Interview with Mary Pierre-Harvey

The UK’s first black director of estates discusses the barriers faced by ethnic minority professionals and why Westminster Abbey has a carving of her head

November 21, 2019
Mary Pierre-Harvey

Mary Pierre-Harvey is director of estates and campus services at Oxford Brookes University, and became the first black woman to take on such a role at a large British university when she was appointed earlier this year. A quantity surveyor by training, her previous roles include head of estates for English Heritage, director of estates for Harrow School and assistant director, strategic estates at the UK Parliament.

Where did you grow up and how did that shape you?
Growing up in Trinidad helped me to value most things that wealthy people here take for granted, such as new clothes, owner-occupied housing, three-course meals and private vehicles, as I come from a very humble and working-class single-parent family background.

What led you seek training in surveying and architecture?
I wanted to be different and to pursue a different career to my colleagues who were interested in accountancy, law and medicine – the more traditional professional career paths. I fell into construction, then I decided to study quantity surveying (without really understanding my options). After qualifying as a quantity surveyor, I wanted to do something much more exciting, so I chose an MSc in architecture, which opened the doors to the senior management roles I have carried out.

What do you consider your greatest professional achievements to date?
Westminster Abbey’s Chapter House conservation project – I unlocked the impasse of many years to get that project delivered successfully. One of the newly carved stone heads is a portrait of me. I’m also proud of the Dover Castle Great Tower project: a wholesale re-presentation of the Great Tower, creating interiors that evoke the character and atmosphere of the tower during the reign of Henry II. And the mentoring, coaching and professional development of a grounds manager to a head of estates and grounds.

What major projects at Oxford Brookes are you looking forward to getting your teeth into?
The student village intensification project, which will add in excess of 1,000 new-build rooms to our student accommodation portfolio. The second is the digitisation of estates.

What do you bring from your experience in the heritage sector to your new role in HE?
Managing the complexities of heritage buildings makes working with contemporary buildings comparatively easy.

How can universities show their commitment to sustainability?
By planning for compliance with international standards on sustainable development goals and by forging alliances with suppliers that demonstrate, maintain and increase their commitment to a more sustainable way of providing services. Also, a ring-fenced budget for investment in sustainable initiatives would help stakeholders appreciate the level of commitment to caring for our environment.

Are there still substantial barriers to black women within the senior management of universities – and what initiatives are needed to overcome these?
Oh yes; just look at how few of us there are! A genuine and demonstrable commitment to inclusion as well as zero tolerance of racism and sexism is required – not just policies and lip service. The race pay gap must also be exposed and addressed. Students and staff need to see more people like them at senior management levels within universities. This is pertinent to improving access and widening participation for students from all backgrounds and classes. The “glass ceiling” and stereotypical views [about] people like me need to be completely smashed. We should not have to work harder to get and keep the same job.

Do courses in architecture and surveying need to do more to attract black applicants?
Yes. The encouragement must start within primary schools and with the opportunities given to young people to visit construction sites, shadow an architect for work experience or be mentored by a surveying professional from GCSE level. I would love to run a “Dare to be different” secondary school campaign to help break down the stereotypical views of who could in future be an architect or surveyor. When I go to primary schools to tell them what I do, no one expects me to be doing the job that I am doing. That’s why I like it: I am a surprise to people even now!

How do you interact with students – and what advice do you offer them?
I have facilitated a lecture to students on estates management and there are more planned for this academic year. I also interact with students through the student union. Advice I offer includes not being fearful of speaking up or asking for help when required [and] reminding them that I am here to serve them.

Tell us about someone you’ve always admired.
I have admired Nelson Mandela for one reason mainly, which is his willingness to forgive those who hurt him. Forgiveness is not easy for little things, let alone the loss of 27 years of your freedom. His courage will live on and I would like to follow his example.

What do you do for fun?
I cook West Indian food and I lead a youth music ministry in my local community. I also love window shopping – if I’m honest, actual shopping too.

What would you like to be remembered for?
For helping others and making a difference in people’s lives – especially our youth. I have been an advocate for refugees, I visit the sick at home or in hospital, I have set up and led various community groups and I care for my 88-year-old mother who has dementia. “If I could help somebody as I pass along, then my living shall not be in vain”: my mum taught me this song.

What one thing would improve your working week?
Having uninterrupted lunch breaks – at least one.


Michael Sabia has been named director of the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Policy. Mr Sabia, a Toronto alumnus, is currently chief executive of one of Canada’s largest pension funds, Caisse de Dépôt et Placement du Québec. The school, the creation of a merger last year of the Munk School of Global Affairs and Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance, houses more than 50 academic centres, and 20 teaching programmes. Mr Sabia will take on his new role on 1 February, succeeding interim director Randall Hansen. Meric Gertler, Toronto’s president, said that Mr Sabia had made “significant contributions to public policy, to business and to the world of investment. I know he will bring the same kind of engaged thought leadership to the school.”

Andrew Norton has been appointed professor in the practice of higher education at the Australia National University’s Centre for Social Research and Methods. Professor Norton was previously higher education program director at the Grattan Institute. In his new post, which he will start on 2 December, Professor Norton will be tasked with leading the development of a new higher education policy research programme. Matthew Gray, director of the Centre for Social Research and Methods, said that Mr Norton would help ANU “take a leading role when it came to addressing the challenges and opportunities facing Australian higher education”.

Sarah Guthrie has been confirmed as head of the School of Life Sciences at the University of Sussex. Professor Guthrie, a neuroscientist, has held the post on an interim basis since 2017. She previously spent 25 years at King’s College London, where she was deputy head of the Division of Neuroscience.

Gokhan Inalhan has been appointed as professor of autonomy and artificial intelligence at Cranfield University, joining from Istanbul Technical University

Gary Younge is joining the University of Manchester as professor of sociology. He will leave his position as editor-at-large of The Guardian.

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