Brian Cantor: a distant leader

Jamie Merrill talks exclusively to the Vice-Chancellor about Heslington East, BAE Systems and York’s future

Since 2002, Vice-Chancellor Professor Brian Cantor’s decisions have affected all York students; whether it be over last year’s lecturers’ strike, this year’s Porters crisis, the controversial Heslington East expansion, or the University’s unethical investment policy. But who is Professor Brian Cantor? Most students wouldn’t recognise his name, let alone his face. With this in mind, it seemed appropriate to question Cantor as to his profile at York and his take on crucial student issues.

When I put this to Cantor, he pauses and glances discreetly towards his press officer. “Knowing who the Vice-Chancellor is isn’t the most important part of being a student at York. Most of our students are too busy studying or enjoying themselves to worry about who the Vice-Chancellor is.” It seems odd that the University’s most senior administrator and academic is unconcerned that many students have no idea who he is, or what he does.

Perhaps this reticence to engage with the student body accounts for the stringency with which Cantor approached this interview; stipulating that only one topic could be discussed within a twenty five minute time-frame, that no recordings must be made, no photographs taken, and that his press officer would be present.

The interview itself began with few pleasantries, just a brisk “Hello, who are you?” from Cantor. This probably isn’t surprising from a man who has maintained a seemingly inpenetrable silence on student issues. Though I am informed that his dealings with YUSU have until recently been cordial and fruitful, I can’t say he offered me the same courtesy.

Cantor’s distance from the student body may well be calculated, rather than merely being due to a disinterest in student matters. A source close to a number of University officials, has suggested that perhaps it is easier for Cantor actively to cultivate the role of distant figure to ease the burden of the unpopular decisions he has had to make in the last five years. Or perhaps the Vice-Chancellors’ remoteness stems from his geographical position in a well-appointed office in the heights of Heslington Hall, far removed from the daily goings on of student life. Certainly his spacious and luxuriously-furnished office with its imposing view, vast bookshelf and hard wood conference table is a world apart from the cash-strapped colleges and departments he presides over.

But when asked of the possibility of moving into a new and more modest office in the centre of campus to reconnect with students, Cantor was dismissive, “To be honest the University used to be more decentralised but staff have been centralised to Heslington Hall to create the conditions for the best teaching and research”.

Cantor was appointed Vice-Chancellor in 2002 after a successful career in industry and academia that culminated, prior to his arrival in York, in his stewardship of eight departments, 1,300 staff, 4,000 students and a budget of £75 million as Head of the Division of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at Oxford University.

Before that, Cantor was educateat Manchester Grammar School, and then at Christ College Cambridge where he gained his PhD in Metallurgy. After Cambridge, Cantor taught at Sussex University before becoming a world authority on materials manufacturing, and collaborating with companies such as Alcan, Cookson, General Electric and Rolls Royce. He has collaborated with the arms company BAE Systems in whom the University controversially invests, and has also acted as assessor of scientific projects for the Dutch and Spanish governments, as well as NASA and the EU.

At York, Cantor says he has always sought to attract the best quality teaching and research. “My most important job is to recruit the best staff and students, as universities are about people. It is the teaching and research that matters. We have a clear corporate plan and mission statement, which is to generate knowledge by research, transmit knowledge by teaching and apply knowledge for the benefit of society.”

Cantor’s academic and industrial groundings seem hard to question. But his role at York has always been contentious. Since his appointment he has sought to drive through the Heslington East development despite its critics. Cantor is unapologetic for this; “to be academically and financially viable some departments need to grow and we couldn’t do that on this campus”.

Yet Cantor’s desire to expand seems rooted in his preference for research and spin-off companies over teaching. “Research is a very big business, more knowledge has been gained through research in the last ten years than at any time before”. His use of terms such as “corporate plan” and “industrial cooperation” alongside his commercial background hint at a character which is more at ease in the boardroom than the lecture theatre.

Despite this, Cantor is not averse to highlighting the tangible benefits to students from expansion. He is eager to point out that, “It’s not just Heslington East that will see building work over the next five years but also this campus”.

Throughout the course of the interview, Cantor repeatedly tries to highlight the social benefits of Heslington East. He returns repeatedly to his near-certainty that an Olympic swimming pool will be included in the first phase of development, so convinced is he that it is a student priority. Cantor also seemed eager to ensure that a student venue and union are included in the new development. “When I arrived, I set up an academic plan and then noticed the social issue. I said personally then that there would be a student venue if we could facilitate it and thereby bring a central student venue to York for the first time.”

Nonetheless, Cantor refused to guarantee a venue within the first five years of development. He said, “we can’t do anything unless we can fund it and funding is only generated by activity. We are currently redoubling our efforts on researching funding models for a student venue.”

Unsurprisingly for the University’s chief administrator, Cantor is chiefly concerned with the financial viability of expansion, and rightly so. Yet I can’t help but think he is rather too preoccupied with “funding structures” than student concerns over expansion, a curious trait in a Vice Chancellor who has plunged York into debt. This concentration on research and the corporate may well be the direction in which higher education is going but it seems unfair to obscure students’ social and academic priorities.

However Cantor’s drive and desire to see through development in the face of criticism cannot be questioned. Even now, nearing 60, he is committed to seeing through as much of the £500 million Heslington East expansion as possible before he retires. He laughs wryly when the retirement question comes up; “I have no plans to retire; the more of Heslington East I can see through, the better. If it takes ten years there is a chance I’ll get to see it all through. After all, 50% of Heslington East will be completed in five years and I will definitely be here to see that.”

It really is not that easy to draw Cantor out on other issues. When questioning him on the University’s investment policy, a topic outside of our agreed remit, Cantor is reluctant to answer and glances warningly towards his press officer, as if to say ‘I didn’t agree to discuss this’. In typical fashion he is briefly pensive before offering a long, yet ultimately evasive response. “Universities have to be quite attentive to what they do. So it is important to have good ethical principles. We believe in freedom of speech, environmentalism and good ethics. After all if a University can’t say that who can?”

When pressed, he is willing to defend the University’s investments. “I don’t believe that the University engages in inappropriate investment or, in the true sense of the word, unethical investments.”

He is less ready to be drawn on a more specific subject; the University’s highly contentious investments in BAE Systems. Cantor, who has collaborated with BAE in the past, said “I’m not going to comment on particular companies; that would be invidious.” He does seem aware of the censure the University has faced as he acknowledges the need for clear guidelines “on what is an appropriate investment or agency for the University to have dealings with.”

As his secretary informs him his next appointment is waiting outside and we set about photographing this most distant yet powerful campus figure in front of his vast collection of books and papers he seems to warm slightly and enthuses about how much he loves living on campus. But the thawing comes too late, the interview is over and I?am left to leave the plush corridors of managerial power and return to the familar walkways of student life where Cantor is a remote figure, abstracted from the day to day realities of the University.

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