Chris Llewellyn Smith, the head of Cern, will see in the millennium with what his predecessor calls the "best job in British higher education".
Professor Llewellyn Smith will take over as provost of University College London after Sir Derek Roberts, Britain's highest paid vice-chancellor, retires in April next year.
Having been out of the British university system for five years, the theoretical particle physicist - whose sister is principal of St Hilda's, Oxford's last all-female college - said he is looking forward to returning to universities.
"It is our job to convince government and the public of the importance of higher education and research and to make sure there is a bright future," he said. He has been encouraged by some government ministers' remarks and by the recent House of Commons Science and Technology Committee's urgent call for more money for research. But like everyone he awaits the outcome of the comprehensive spending review. "The big question is will there be the resources behind it?" he said.
"The United Kingdom cannot sustain more than 100 top-class research universities," he said. "We need diversity. The question is how to encourage diversity and give it its due worth."
Professor Llewellyn Smith acknowledges the need for tuition fees as a means of generating revenue to maintain quality in universities, but he said the challenge will be to maintain access. Further, he warned: "Until now we have had no evidence that the money from tuition fees will stay in the system."
Unlike Sir Derek, who learned his management skills in industry, Professor Llewelyn Smith's introduction to management came at Oxford University, where he was given the task of merging five physics departments into one.
At Cern, handling an annual budget similar to that of a large university, he has wrestled with similar tough decisions as the organisation's budget for fundamental research has shrunk. He negotiated the United States commitment that secured the future of the Large Hadron Collider and agreed a radical initiative cutting take-home pay for Cern staff in return for extra holiday, thereby boosting recruitment opportunities for young researchers.
Now with UCL in his sights, he said he is looking forward to a "big, big challenge and a very interesting job" overseeing the future of a vast range of subjects. "I see my job at UCL as the person who has to keep the overall picture in mind, the strategic vision. As for UCL, I think it is a vibrant and exciting place. If UCL cannot survive at a decent level, the whole system is in trouble."