Interview with Anna Dominiczak

The University of Glasgow vice-principal talks about her journey from studying under communism in Poland to the senior leadership team of a UK university

November 26, 2015
Anna Dominiczak, University of Glasgow
Source: Paul Hampton

Anna Dominiczak is the first female Regius professor of medicine and head of the College of Medical, Veterinary and Life Sciences at the University of Glasgow, which recently broke ground on its latest project, a multimillion pound clinical imaging centre. Last week she was ranked among the 50 Movers and Shakers – female leaders in biobusiness playing a key role in driving the growth of bioscience in the UK – by BioBeat, a programme to inspire the next wave of bioentrepreneurs and business leaders.

Where were you born?
Gdańsk in Poland.

How did this shape you?
It was very interesting. Gdańsk was [former Polish president and Solidarity founder] Lech Wałęsa’s city. I watched [the Solidarity movement] from close quarters in my high school, which overlooked the main gate to Gdańsk shipyard where everything happened.

What was it like and how difficult was it to train as an academic in a Communist Soviet Union satellite country?
I think as a young person you just accept that this is how it is and get on with it – be the best you can be under the circumstances. I think what our students take for granted – the ability to travel, the ability to go for international exchanges – that was very difficult. Otherwise we just got on with it.

Did you ever fear any extra persecution as an academic, as has been the case historically in other oppressive regimes?
I didn’t have any fear myself but I was aware – after I left – that colleagues who stayed behind [did]. I had some fear for members of my family when we left and didn’t come back.

In your medical school in Gdańsk there were several female professors but few when you came to the UK academy. That suggests the Polish academy is a progressive one – is that the case?
There were female professors in my medical school, including a female professor of surgery who herself was educated in Scotland. During the war there was a Polish medical school hosted in Edinburgh. There's a link here, because maybe it wasn’t just being modern and enlightened, it was also that in continental Europe during the war, lots of professionals were killed and there simply weren’t any men in 1945 to do these jobs. Therefore after the war it became much more necessary and normal for women to progress in academia very quickly. My mother was a professor of medicine. I think it’s partially history and perhaps slightly different traditions in the fact that in Middle European countries at that time, women worked.

Do you think there are enough women in senior positions in UK higher education?
No, there aren’t. We should have more. But the way is to nurture girls and women very early to show them there is nothing they cannot do. To have role models and all the things that are being done currently, but also to tell young, bright, bushy-tailed girls and women they can do anything they wish.

Do you believe in quota systems for senior academic positions?
I think you can have them if you want to on a committee or a board, but not for an academic position. Because I think you need to employ, for an academic position, the best person for the job, whatever happens. We just need to make sure that women are the best people for the job.

As the person heading the College of Medical, Veterinary and Life Sciences, what levels of pride do you feel?
Our college is five years old, and it’s been a fantastic time of development and infrastructure, but also of bringing in new people and ideas. We’re rather large, 2,000 staff and 5,000 students – we’re bigger than several universities in the UK – and doing these things, shaping new strategies, and working very closely with colleagues in the health service and industry has been a really incredible adventure.

What kind of undergraduate were you?
I think I was one of those typical medics; I had to have straight As, so I studied a lot. But I got married as a third-year medical student, so did some other things too! But [I was] not a nightclub type.

If you were a prospective university student now facing £9,000 a year tuition fees, would you go again or go straight into work?
First of all, Glasgow is in Scotland so local students don’t pay fees. However, if I had been elsewhere where fees are applicable I would definitely study and would study medicine again, however much it cost. It’s been fantastic, no question I would’ve studied.

And do you think, since the Green Paper has just come out, that the teaching excellence framework is paving the way for variable fees?
If the TEF introduces variable fees, I think people with this conviction would still study, but I worry about those from backgrounds where maybe they would feel they can’t have that debt.

What are the best and worst things about your job?
The best is that you’re able to shape things, not just for now but for the next 10, 20 years. The worst is it’s never quite finished. There’s always an extra email at midnight that tells you there is something that still has to be done.

If you were the UK universities minister for a day, what policy would you immediately introduce?
It’s a knee-jerk reaction, but it would be not cutting research funding, and allowing things that are so good to develop further.


Peter Stone, head of the School of Arts and Cultures at Newcastle University, has been appointed as the university’s first Unesco chair. Professor Stone, who will hold the Unesco chair in cultural property protection and peace, is one of the UK’s leading specialists in protecting cultural property during armed conflict. “In any conflict, there are not just the human casualties but also casualties in terms of the cultural property and heritage of a society,” Professor Stone said. “Through the Unesco chair, Newcastle University will work with governments, the armed forces, the heritage sector and the public to foster a better understanding of the value of cultural property.”

The GW4 Alliance of four research-intensive universities in the South West of England and Wales has appointed Dame Glynis Breakwell, vice-chancellor of the University of Bath, as the new chair of its council. The GW4 council provides a mandate for the alliance – made up of Bath, the universities of Bristol and Exeter, and Cardiff University – and is responsible for defining its strategic direction. “I am delighted to have been appointed chair of the GW4 council and look forward to working with colleagues to champion our region,” said Dame Glynis.

Paul Hagan has been appointed vice-principal for research and research commercialisation at Robert Gordon University. Currently director of research and innovation at the Scottish Funding Council, he will take up his post on 1 December. Queen Margaret University has made Frances Dow, currently vice-convener of the business committee of the general council of the University of Edinburgh, its new chair of court. She will hold the post for an initial three years from March 2016. John Iredale has been appointed the University of Bristol’s new pro vice-chancellor for health. He will take up the post on 18 January 2016.

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