I'm a lumper, not a splitter, says Tyneside reinventor

August 3, 2007

Chris Brink, vice-chancellor, Newcastle University

According to Chris Brink, some academics are "lumpers", putting things together, and some academics are "splitters", taking things apart.

"I'm a lumper," says the new vice-chancellor of Newcastle University, who took up his post this week. And what he wants to put together is a university that can embrace several priorities - even apparently opposing priorities - at once.

"As I see it, what we are trying to do here at Newcastle is reinvent the notion of a civic university and to situate that in the knowledge economy. My view is that there is an inherent creativity in the juxtaposition of apparent opposites," he says.

If you think that applied research and pure research or excellence and equality are oppositional forces, Professor Brink says, "opposition is what you'll get".

"But if you say these are complementary and you can unleash new ideas by having them rub up against one another, it takes you so much further."

Despite expected concerns that some may believe that research could be tainted by commercialism, or that academe could be demeaned by letting "unworthy" business figures in, he says: "You will learn more and better from those things and those people you don't know than from the ones you know only too well."

Professor Brink joins Newcastle from his native South Africa, where he was vice-chancellor of Stellenbosch University. His own career is evidence of his openness to ideas.

He grew up in a small Afrikaans-speaking town on the edge of the Kalahari Desert. His father was a carpenter who built houses. "I'm the black sheep of the family. All the Brink boys become builders," he says.

After a "mind-bogglingly boring" period of army conscription, he began one of the first degrees in computing science at Johannesburg University. Then, aged 21, he went to Rhodes University, his first exposure to speaking English, where he took masters degrees in philosophy and mathematics.

"That was when I really started doing well. I started understanding that you can figure things out for yourself, and that this is a good thing."

Next came a scholarship to Cambridge University, where his eyes were opened further.

The South African apartheid regime had kept a tight control on information, and it was in Cambridge that he first had access to unfettered information about the regime.

The 1976 Soweto riots erupted while he was in Cambridge, and his access to the news helped to shape his egalitarian views.

After 1990, when Nelson Mandela's release from prison heralded an exodus of whites from the country, Professor Brinks returned home full-time. "I thought: 'I'm not going to miss this'," he says.

He became co-ordinator of strategic planning at Capetown University, under the anti-apartheid activist Mamphela Ramphele, the first black woman to become a vice-chancellor in South Africa. Then, in his late 40s, he moved with his family to Australia. "It was either a new wife or a new car,-or a new country," he says.

His family assumed the move would be long term, but just as he turned 50 he was approached by staff at Stellenbosch seeking to nominate him as vice chancellor. He could not resist.

The town of Stellenbosch was a centre for the Afrikaner Broederbond, and the university had been the intellectual home of apartheid.

"My job as I saw it was not so much to reform the university but to transform it. Reform is a change of structure, while transformation is a change of consciousness."

He steadfastly made a case against the longstanding demand that staff and students should be forced to use Afrikaans, saying this would be exclusionary, hitting staff and student recruitment and research contracts.

Staff backed him, but it was a difficult time. He was sent powder purporting to be anthrax after accusations from the Afrikaans press was that he was an agent of the African National Congress. Professor Brink plays down the personal attacks but admits that "at the height of the unpleasantness" his wife and children left town.

"But anything I ever needed to take to senate, they supported, and council likewise. Controversial things came from outside in."

He instituted a special student award "for succeeding against the odds" and is proud to have seen significant increases in the number of black students and of women in senior posts.

On his first day at Newcastle, he sent all staff a letter saying his diary was clear every Friday between midday and 2pm for the next year, for open discussions. But everyone's number one worry, he says, seems to be his reaction to the weather.

"By the time I was six, I'd had enough sunshine for a lifetime. I've spent years trying to get out of the sun, and at last I have succeeded," he says.

olga.wojtas@thes.co.uk

I graduated from
the University of Johannesburg, Rhodes University and Cambridge

My first job
was working behind the counter in a pharmacy in the remote rural town where I grew up

My main challenge
for the moment is to translate the experience I gained elsewhere into a a UK context

What I hate most
I try not do do hate

In ten years
I hope I will still be taking on new challenges

My favourite joke
I usually prefer sharing an amusement rather than cracking a joke.

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