Interview with Margaret Casely-Hayford

The Coventry chancellor talks about being inspired by protest, managing a rap artist and being a pioneer as a black woman in law

September 28, 2017
Margaret Casely-Hayford
Source: Daniel Kennedy

Margaret Casely-Hayford studied law at Somerville College, Oxford, and was called to the Bar in 1983. She was the first black woman to be made a partner at a City law firm in 1998 and was legal director for the John Lewis Partnership for nine years. She now advises young entrepreneurs, board members and organisations on governance. She was made chancellor of Coventry University in July 2017.

Where and when were you born? 
London, England, on a cold November dawn back in the mists of time.

How has this shaped who you are? 
Growing up when the Cold War was a dominant theme inevitably caused some feelings of alienation and political activism to spill over into so many areas of my life. In particular, into music, prose and poetry, all of which inspired me. I was very political from a surprisingly young age. I was inspired by Bob Dylan and Joan Baez at the age of nine, and I have been moved by musical and prose articulations of protest ever since. Everything from Shostakovich to Jack Kerouac and Johnny Rotten, and from Buffalo Springfield to Albert Camus, Gil Scott-Heron, Arnold Wesker and Stormzy.

Your brothers are also high achievers. What did you all learn from your parents?
All my three brothers are independent, gentlemanly, quiet, courteous, creative and resilient! Joe owns his own business as a fashion designer. Peter was managing editor of the BBC’s Panorama programme before starting a television production company, Twenty Twenty, with two other former BBC directors. Gus is an art historian and writes, lectures and broadcasts. Our parents, both intelligent and diligent, recognised that everyone has a responsibility to society and undoubtedly instilled in us their family values and their reverence for education.

Have you had a eureka moment?
Yes. Very early on I realised that boys had more freedom and opportunity than girls. As a result I’ve been a feminist pretty much all my life. But never with a “hate-all-men" agenda – it was more a constant questioning of the abject lack of opportunity that exists for so many in society. I have always believed that feminism is really about equality of opportunity for all. I’m so pleased that Coventry offers scholarships and bursaries not only for women in STEM, but also for men in healthcare subjects, particularly nursing, where men make up only 10 per cent of students.

You have managed a rap artist. What do you enjoy about this role?
My rapper Kelvyn Colt recently signed to Sony so I am now more in the role of mentor, although I do still get involved with some music decisions. He was at university with my daughter and I was impressed by how bright and articulate he is. He was studying a combined law and business enterprise degree and quickly understood he could pretty much manage himself and be able to dictate his own terms to a major label when the time was right. I helped him with his early recordings, promotional videos and marketing. It is something I really get a buzz from.

What keeps you awake at night?
Donald Trump.

What do you do for fun?
Listen to music and play the cello – when I can squeeze in any practice time; grow a prairie garden; yomp on Exmoor with husband, daughter and dog; or write.

What kind of undergraduate were you?
A very sociable one! I was always out with friends or meeting new people. I’m very interested in people and learn something from everyone I meet. There is barely a person who is genuinely boring if you take the trouble to get to know them. 

If you were the universities minister for a day, what policy would you immediately introduce to the sector?
A massive reduction in the interest rate on loans. The government shouldn’t see itself as a lender and seek to create a business for itself, thereby making education unaffordable for the next generation.

You were the lawyer for Chelsea FC for many years? Tell us about an interesting moment at the club.
Stamford Bridge was the Premier League’s first ground with integrated leisure facilities – this has changed the nature of being a spectator. I negotiated the consents and led the public inquiry team in the midst of a good deal of hostility from residents who didn’t know what to expect. I remember the late Alan Clark MP [MP for Kensington and Chelsea in the latter part of his career] stood up to oppose the scheme - it soon became evident that he hadn’t ever been to a game.

Is racism still an issue in British society and the legal profession? Have you experienced it at any point in your career?
I’ve met people who clearly felt that a black person would never amount to anything and this made me more determined to prove them wrong, and to fight for the rights of others who perhaps wouldn’t have had the ability to counter that sort of opposition. My advice to anyone facing any sort of negativity from others is always to believe in yourself. Never let those voices change who you think you are and what you can achieve, because that belief is the most powerful thing any person can have.


Margaret Sheil has been named the next vice-chancellor of Queensland University of Technology. A leading chemist, Professor Sheil is currently provost, chief academic officer and deputy to the vice-chancellor at the University of Melbourne. She was previously chief executive officer of the Australian Research Council from 2007 to 2012, which saw her oversee the creation of the Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) evaluation, the country’s version of the UK’s research excellence framework, and introduce many initiatives to support women, early career and indigenous researchers. QUT’s chancellor Tim Fairfax described Professor Sheil as “an entrepreneurial and inspirational leader who will continue to take our institution into the future with clarity and confidence”. She replaces Peter Coaldrake, who is Australia’s longest serving vice-chancellor and will have led the Brisbane university for 15 years when he steps down in February 2018.

Jennie Younger is the new executive director for fundraising and supporter development at King’s College London. Arriving from pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca, where she was head of global corporate affairs, Ms Younger will lead the King’s fundraising, alumni engagement, communications and operations teams for both the university and its academic health science centre, King’s Health Partners. Bringing together hospital and university fundraising in one team, she will be responsible for all fundraising activity, from seeking out major donations to supporting mass fundraising from individuals, trusts and foundations, the corporate world and the community. The funds will be used to support everything from cancer research to student bursaries. “Jennie’s global corporate insight, stakeholder relationship skills and proven strategic focus are qualities that will add considerable value to fulfilling our ambitions for the future and our vital fundraising and supporter development activity,” said Ed Byrne, president and principal of King’s.

Tim Minshall has been appointed as the first Dr John C. Taylor professor of innovation at the University of Cambridge, where he is currently reader in technology and innovation management.

Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, the president of the European Research Council for almost four years, has been reappointed to the role for another two years until the end of 2019.

Lois Fitch is to become assistant principal at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in January, joining from Royal Northern College of Music where she is head of undergraduate programmes.

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