July as vice-chancellor at the University of Portsmouth after more than 16 years in charge. “It’s no good for the institution [to be] thinking about upcoming change rather than getting on with the job of teaching students.”

Craven’s longevity at Portsmouth has helped him to build strong links with local businesses, employers and the wider community, he believes. “This university cannot operate as an ivory tower, having little to do with the city. We are right in the middle of Portsmouth with strong roots in the city - we have to have a strong relationship with the Navy, the Ministry of Defence and all sorts of organisations here.” Other long-serving vice-chancellors include Peter Fidler, who has been at the University of Sunderland since 1999, while Michael Driscoll has led Middlesex University since 1996 - and both are also proud of their strong local links.

David Warner, who was vice-chancellor of Swansea Metropolitan University for nearly 15 years before its recent merger with the University of Wales Trinity St David, says his decision to “dig into the locality” had also been crucial for his university’s success. “I have never once been to a meeting of Universities UK,” says Warner, who remains as senior provost at the newly merged institution. “That was a deliberate decision as I wanted to concentrate all my efforts into the region and the principality,” he says. Taking various chairs on municipal, business and charitable committees in the area was vital for the leaders of large regional universities, as well as the success of the university itself, he believes.

Steve West was appointed vice-chancellor at the University of the West of England four years ago but has been based there since 1995. Establishing local links over time is crucial for universities, which are expected to play a larger civic role than in the past, he says. “You cannot do that unless you know how to interact with industry and the public sector. That is about networking and building opportunities to promote the university.

“I am about to start as president of Business West [the local chamber of commerce] - a post last held by the chairman of Airbus. Universities are now seen as a big part of the business community - they are important places for shaping the community around them.”

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