Glasnost comes to Bournemouth

January 20, 1995

A certain amount of caginess is inevitable in new vice chancellors as they accustom themselves to their role as half human and half the embodiment of a large and complex academic institution.

But Gillian Slater, in post for less than two months at Bournemouth University after moving from her previous post as pro vice chancellor at Manchester Metropolitan, is clear on one personal performance criterion: "If I find myself tied to my office and unable to get out and talk to people, I will have failed."

This operating style is already being noticed in an institution that a year ago was run very differently. Then staff surveys pointed to poor internal communication and a widespread belief that rank-and-file views were ignored by management. The Natfhe branch spoke of a "climate of fear".

Professor Slater, 45, is careful not to comment on the events that led to the resignation of her predecessor Bernard MacManus, although she does pay warm tribute to the role played by Dudley Gibson -- now pro vice chancellor for resources and finance -- as acting vice chancellor in the interim.

But she is not pretending that the problems that provoked last year's unrest have been eliminated: "You can't change an institution in six months. There is still a job to be done, but a good start has already been made."

A review of academic structures is providing the opportunity to show her commitment to open management, with staff each invited to put forward suggestions and a series of meetings taking her to every department.

She says: "There are a few things in our structure that strike me as anomalies. This gives me the chance to find out whether the staff see them as anomalous and also to get some sense of what makes the place tick." At the same time she is looking at staff representation on the university board, and expects to bring proposals to the next meeting.

One possible reason for structural oddities is the speed of growth and change in the institution over the past five years. Bournemouth was granted corporate status as recently as 1989, and only became a university in 1992. The changes threw it into a world where it shares a common funding formula with such different institutions as Cambridge or Imperial College, and may be compared to them in league tables.

Professor Slater accepts league tables as one of the realities of modern academic life, while reserving the right to be angry when the compilers fail to explain their methods. Herself a mathematician, she is unlikely to glaze over when the numbers come thick and fast. One statistic she would like to see broadcast as widely as possible is the employment record of Bournemouth graduates, and she also points to the importance of value added.

"Given the choice I would rather take an applicant with 3Es from Moss Side than one with 3Cs from Charterhouse," she says.

She is determined that Bournemouth should not be thrown off the course defined by its mission as a "vocational university", a phrase already prominent in her vocabulary. With this in mind, teaching ability or potential will be the main priority in making most academic appointments, with research second. But at the same time she hopes to develop areas of research excellence -- pointing to the four for computing animation in the last selectivity exercise and she predicts that by the end of the century: "We will have around half a dozen areas of research excellence, with at least one an area we do not even do at the moment."

She also expects Bournemouth, the only university in Dorset or Wiltshire, to develop means of serving students off-campus.

"I am particularly interested in ways in which technology can be used to help students work away from the campus. By the end of the century I believe we will have more students, but fewer of them will be based here."

It is tempting to conclude that modern vice chancellors need minds like computers and the skills of a tight-rope walker to master the complex, often conflicting needs and interests of their institution. Help might just be close at hand. Among the student groups listed as meeting in the same building as her office last week was the Circus Skills Society.

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