Just a word before I go

July 15, 2005

As David Watson prepares for life after vice-chancellorship, he shares a few tips from the top

This week I gave my farewell lecture as vice-chancellor of Brighton University. Looking back over 15 years, spent first heading Brighton Polytechnic and then the university, I can see Brighton has shared many experiences with the sector as a whole. These include growth (we have at least doubled in size), political turbulence (we have experienced a series of violent lurches in national policy from governments of both major parties) and severe economic pressure (public funding per student for teaching has been more or less halved).

Other experiences have been more distinctive - notably the opening of the Brighton and Sussex Medical School and the University Centre Hastings.

Brighton, with its strong record in research and teaching is now well placed, in the words of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, as a "broadly based leading institution".

However, leading a university is an odd job. Most of the pleasures - and they are real- are vicarious; most of the achievements are by stealth; and, with a few honourable exceptions, you get only one serious shot at the role. If you are lucky, as I have been, you find an institution that fits you like a glove.

Universities are peculiar places. They are professionally argumentative communities with very flat structures. They also have their own laws. Here are a few of them.

Issues generate heat in inverse proportion to their importance (think of car parking). Academics grow in confidence the further away they are from their true fields of expertise (what they really know about is provisional and ambiguous, what other people do is clear-cut and usually wrong). You should never go to a school or department for anything that is in its title: which university consults its architecture department on the development of the estate or, heaven forbid, its business school on the budget?

The first thing a committee member says is the exact opposite of what he or she means ("I'd like to agree with everything the vice-chancellor has just said butI; or "with respect"I; or even "briefly"). Courtesy is a one way street: social-academic language is full of hyperbole and one result is the confusion of rudeness with sincerity. On e-mail nobody ever has the last word. Somebody always does it better elsewhere (because they are better supported). Feedback counts only if I agree with it. The temptation to say "I told you so" is irresistible. There is never enough money, but there used to be. And so on.

I'm not a fan of airport bookshop management guides. Or perhaps it's jealousy. Consider the author of The One Minute Manager (1981), Ken Blanchard, who has sold 12 million copies of a very short book.

Fundamentally this is based on a simple humanistic insight: "people who feel good about themselves produce good results". In so far as I have any "trade secrets", and if I were to write The One Minute Vice-Chancellor , it would look something like this.

When you don't know how to take the big steps, take the most sensible next little step. Everyone deserves a second chance (including yourself). Trust your instincts, but be prepared to revise them in the light of experience.

There is no difficult letter that cannot be improved by eight hours' sleep.

Look at all of your post. Draft your e-mails. Try to learn people's names.

Don't pretend to know when you don't (you will always be found out). Say thank you, even when you don't mean it.

The tenth secret is the most vital: your most important (perhaps your only) tool for change is creative temporary cross-subsidy (both adjectives are essential). This is a radically non-heroic proposition but it works. To make it work you need to have (or to create) a sense of corporate commitment that taps into both altruism and self-interest. You also need financial discipline to create the necessary margins.

It doesn't necessarily suit the celebrity vice-chancellor. Before I took the job I made a diary entry that I have always feared would come back to haunt me: "So many polytechnic directors become, over time, parodies of their former better selves" (April 8, 1990). Let's hope I have escaped in time.

Sir David Watson is vice-chancellor of Brighton University. He delivered his farewell lecture - The Third Envelope - on Monday. From October 2005 he will become professor of higher education management at the Institute of Education, University of London.

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