Sir Muir steps into the limelight at last

October 3, 2003

Glasgow University physics graduate Sir Muir Russell has this week returned to his alma mater as principal after more than 30 years in the civil service.

Some eyebrows were raised at this career change, with speculation that Sir Muir had decided to leave his post as Scotland's top civil servant because of alleged tension with first minister Jack McConnell.

The truth, said 54-year-old Sir Muir, was that he had come to a natural point of asking "what next?" He had achieved the top job in his 40s, helped establish the Scottish Parliament, turned the Scottish Office into the Scottish Executive, and supported a huge legislative programme that delivered more than 90 per cent of the targets ministers had set.

"The opportunity to let my name go forward for Glasgow came to me. People approached me. And the more I thought about it, the more I thought this is really a fantastic opportunity," he said.

Mr McConnell and the cabinet understood the attraction of his move, he said, and they displayed warmth towards Glasgow.

Glasgow's court minutes record that the search committee unanimously recommended Sir Muir because of his unparalleled high-level management experience, collegiate approach, articulateness and ambassadorial skills.

Glasgow undoubtedly also believes Sir Muir brings a useful insight into the workings of government at a time of anxiety over higher education funding.

He played down his expertise, and said that while he could make a contribution to lobbying strategies, his fellow principals "know which way's up". He added that he would need a lot of guidance within the university. Although it had a lot in common with the civil service in terms of administration and breadth, its hierarchy, delegation and aspirations were different.

"In the civil service you're dealing with a pyramid of people who all want my job and a lot of them could do it. In the university, the comparable people in terms of seniority, intellect and reputation are looking to their subject work, their research, their teaching, and I need to learn how best to help them to do what they do well."

He hoped that would include a greater role in policy development. "We're not strongly endowed with think-tanks in Scotland and I have a feeling the academic community could help strengthen that flux of ideas."

While England is increasing research selectivity, Sir Muir backs Scotland's moves towards collaborative partnerships between institutions, nurturing centres of excellence. He also backs Scotland's rejection of top-up fees, and sees no difficulty in Glasgow's Russell Group membership. The Russell Group, he said, is a broad church, not utterly cohesive and he was proud Glasgow was part of it.

After decades of keeping in the background, he said he was looking forward to stepping into the limelight. "I think I wouldn't want to set out to say outrageous things in order to capture the headlines. I think you can expect a reasonably judicious mixture of public and private," he said.

"But part of the attraction, as well as part of the test and challenge of this (job), is the notion of doing something in your own name and in the name of the institution rather than always deliberately shying away."

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