Guns, guts and gardens

September 10, 2004

What does it take to lead a university? Our survey reveals that as well as the usual traits, an off-the-wall hobby and a cast-iron stomach can come in handy. Anthea Lipsett reports.

As higher education's top brass, otherwise known as vice-chancellors and principals, gather in Oxford next week for their annual residential meeting, ambitious young academics may reflect on what it takes to reach the top.

Now, thanks to an exclusive survey, The Times Higher can reveal what makes the modern vice-chancellor and, perhaps, offer clues on how to emulate that success. The typical vice-chancellor is likely to be male, possibly foreign, likely to hold a science or other numerate degree, preferably a doctorate, and likely to have spent time in industry. An Oxbridge background is not a necessity, but it is not uncommon.

Vice-chancellor appointments are reflecting the ever-more global nature of academia. Michael Wright, vice-chancellor of Aston University, said: "I think it mirrors moves in business, commerce and industry. Universities try to get the best individual for the job, and it's a global market."

He cited high-profile appointments such as Alan Gilbert, an Australian, who is president and vice-chancellor of the merged Manchester University.

The trend for appointing business leaders to head universities has backfired, according to Les Ebdon, vice-chancellor of Luton University. "A few years ago it was thought a good idea to bring people from outside higher education into universities, but I don't think people thought that worked. More academics have good business skills now," Professor Ebdon said.

Michael Sterling, the vice-chancellor of Birmingham University, spent time at Associated Electrical Industries, which later became the General Electric Co (GEC).

He said: "I would counsel caution because the worlds are so different. It's a brave person who challenges the CEO in industry, but academics are fiercely independent - that's what they are paid to do. It would be a sad day if all university values were straightforwardly commercial."

The typical vice-chancellor is the product of selective schooling, often a good grammar school.

Professor Ebdon said: "It obviously lifted me out of a corporation estate into Imperial College London. It was very formative and an important route for upwardly mobile lads in the 1950s and 1960s."

Although a public-school background is not something most vice-chancellors advertise, it has proved no handicap for the small band who declare it.

Eric Thomas, vice-chancellor of Bristol University, attended Ampleforth, the country's pre-eminent Roman Catholic independent school, and Newcastle University's Christopher Edwards went to Malborough College.

In addition to a sound education, a good hobby is an important part of the curriculum vitae. Among vice-chancellors, hobbies range from the highly individual and vaguely sweet "arctophilia" - collecting teddy bears, that is -enjoyed by Steve Smith of Exeter University, to the predictably popular walking.

A far more martial hobby is enjoyed by Professor Wright, who likes shooting. He is quick to point out that, despite his skill with a gun, he has never shot anything living. "I just don't shoot bunny rabbits," he said.

Professor Ebdon, a practical sort of a man, is a weekend gardener who especially enjoys growing vegetables. "I'm particularly proud of my tomatoes, peppers and (with the aid of a greenhouse) melons," he said.

Growing fruit in a greenhouse requires pollination with a small paint brush -the sort of careful attention to detail that applies equally well in the role of a vice-chancellor, Professor Ebdon said.

"It's super therapy. I spend all week in meetings with people and [getting into the garden] does mean for an hour or so at the weekend I can completely unwind coaxing vegetables to grow," he said.

Sir David Wallace of Loughborough University fills some of his spare time indulging in mycophagy (eating mushrooms). He also lists eating at La Potini re, in the seaside town of Gullane, near Edinburgh, and running - perhaps to burn off the calories.

A hearty appetite for food and fitness is a must for every vice-chancellor, according to Professor Sterling. He said stamina and a strong constitution were needed to cope with the perpetual socialising. "You are seen as the stomach of the university," he said.

But perhaps the best piece of advice for an ambitious academic comes from Peter Knight, vice-chancellor of the University of Central England, who, like Diana Green of Sheffield Hallam University, enjoys flying light aircraft.

Dr Knight maintains that it is best to be "not unduly charismatic". And, whatever else they may be, Dr Knight said, vice-chancellors could never be described as being made of "the right stuff".
Research by Katie Law


Of the UK's 117 vice-chancellors

  • 15 are women, 102 are men
  • There are 3 dames, 5 sirs, 10 professor sirs, 81 professors (not in the sirs), 10 doctors, 2 Misters and a Ms
  • 78 are English, 10 Scots, 5 Welshmen, 6 Americans, 2 Australians, 2 South Africans, 2 Northern Irish, 2 New Zealanders, 1 Irish and 1 Canadian
  • 70 are scientists, 37 non-scientists
  • 29 do not hold a PhD, 81 do.
  • 34 went to Oxbridge
  • went to grammar school and at least nine to independent school
  • 58 do sport

V-cs' hobbies

  • like walking - the most popular hobby
  • 21 like to watch sport
  • 20 love music
  • 18 are bookworms
  • 17 are gardeners
  • 9 enjoy cricket
  • 9 are opera fans
  • 8 play golf
  • 8 like sailing
  • 6 value family time
  • 6 are football fans
  • 4 like to travel
  • 2 fly light aircraft
  • Others hobbies include: wood-turning, teddy-bear collecting, classic motorbikes, genealogy, Western riding, collecting cartoons, fireworks, ornithology, gastronomy, crosswords, mycophagy, gardening, lay preaching and ham radio

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