Granting us an audience

New chancellor Malcolm Grant talks to about his life, work, and plans for the role

Malcolm Grant, the university’s incoming Chancellor, would be the first to admit that after serving more directly managerial roles at Cambridge and UCL this is a slight step back into a more ceremonial position. He is explicit that “the boss at York is Professor Koen Lamberts, the Vice Chancellor,” his own job serves as more of a “support.”
However, he sees the role as being more than just ceremonial and thinks his own background as Vice Chancellor will give him an edge: “I have the benefit of having headed up a university myself, and this experience will come in useful as I get closely engaged with academics and students at York.” Beyond this Grant’s role will serve an “external ambassadorial function;” he will have to court relationships with research councils, donors and alumni, as well as functions both in York and elsewhere.

There is no magic formula for success beyond honesty, integrity, empathy and hard work.

Looking back Grant reflects that despite not knowing much about his predecessor, Greg Dyke, the man “has such an amazing public profile that simply his presence on the letterhead will have been great for the university, especially since he is an alumnus.” He even admits that he himself couldn’t match the profile. But Grant sees himself as having a different approach to the position. In fact, the new Chancellor has his own insights on where the UK higher education system should progress: “It often sounds trite to say it, but we still have one of the finest higher education systems in the world, though not the most richly funded. In research in particular, measured both in terms of excellence and value for money, we are world leaders. But things are going to be difficult. The current tuition fee model is going to have to be revisited; continued economic austerity will not be favourable to university funding; the possibility of Britain leaving the EU is a major threat for research funding and also to the flow of international students; and competition will intensify from emergent universities in Asia, especially China, and elsewhere.”

Grant believes that good leadership can “ensure that institutions adapt well to these challenges.” However, he also believes that there are still a few areas in which UK leadership could be improved, firstly in devising new models of education and secondly in relation to healthcare. In terms of new models of education Grant promotes “supplementing the on-campus experience with greatly enhanced online learning,” which he believes “goes well beyond the so-called MOOCs – massive open online courses.” Currently he is a special advisor at Arizona State University, which is a world leader in this field.

“It often sounds trite to say it, but we still have one of the finest higher education systems in the world, though not the most richly funded.”

The second area of the UK’s leadership that Grant feels could be improved surrounds health. He sees massive changes ahead in the world of healthcare: “the burden of ill health here and across the world is growing, and the cost impact is growing at a rate that is unsustainably ahead of growth in GDP. Healthcare itself will be transformed by rapid advance in areas such as whole genome sequencing, proteomics, metabolomics, the miniaturisation of medical devices and the empowerment of populations through mobile technologies. It will become more personalised, wrapped around the needs and genetic profiles of individuals. Data science will overtake bioscience: diagnosis and treatments will be underpinned by computers using artificial intelligence.” Grant believes that the marrying of the NHS as well as the UK’s university’s life science and computational industries will help to keep costs low, as well as to empower patients. For Grant universities are at the vanguard of this effort.

As to whether the new government will support this future, Grant is not particularly hopeful. He believes that “universities have done far better than other areas of publicly funded activity over the past five years, and despite the apparently genuine interest of the Prime Minister and the Chancellor in the competitive advantages of British science and a well-educated workforce, we shouldn’t expect generous treatment.”

Grant had a unique upbringing in what he describes as a “small coastal town” in a New Zealand that was “a country of close social cohesion.” The Second World War had a substantial influence on the environment despite the fighting taking place on the other side of the globe. Many of the adult men were returned servicemen and there was no distinct class system in place, Grant remarks that they “were probably all lower-middle-class…there wasn’t much money around.” Schooling took place entirely in state schools; Grant’s own was apparently “truly comprehensive” with “no admission test” and subjects ranging from “the conventional academic to the vocational agricultural. Animal husbandry was being taught in the classroom next door to where we were learning algebra and calculus.”

Upon reaching university Grant had no specific ambitions and as a result of the structure of higher education in New Zealand (adopted from Scotland) he was able to introduce variety into his studies, taking both classical music and the English legal system. At this time he had considered a career in music, however in his own words: “reviewing the array of talent around me I could see that this was not going to happen.”

Grant’s early career in the UK was less than conventional: with his legal qualification not recognised in England, he turned to academic law, which grew to be a “fabulous vocation”. He flourished whilst teaching and in the process of writing several books and articles learned that “great teaching comes out of great research: both call for intellectual curiosity and clarity of thought,” eventually seeing his own work begin to dominate the reading lists of his students (something he describes as “perverse”). For Grant, England was only ever supposed to be a “transitional destination as part of the ‘overseas experience.’” However, a temporary lectureship at the law school at Southampton University quickly became fifteen years and a permanent position, “accompanied by marriage, mortgage and children.”

In 1991 Grant moved into his first leadership role, as both a chair and head of department at Cambridge. Eventually, due to what he describes as “being constantly frustrated by the sclerosis of the university’s processes and becoming something of a nuisance on that topic” he was put on the General Board in what he jokes was “a neutralising move.” During this time he was able to learn how the university handled assets, students and stuff, before moving on to become one of two pro-Vice Chancellors in 2001. In this role Grant was responsible for developing a new financial model for allocating funds across departments. He claims this helped him learn more difficult lessons, remembering one particular occasion when a senior academic said to him: “Dear boy, the greatest sin at Cambridge is not actually doing things, it is being seen to be doing things.”

Animal husbandry was being taught in the classroom next door to where we were learning algebra and calculus.

After leaving Cambridge in 2003 to become Vice-Chancellor of UCL, Grant found his intimate knowledge of one of the university’s major competitors across the board fundamental. However the move up was a double edged sword, being in charge of a university forced him to give up academic research, teaching and writing: “It’s a full time job.”

Grant has carried out a long and varied career, and he has taken away some key principles from this: “In my early years as a Vice Chancellor, a colleague at the London Business School sent me a book he had written entitled Why would anybody want to be led by you?. A very shrewd question. In a leadership position, you are constantly under scrutiny, and your words and actions are interpreted and reinterpreted across the whole community. There is no doubt that what really matters in leaders are their values and behaviours. I’m committed to inclusiveness, transparency and clarity, and to team working and devolving responsibility. The best way to get results is to be clear about one’s expectations and then stand back and empower people to deliver. Trust is all important: micromanagement and constant interference are the enemies of excellence.” In terms of advice for outgoing students, he offers: “There is no magic formula for success beyond honesty, integrity, empathy and hard work. Just believe in yourself and go for it!”

Malcolm Grant has lived out an interesting and varied career in several distinguished English Universities. He brings a wealth of experience with him to York and evidently does not wish to take the role of Chancellor passively. What effect he will truly have in his role remains to be seen. However, if he approaches it with the vigour he seems to intend, his contribution to the university will certainly be an interesting one.

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