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The Secret Life of a Vice-Chancellor

Professor David Greenaway is a prominent figure on the landscape of British higher education. He was a proponent of raising tuition fees, has sat as Chair of the Armed Forces Pay Review Body, and is consistently one of the highest paid Vice-Chancellors in the country, earning a massive £340,000 salary for looking after the university’s half a billion pound annual turnover. 

So I turn up at the Vice-Chancellor’s Office (VCO) at 8:40 on Monday 27th February, “a normal Monday”, finding myself torn in two directions. The journalist inside me half hopes I’ll stumble upon something scandalous. But the student within me wants the Vice-Chancellor to live up to expectations. I want to see an impressive leader, steering Nottingham in a positive direction. And yet I’m afraid of coming away from the day feeling uncomfortable with the prospect of next year’s students spending £9,000 a year on an institution that might be being run by a businessman, without a care in the world for transformative education. Fortunately, my journalistic desires are let down. As a student, only time will tell.

8:50 and we’re walking to Keighton Auditorium for a lecture on globalisation. The VC still starts his week teaching; he was a Professor of Economics before assuming a place in Senior Management. As we walk past Portland, I’m asked a few questions about my course and my time at university, but we both know this day is his, so I ask a few of my own. He talks enthusiastically about his roles. On Keighton Hill, I comment, “I don’t suppose it’s an accident that you get the best lecture hall on campus?” “I did put in a request,” he smiles, “but you can never guarantee anything.”

9:00 and the lecture starts with a promisingly healthy turnout. His lecturing style is smooth, energetic and self-assured; he makes eye contact rather than scanning the back wall as so many speakers do and darts around the front of the hall, minus notes. After the lecture concludes, a number of students stay back to discuss deadlines and specifics with him. One is willing to call him up on a statistic.

It’s 9:50 and we head back to Trent with Helen (our photographer for the day). She asks, “do you read Impact?” “When I can. But I struggle to get hold of a normal newspaper.” Later he adds, “I try my best to get involved with Impact, URN and NUTS.” He makes an effort to wave and smile at people around campus and seems to know every member of staff we pass. Most students, on the other hand, don’t take much notice of him.

10:00 and I’m sitting in the VCO in Trent. Oak panelling, a widescreen TV for conference calls, books on economics (and one on the recent Lowry exhibition – he’s written the foreword) line the interior of a luxurious room. The focal point is the conference table around which the Management Board are sitting. The Pro Vice-Chancellors, the Chief Financial Officer and the Registrar had turned up moments after we’d returned. “You don’t have much time to breathe,” I comment. “No, I don’t”. Management Board or ‘MB’ is the most senior meeting at the university, and takes place every Monday to round up the previous week’s events. It acts as a forum for making decisions for the following few days. It’s an insight into the enormously complex workings of the university. Each member of staff offers a brief speech on their speciality before opening up discussion. The VC says few words and remains mostly impartial.

11:00 and the meeting continues – it’s three hours in total. That might sound like a long time but when you consider that this is a summary of the most important events from the previous week, it’s actually pretty quick. So there’s not much room for explanation. It’s not easy keeping up with the jargon. Imagine a seminar where your prep consumes your entire life and the end result isn’t a piece of coursework but East Asia’s food security.

Before I’m ushered from the room at 12:00, there is talk of a new biosciences project, which could produce research that has the capacity to “affect food supply in China and Malaysia”. Significant stuff. Without hesitating, everyone agrees that £2.5m is a small fee in light of its potential. I can’t help but wonder whether this is Nottingham’s next MRI scanner. When finance is discussed, it’s obvious that money is liberating rather than constraining. How many universities could you say that about right now? An academic tells me later in the day that Nottingham is in the top 5 financially. I leave at 12:00 so that the meeting can go on in private. Among other things, the opportunity to open up a campus in Shanghai is to be discussed. I ask the VC later whether it’s something he wants to keep quiet. “Not at all. If we do go ahead with it, I’ll want everyone to know.”

As soon as 13:00 passes, we head to Trent’s east wing. It’s a working lunch. The VC chairs the debate once again. This time it’s on Nottingham Potential, the university’s model for increasing the aspirations of primary and secondary school students throughout Nottinghamshire. Before we enter, I ask whether this is the university’s attempt to improve its relationship with the local community in anticipation of the hike in tuition fees. He responds precisely, “No, it’s more profound than that.” Again, his leadership isn’t overbearing. When guests direct a question to him, he pauses before answering; his responses are short and succinct. Perhaps surprisingly for a competent public speaker, he’s actually soft-spoken. And yet the attention in the room regularly hangs off the breaks in his sentences.

The meeting lasts till 15:00 at which point his “logistics people” plan his month ahead. I say logistics people: there’s one for domestic affairs, one for foreign meetings. The list is innumerable. In the next four weeks, there is talk of visiting Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing and Sweden. His foreign diarist suggests potential flights back from the East. “You could take Virgin, BA or Aeroflott (a Russian airline) but you might not be able to get your normal fare because of the Grand Prix.”

“Not Aeroflott…Only BA or Virgin.” He adds, “I try to travel abroad no more than once a month. I have to travel to Ningbo or Malaysia at least once a quarter for ceremonial purposes.” I ask him whether he has much free time at the weekend. “Saturday I usually spend editing the journal and Sunday I like to spend in here (the VCO) when it’s quiet.” I’ve noticed a shower downstairs and ask whether it’s for him. He assures me that it’s not.

At 16:00, we head off in a plush but discreet chauffeur-driven Volvo, complete with TVs and leather seats, to the opening of the first Into University community centre in Britain. It’s in Bilborough, north Nottingham, one of the most deprived wards in the city. Guests include James Lambert, founder of Into University and owner of Bicester Village and David Ross, Nottingham alumnus, director of Into University and co-founder of The Carphone Warehouse. On the way there, I get the rare chance to ask the VC a couple of questions in private. He discusses the expansion of Jubilee Campus, briefly, after which I ask about the recovery of the University’s reputation following the report into Nottingham’s gun crime in 2003. In terms of applicants, “it’s better than where it was.” But he’s open about his frustration with how the original report was conducted.

The evening carries on until 18.00. He gives a speech and mills around the room. At 18:00, I depart and he goes home before two private meetings from 20:00 to 22:00. He’s a busy man, regularly working 14-hour days and seven days a week. He has three weeks off a year. But more important than his workload is his attitude to university as a vehicle for social mobility. He went to a grammar school and then a polytechnic, and it’s obvious with his role in Nottingham Potential that he wants to offer others the break he had. As a student, I leave reassured.

Oscar Williams

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  • The secret world of the Vice Chancellor | Ones to Watch
    2 April 2012 at 12:37
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