Introducing our new Chancellor

Student Liam Mullally interviews incoming University of York Chancellor Prof. Sir Malcolm Grant

For New Zealander Professor Sir Malcolm Grant, England was only ever supposed to be a “transitional destination as part of an ‘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, both as 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 its purview – from assets to students – before moving on to become one of two Pro-Vice Chancellors in 2001. There 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.”

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. The move up was a double-edged sword, however, as being in charge of a university forced him to give up academic research, teaching and writing: “It’s a full time job.”

Grant has had 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.”

For Grant, his new role as University of York Chancellor is more than a ceremonial one. His own background as a former Vice-Chancellor, he tells me, will give him the 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.”

Grant’s role will also serve an ambassadorial function – he will have to court with research councils, donors and alumni, liaising both in York and elsewhere.

Grant sees himself as having a different approach to the position than his predecessor, Greg Dyke. With a background in UK higher education, Grant brings his own insights into where the UK 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.

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NHS Confederation: Panel session ‘Building the new system’ featuring Dr David Bennett, Dame Jo Williams and Professor Malcolm Grant.

In terms of education models, 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.

And as for health, he foresees significant change: “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 marriage of the NHS with 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 the vanguard of this effort.

As to whether the new government will support this future, Grant is not particularly optimistic. 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.”

Professor Sir Malcolm Grant has clearly lived out a varied career so far. He brings a wealth of experience with him to York and evidently does not wish to take the role of Chancellor passively. We look forward to seeing what he will bring to our university.