The worlds of academia and the military might not seem obvious bedfellows, particularly at the University of Essex, which was founded in 1964 and boasts a rich history of anti-war protest dating back to 1968 during the conflict in Vietnam.
But last year, the university appointed a new vice-chancellor, Anthony Forster, who spent six years as an Army officer before holding lectureships at the universities of Oxford and Nottingham and King’s College London.
Although he left the military in 1991 - and has since built a career in academia that has seen him lead the politics department at the University of Bristol and serve as deputy vice-chancellor of Durham University - he still finds himself fielding questions about how the culture of the Army has shaped his leadership style.
“People have a different view of the Army, and I often find myself challenging misconceptions,” he said in a Times Higher Education podcast. “There may be an image that the armed forces, and particularly the Army, are very hierarchical. Actually, the core DNA of the Army is about teamwork. It taught me an incredible amount about working in teams, supporting teams and leading teams, which left an indelible impression on my leadership style.”
Professor Forster was sponsored through university as a cadetship officer. He obtained a first-class honours degree in politics from the University of Hull before being commissioned as a second lieutenant between 1985 and 1991.
During those years in the Army, the Cold War was the “dominant feature” in Professor Forster’s life. “I spent a significant amount of time in West Germany, and a little bit of time deployed to Africa as a British military adviser to the newly elected Namibian government,” he said.
“That richness of experience was wonderful for me, but very different from the sort of high-tempo military operations that men and women have faced over the past 10 years in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
After leaving the military, Professor Forster studied for a master’s and then a doctorate in European politics at the University of Oxford, before embarking on his career in university leadership. In August last year, he took over as vice-chancellor from Colin Riordan, who had held the post for five years before leaving for Cardiff University.
Asked about the challenges of taking the reins from an established leader, Professor Forster said: “I was very lucky to succeed Colin - he left the university in a really good state. A lot of his initiatives were very powerful in setting firm and strong foundations for the next phase of the university’s development. It’s a case of evolution rather than revolution.
“I would struggle with the idea of vice-chancellors who descend from on high, impose their will on a university and set a character and direction.
“My own leadership style is very different to that - it’s one of galvanising, of partnership, of setting goals that are ambitious and then supporting people in delivering them.”