I’ve had a whirlwind first month or so in this role. From walking into my office on the first day and having to tackle U1 Bus Route changes, to NUS conferences, my own graduation, my first Council meeting and Remuneration Committee, to recruiting Bath’s next Vice-Chancellor. All within 31 days.
It’s been absolutely manic but I’ve loved every minute of it so far. I thought I’d take a moment to explain a bit more about Vice-Chancellor recruitment as, let’s face it, this has the potential to make or break this University…
I’m sure you’ll all remember the drama that has occurred over the last 18 months which saw our University plastered over the headlines. What began as an expose over excessive expenses, was exacerbated by extremely poor governance and lack of transparency and made even worse by realisations over our VC’s pay packet, turned into a scandal that shook our University Community.
Our Vice-Chancellor then became symbolic for everything that is wrong in the wider Higher Education sector. ‘Bath’ became synonymous with unjust pay-gaps between the highest and lowest grades, with overworked academics and financially burdened students. The crisis on our University campus began a national discussion about governance and pay across the country.
We’ll have all felt it in one way or another. When your Grandma at Christmas – instead of asking you how your degree was – asked “so what’s happening with your VC then? When postgraduates and researchers introduce themselves at conferences and were met with “ohhh… Bath…. You were in the newspaper this week”. Our pride in our University took a hit, and we were left feeling pretty bruised by it all.
So, the University set about creating a transparent and exhaustive process to find a new Vice-Chancellor that our University Community really wanted. HR conducted 21 focus groups during February for undergraduates, postgraduates, education and research staff, management specialist and administration staff, technical and experimental staff, and operational, facilities support staff and trade union representatives. They consisted of 5 questions about the future of our University and the kind of person we’d want to lead it.
There was a survey completed by 857 people citing themes of needing a “leader with clear vision and ability to build trust in all stakeholder groups’ and requiring ‘more transparent, engaging and empowered forms of governance which involve members of the University’ for ‘an essential foundation for success’. This survey and the focus groups helped collate the person specification for the role.
The original Committee for the Office of the Vice-Chancellor which consisted solely of men was extended to add 4 women to provide diversity and a much needed gender balance. An experienced and trustworthy recruitment agency Saxton Bamfylde aided the search for candidates. The final interview panel contained those you might expect, but also an elected student representative (myself) and a staff representative and an academic member of staff to ensure all stakeholders were represented.
The ‘assessment-centre’ style day on Thursday the 26th of July comprised of a candidate presentation to a diverse audience of the University Community, an executive discussion, an academic workshop and a student session. There was a strive for effective representation at pretty much every turn of the process.
Our student session had 6 students in an audience panel, and was helped delivered by 3 other Officers, a PhD student and one of our Freshers’ Week Event Managers. With each candidate, we showed them the Accessibility Video in Virgil Building of a disabled student trying to navigate the building. We had a student threaten to suspend their studies because of their non-diverse Eurocentric, white curriculum that alienated them as the only BME student on their course, we challenged them with a despondent and demotivated officer team whose work was being overlooked by the University, and finally presented them with a smattering of postgraduate student issues. After each scenario we asked each candidate to communicate out a message to the wider student community so students could see exactly what their VC was doing from day to day.
We were testing their dedication to the development of people from all backgrounds, their capacity to motivate students, their understanding of the value of the SU and student experience in delivering success, and their integrity, values and communication skills.
I am so proud of everyone involved in that day that made our session so brilliant. It was unique, adventurous and unpredictable for candidates who have succeeded thus far in their lives via straight-forward interviews! It set us apart as a community, and clearly showed prospective candidates that our student community is vibrant, different and often don’t play by the books!
The final interview panel was a chance for us all to dig deeper to find out what motivates each candidate, and probe them on areas of weakness. I sat in a room with fairly important high-flying people, Prince Edward himself and managed to totally hold my own, ask my questions, and truly get a feel for whether or not these candidates had a heart for students, understood our issues and showed a willingness to work together for a solution.
You might have seen from my Facebook status, but we did reach a decision. We unanimously decided on a candidate which, to be honest, I wasn’t expecting! But I certainly came away pretty excited about what the next era of our University might look like with this candidate at the helm. If we are to trust the process that it took to get to this point, then arguably the candidate we settled upon should be the one most suited to what everyone was looking for in a VC according to the focus groups and survey.
I’ve no doubt there’ll still be disagreements and issues that arise between the SU and the University on many occasions moving forward – it’s the nature of our relationship as critical friends of our institution. But with a robust partnership, transparent leadership from an individual with clear values, integrity and understanding of the student experience, I’m hopeful for what the future holds.