Interview with Lesley Wilson

The outgoing secretary general of the EUA explains what turned her into a European, what annoys her about universities and the importance of shutting the office door

August 22, 2019
Lesley Wilson

Lesley Wilson, secretary general of the European University Association, will step down later this year after having led the organisation for 19 years and built it into a body that represents more than 800 universities and boasts 40 staff members, a €5 million (£4.6 million) annual budget, and has offices in Brussels and Geneva. Before leading the EUA, she criss-crossed the Continent, holding positions at the German Council of Science and Humanities in Cologne, the European Commission in Brussels, and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation in Bucharest.

When and where were you born?
Kilmarnock, Scotland, in 1955.

How has this shaped you?
My whole family was involved in education. I attended a number of local schools before going to the University of Glasgow. At home we regularly discussed education and what kind of education was right for us, at a time when comprehensive education was being introduced into Scottish schools. My father became the head of the biggest comprehensive school in the area – which I also attended. He had previously been headteacher at a selective school – I had gone to this school, too. I opted to go to university straight after leaving school when I turned 17, and that was my next step into the world.

You studied French and politics as an undergraduate, which included a year in Aix-Marseille University, and then pursued a master’s degree in Strasbourg. Did you always want to leave the UK?
I wanted to leave as soon as I could. It was because Glasgow opened up all sorts of opportunities, and I took those opportunities. In Strasbourg, there was politics, there was French and it was next to the Council of Europe, and that changed my whole approach. I stayed there as I had a partner who was working on a research project at the University of Strasbourg.

You then left for Cologne to work for the German Council of Science and Humanities, which oversees the German academic landscape, both at state and federal level. What did that teach you?
That was very important in my development because I had little idea how Germany was constructed at that time. After 10 years there, in a federal system, I also began to understand Europe and its diversity – in a way, the European Union works in a similar way to federal Germany in providing support for all of its members. Those 10 years are what turned me into a committed European.

After that, you moved to Brussels to help set up the European Commission’s Erasmus programme, and after 1990 became the director of the Tempus programme, which provided financial support for universities in post-communist Europe.
I was very lucky to be on the spot at that time. The creation of the Tempus programme was closely linked to the Berlin Wall coming down. That, for my generation, was something we never thought would happen. As soon as the programme was established and the money began to flow, universities all over central and eastern Europe – with their partners in western Europe – were interested in developing bids to improve their programmes. These few years changed a lot.

How would you describe your identity?
I’ve still got a Scottish accent. So I say I’m a Scot who grew up to be a European.

We’ve recently seen a European university, Hungary’s Central European University, forced out of its home country by an authoritarian government. Do you think this could happen again in Europe?
I’m not sure. It was a one-off to the extent that it was a very specific situation linked to tensions between the Hungarian authorities and the CEU and its backers, in particular George Soros [the philanthropic backer of the CEU and other liberal causes worldwide]. I would think that to find these circumstances again in other countries would be very difficult.

Since you started as the newly formed EUA’s secretary general in 2002, what are the most striking things that have changed about European universities?
There are many more connections between universities now. All universities have enormous numbers of collaborations and projects, mainly funded through the EU but also internationally. Also, now there are mechanisms to allow people to go to and from universities, and have their degrees and certificates validated. This was not the case in 2001.

What annoys you about universities?
I would say that some of them think they are more equal than others. We – the EUA – have spent, over the years, a lot of time on rankings. Nobody would deny the fact that rankings are here to stay. But care is needed. It is important to understand the role and impact of rankings, their advantages and disadvantages.

And what do you love most about universities?
All universities are different. It’s a place you feel you belong, be it in the Sorbonne University, or the University of the Highlands and Islands. They all pursue knowledge and want to learn from each other.

What are your future plans?
I’m still thinking about it – I’ve done quite a lot of things, so I’m giving myself a break, going and visiting places I’ve never been. I’ve been in so many places through my role with the EUA, but it is mostly the case that there is actually little time to visit the country. Going to Australia for two days is not really fun!

What one change would make your working day better?
I would like to be able to just shut the office door for a couple of hours now and again!


Tilly Franklin has been appointed chief investment officer of the University of Cambridge’s £3.2 billion endowment fund. The alumna of Jesus College, Cambridge, will move to the post from her role as director of investments and head of private equity at London-based investment advisory firm Alta Advisers. Stephen Toope, Cambridge’s vice-chancellor, described Ms Franklin as the “ideal person” to lead the fund into a “new era”. “She brings a wealth of financial experience and a passionate commitment to responsible fund management,” Professor Toope said.

Lawrence Carin has been named vice-president for research at Duke University and will lead a new university-wide office of research. An engineering professor and one of the world’s leading experts on machine learning and artificial intelligence, Professor Carin had served as Duke’s vice-provost for research since 2014. His new role will include responsibility for research policy, funding and scientific integrity. Duke’s provost, Sally Kornbluth, said Professor Carin was a “distinguished scientist, a respected leader, and a skilled executive” who had the “ability to guide the whole Duke research enterprise into the future”.

Vicki Stott has been appointed executive director of operations and deputy chief executive at the UK’s Quality Assurance Agency. She will join the QAA in November from St Hugh’s College, Oxford, where she has been bursar since 2012.

Richard Kenyon has been named Erastus L. DeForest professor of mathematics at Yale University. He joined Yale last month from Brown University, and has previously held positions at Princeton University, the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of British Columbia.

Inge-Lise Ameer is the new vice-president of student affairs and dean of students at Rhode Island’s Bryant University. She previously held positions at Dartmouth College and Harvard University, and most recently served as dean of students at Colby College in Maine.

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