Was it always better in the past? After a recent talk, the question was posed as to whether it is as bad now as its ever been for universities. You’d had to say ‘no’. And associated with that question is the question about the way universities are managed.
Even in the 20th Century you’d have plenty of examples – the universities were highly precarious until the 1960s, wars and depressions made unimaginable calls on their resilience. But even when the Robbins settlement was made, there were still crises to be overcome. In order to check that I re-read Ann Gold’s edited tribute to her brother: ‘Edward Boyle – His life by his friends’. It confirmed that things were very grim in 1973-74 and again in 1981. But they also highlighted the leadership that this Vice-Chancellor offered.
Edward Boyle was Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leeds from 1970 to 1981. He was the first politician to be appointed a Vice-Chancellor, having been MP for Handsworth from 1950 to 1970. Chris Chataway thought that one the most important legacies from his ministerial career came at the moment when Robbins was published as ‘it was probably Edward who argued most strongly for university expansion’ (Chataway, 1991, p110).
Boyle came to the Vice-Chancellor’s job at Leeds having never worked in a university. Although he’d done well at Oxford, he’d come there after working at Bletchley Park in the war, he surprised all by getting a third class degree.
As well as being active in the Conservative Association, Boyle was an active debater, going on a seven month tour of the US with Tony Benn, who he succeeded as President of the Oxford Union.
Student politics were to the fore when he took of the role of Vice-Chancellor. His predecessor had retired early after a difficult period of student unrest. The book contains two substantive contributions on his work as Vice-Chancellor which are worth reading in their entirety as they recount a certain style of leadership. First Challis writes:
Lord Boyle saw his role not as the Jarratt-style chief executive of the university but primarily as chairman of the University Senate. Senate’s own concept of its importance was reinforced by the emphasis which he placed upon it and by his belief in the importance of debate as a means of achieving consensus in key decisions of vital importance to the university or one its departments. (Challis, 1991, p 126)
Well-briefed by his colleagues, Challis describes his readiness to debate and be challenged. His political background helped when faced with a projected substantial deficit for 1974-75, calling all the staff together to explain his proposed approach. Challis delights in telling the consequences of his decision not to replace his driver and therefore abandon the university car, requiring him to catch the bus. Later in the book there’s a description of the ‘story or legend’ that ‘he once took his friend Edward Heath to the university by bus, police cars falling in in front and behind the bus in a solemn and unusual procession’ (Walsh, 1991, 140).
It’s clear that the scale of the university was different, Challis recounts him and the Deputy Registrar, James Walsh, journeying over a hundred miles to see the parents of a student who had failed his examinations (Challis, 1991, 133). Sue Slipman explains how Boyle attempted to deal with an occupation in 1974, asking them politely to turn out a few lights (it was in the midst of power cuts in the city resulting from striking miners) to which the Maoists determined to turn them all on (Slipman, 1991, 136).
I would commend the book to those interested in higher education leadership. In the second substantial chapter on Boyle as Vice-Chancellor William Walsh describes in more detail how he managed to have his view prevail. It came from taking seriously the idea of the university as a self-governing community, immersing himself in the detail of the deliberative structures of the university and winning arguments.
When I was a student union officer at Leeds, a decade after Boyle had died in post, he was still held in great affection and his dictums were still cited as university policy; as Walsh notes
As a Vice-Chancellor he was able, out of the deepest conviction, to uphold the noblest purpose of the institution – teaching in the atmosphere of study and research, as he liked to put it – with a vivid sense of the intrinsic value of the individual. (Walsh, 1991, 143)
I don’t bring this portrait out to chide current vice-chancellors for not attending enough committees, or for not upholding its values, because I think they do both of those. I bring it out because universities have had tough times in the past and come through them. It’s also a helpful example of how someone can come from outside the sector into the VC’s role and be very successful at it. It’s not necessary to have been an academic to run a university successfully, but you do need to be intelligent, engaging, and committed.
Challis, C, 1991, ‘The Vice-Chancellor at Work’ in Gold op cit
Chataway, C, 1991, ‘At the Education Ministry: His Junior Minister’s View’ in Gold op cit
Gold, A (ed) 1991, Edward Boyle – His life by his friends, Basingstoke, Macmillan
Slipman, S, 1991, ‘The Vice-Chancellor and Student Unrest’ in Gold op cit
Walsh, W, 1991, ‘The Vice-Chancellor in Office’ in Gold op cit