Q&A with Dame DeAnne Julius

We speak to the new chair of council at University College London

November 6, 2014

After completing her first degree, economist Dame DeAnne Julius worked as an analyst for the CIA, and then took up a teaching post at the University of California, Davis, where she completed her PhD. She has held positions at the World Bank, Royal Dutch Shell and British Airways and is a founding member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee. Last month she became chair of the council at University College London.

Where were you born?
In a small town in Iowa, the “Tall Corn State” just west of the Mississippi River in the US.

How has this shaped you?
As a child I loved the freedom of the wide open spaces, but later longed to escape to the big city lights and broader horizons. That’s probably why I did my PhD in California and then went to work for the World Bank, which took me to Africa and Asia.

How has the relationship between university councils and vice-chancellors changed in the past five or 10 years?
I have not been deeply enough involved in the higher education sector in the past to speak with authority, but my perception is that it has evolved in a similar way to the relationship between boards and chief executives in the corporate sector. Boards have become more professional, with experienced independent members rather than cronies of the chief executive, and their oversight functions through committees such as audit and remuneration have become more important. The standards and expectations for corporate governance have risen considerably.

What should be the balance between the chair of the council and the vice-chancellor?
In my experience [the relationship] usually works best when the two people have different backgrounds and expertise. Both must keep their egos under control and remember that the chair runs the council, to which the vice-chancellor reports, but the vice-chancellor runs the university. On any big strategic decisions, the two must be aligned.

Who would you want to join you on your ideal university council?
My “Goldilocks” council would be neither too big nor too small (say, 12 to 15 at a meeting) and would have a wide diversity of expertise, especially from the external world. All members would have high integrity, be financially literate and leave their personal interests outside the council door to take decisions that benefit the university as a whole. Professionalism and independence are more important than sometimes mindless box-ticking.

Vice-chancellors have come in for criticism for their rising salary levels – is this fair?
As an economist I’d start by looking at the supply and demand for “vice-chancellor skills”. The supply of those with the capability and experience to run the largest universities is quite small, and global competition among universities has driven up their salaries. There is nothing sinister about this, but it is the job of governing bodies to negotiate terms so as not to pay more than necessary to secure the right candidate.

Does your having worked for the CIA affect people’s perceptions of you?
I’ve always been open about my CIA job and, aside from a few jokes, it’s never been an issue. I’ve done a whole variety of jobs, from working weekends for pocket money as a motel chambermaid at age 14 to playing poker in a Nevada casino to pay for college tuition. That was much more exciting than the CIA stint.

How does the UK higher education sector compare with that of the US?
This is too big a subject for a short answer, but to focus on just one difference I would highlight the greater rigour of the UK undergraduate curriculum compared with the much broader but shallower focus in the US. The British system is a strength for students who know what they want to study from the outset. For students who haven’t yet fixed on a career direction, the US system allows more flexibility and “tasting” of different courses before deciding on a major.

As an economist, do you worry about the sustainability of university finances?
The system is much more robust now, with its multiple funding sources, than when it was heavily reliant on taxpayer funding. [But] there are still elements of unsustainable funding streams such as the student loan programme, and unsustainable costs such as the university pension model, which will have to adapt and change.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
Don’t be in such a rush for the future. Relax and enjoy life more along the way.

What’s an undergraduate degree worth?
A university education is an invaluable learning and growing experience that opens doors for the rest of one’s life. Even an economist can’t put a price on that.


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Reader's comments (1)

Poor UCL. A few comments on some fairly outrageous statements made by Dame DeAnne: "the chair runs the council" No, you don't. You CHAIR the Council. You do not make decisions on your own. On inflated Vice Chancellors' salaries: "There is nothing sinister about this" Sorry, but thousands of academics whose pay has been cut in real terms to the tune of 15% over the past 4 years would disagree. We tend to think it's shameless, and sinister in the sense that it indicates the degree to which universities have their priorities wrong. On university finances: "there are still elements of unsustainable funding streams such as the student loan programme, and unsustainable costs such as the university pension model, which will have to adapt and change" Are official statements from UCL Council rather than the Dame's personal opinions? If the latter, how can you, the Chair of Council make statements that have neither been discussed in Council or endorsed by UCL's Senior Management? And as an economist, you're fairly alone with your opinion. Many statisticians, mathematicians and economists have now established that the university pension system is not 'unsustainable'. It is, in fact, in surplus and likely to remain so for years to come.

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