“When I look over the various jobs I’ve had over my life, being Chancellor has definitely been one of the better ones,” Greg Dyke tells me.
He certainly has a number to choose from. One-time Director General of the BBC and current head of both the British Film Institute and the Football Association, Dyke has proven himself extraordinarily versatile since graduating from York himself in the early 70s.
When asked to return to his alma mater in the wake of his sudden departure from the BBC, he confesses that he didn’t quite know what to expect. “You don’t really know what the job is when you’re outside. Looking back, I’ve seen it as a job that involves a lot of public relations. You are not an executive of the university and you don’t make executive decisions.”
Dyke seems to feel that a new Chancellor, himself included, might be inclined to feel more pressure than there actually is. “So much is ceremonial,” he says, “that you shouldn’t panic when you get it wrong. You’ll inevitably stand up in the wrong place or say the wrong something at the wrong time, but if you get it wrong slowly you can get away with it!”
Eleven years is a long time, and Dyke’s various roles, ceremonial or otherwise, have pulled him in different directions. Thankfully, Dyke has few regrets: “When I first started, I went round and met all the departments, to really try to understand what goes on. I haven’t been able to do so of late because I’ve been so busy – but I think that understanding the research and work that goes on in the University is really important.”
Change also can lead to disruption as agendas clash. The low point of Dyke’s tenure, if there was one, was a nationwide issue: “I was one of the few people at the University who was opposed to the changing in tuition fees to £9,000 per year. I didn’t like the idea of students leaving university with enormous debts. I don’t think that’s the way you should be starting life.”
Greg would prefer a graduate tax system, to be paid by older generations as well as recent graduates. “It was all very well for one generation to go through university for free, and then when lots of people wanted to go, suddenly you’ve got to pay large sums of money. It made me very nervous that lots of people from poorer backgrounds wouldn’t come to university, but there doesn’t appear to be any evidence of that as yet.”
He recalls when he visited students participating in sit-ins, where “they seemed a bit surprised that I was on their side.” It was, admittedly, far from a given that he would be opposed to the measure, as “the change was great for the universities as it meant they didn’t have to suffer the cuts that other public sector organisations did at the time. But I don’t think that this justifies it.”
Fond memories outnumber the bad, however: “I remember going around Heslington East with Brian Cantor (Vice-Chancellor 2002-2013) when it was still agricultural field, and then when the first college had just been finished. You look at how much has been achieved there in less than a decade and it’s remarkable,” he says.
“The best part of the job is being able to stay so close to students. Most of them are in their late teens or early twenties, and as you get older you realise not only that it’s a wonderful period of your life but also that it’s great to stay around people like that. It’s a very rewarding experience to meet, talk to and understand students and what they do and what matters to them. I feel very privileged to have done it.”
Dyke was originally asked to spend just five years in the position. This turned into another five years, and then one last year to see in the new Vice-Chancellor, Koen Lamberts. “I said I didn’t want to do any longer than that,” he says, not because he didn’t enjoy the job, but because “people in those sorts of jobs should change. You don’t want one person in it for too long.”
It isn’t the only reason, though: “standing up for long periods and shaking hands gets to your knees after a while.”
As well a stepping down from Chancellor, he has plans for his other posts too: “Bit by bit I’ll stop doing them all. I stop at the BFI in January and I’ll stop at the FA in a couple of years. I’ll still have businesses of my own, but really I’m planning to spend a bit more time relaxing and doing something different. I’ll stay in contact with York and the University, but,” he adds, “once you’re gone as a Chancellor, you’re gone. It’s time to let someone else get on with it.”
Having seen so many students come and go, Dyke has always offered the same advice to outgoing students at their graduations ceremonies: “Don’t worry about what comes next, just live it while you’re there.” If this advice is the secret to a career as busy and successful as Greg Dyke’s, we would all do well to follow it.