Nancy Rothwell

March 11, 2005

The first rule of standing in for the v-c is to expect the unexpected, and if you must sell off the university, get a good price

Television seems to be increasingly occupied by reality programmes, especially those that follow ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

Some involve job swaps - managers returning to the shop floor, the tea lady acting as chief executive officer. Although irritating, they can be compulsive viewing.

So I was fascinated to take on another job for a short period, as vice-chancellor of our university. I admit that it wasn't true to the reality TV ethos. I didn't have to impersonate our vice-chancellor (he is male and Australian), we were closed for the Christmas break and his diary was remarkably clear.

But since the newly merged Manchester University is less than three months old, times are interesting and busy, as I quickly learnt. I am sure that most big institutions have such effective staff and structures that they could run for some time without a leader. I hoped that this would prove so for considerably longer than my span of duty.

But despite the efficiency of the process, some things, such as visits from ministers, senior executive meetings, financial issues, press reports and a few problems relating to staff and students, couldn't be put off until the "real" vice-chancellor returned.

I was briefed on key issues and the vice-chancellor gave me a parting shot of advice: "There is nothing I can advise you on, because everything is organised, apart from the unexpected and the unpredictable; they will come up regularly, if not daily."

He was right. The first "unexpected" event was a visit from the Chancellor of the Exchequer. This was followed two days later by notice of a visit from the European Union Commissioner for Science and Research. Then a visit from the Minister for Culture Sport and Media. Manchester seems to be a popular place at the moment.

The first thing I noticed was that everyone who knew I was acting vice-chancellor was extremely nice to me; the second was the number of requests for meetings, funding, even pay rises. The third was that people soon stopped being nice to me when I declined those requests.

The days before Christmas were largely uneventful, apart from issues arising from staff and students, the "normal" pile of mail (sometimes measured in kilograms), emails (into three figures daily) and invitations.

All of these were handled by other staff. I was just informed of the "important", the "possibly problematic" and the "really worrying". The range was bewildering.

The Chancellor's visit was further complicated by the attendance of about 50 local businessmen and dignitaries, but seemed to go well. Gordon Brown was personable, witty and very smart. I was impressed that he shook hands with and spoke to everyone crammed into the room. He remembered, accurately, without notes, the detail of my presentation when he later faced the press.

I rather enjoyed people rushing to hold umbrellas, open doors and hand me coffee. This was something I could get used to.

The EU Commissioner turned out to be a Manchester United fan, so that went well, and the rumour that Tessa Jowell had no car to meet her wasn't realised. So far, so good.

But the job of the vice-chancellor is not all, or even mostly, about high-profile visits and people looking after you. Three days after the Chancellor's visit, I was informed of the death of an undergraduate. With more than 30,000 students and almost 10,000 staff, such distressing events are inevitable, but no less sad and shocking. There is little as harrowing as talking to the dead student's parents.

On the more positive side, I didn't have to chair meetings of senate or governors, host numerous dinners or attend the almost daily two-hour sessions our vice-chancellor had set up to meet staff.

The senior executive team meeting threw up the usual problems and concerns, particularly relating to the enormous job of integrating two very large institutions. The task is almost, but not quite, complete - as everyone is anxious to point out.

All in all, things went OK. No financial disasters, embarrassing revelations in the press, walk-outs or mutinies - at least none that I was told about. The vice-chancellor had said I could call him if any disasters arose or if I had plans to sell off the university, particularly if it was at a bargain price. I didn't call him, but wonder if he checked eBay regularly, just in case.

Now it's back to my day job.

The experience was fascinating and I would be happy to step in again, though not for long. I did get a glimpse of the number and range of challenges, and the sheer workload facing the head of a large university.

When I saw the table of vice-chancellors' salaries in The Times Higher , I was much more sympathetic than in the past.

Nancy Rothwell is MRC research professor in the faculty of life sciences at Manchester University.

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