It's not lonely at the top, but it is strange, v-c confesses

John Gill learns about gossip, heroes and 'masters of the universe' from Sheffield Hallam's Phil Jones

April 10, 2008

The vice-chancellor's status as "master of the universe" was explored in an insider's guide to leading a university at the annual conference of the Association of University Administrators last week.

Phil Jones, vice-chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University, said that, eight months into the job, he still was not sure that he had "become" a vice-chancellor proper.

In a humorous take on the demands of the job, he told delegates: "You have to cultivate a mystique, so you don't talk about it, and you're not allowed to say anything critical about other vice-chancellors ... I was asked what it's like, and I said it's great - I keep going to the loo to check in the mirror that I'm still a master of the universe."

Describing how difficult he found it to detach himself from a hands-on role, he said it was important to "conduct the orchestra, not to play second violin".

"The biggest challenge is defining your role as vice-chancellor," he said. "You don't actually have a job to do ... and that's incredibly difficult to get used to."

Stressing the importance of being accessible and appearing "human" to staff, Professor Jones said that he missed being party to gossip.

"As a vice-chancellor, if anything the gossip is about you," he said. "It's a weird position. It's not lonely, but I can't experience the university as a native."

Identifying the danger of "nodding dog syndrome" if staff are afraid to speak freely, he said he had also been surprised by how harsh some vice-chancellors were.

"Some vice-chancellors really lash into the awfulness of HR or estates ... You are always one step removed from the institution, and part of your job is to look in and ask why you aren't doing things to a higher level."

He said new vice-chancellors should not force change for the sake of making a mark, adding that restructuring could be "a cheap way to cause a lot of expensive damage".

The audience was treated to an insight into his management icons.

"Gordon Ramsay is a super-hero," Professor Jones said. "You watch the way he manages a team and think, 'My God, I can't do that'. Then you watch Brian Ashton's shambles (as manager of the England rugby team) ... and think, 'Oh God, that's what I'm doing.'

"But there's a big difference. As a vice-chancellor you're not so much trying to turn a tanker in mid-flow as to get a flotilla of boats to go in the right direction," he said.

He said that upon joining Sheffield Hallam from Durham University, where he was deputy vice-chancellor, he found some of the language Sheffield Hallam used to be "overblown" and dominated by "marketing and PR".

"It's incredibly pervasive, and I found it very hard to relate to," he said. "I have been there eight months, and I feel it will take a few years until I feel the institution is mine, or that I'm really part of it."

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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