Malcolm Grant: first impressions

Grace Marsh interviews York’s new chancellor on his first impressions of the University

It’s only been six months since Malcolm Grant’s official inauguration as the sixth Chancellor of the University of York – but already he has a good sense of the trajectory York is on. Grant shares his first impressions and his outlook on the future of the University.

Even with a display cabinet’s worth of credentials – Knight Bachelor, Chairman of the NHS, former Vice-Chancellor of UCL – Malcolm Grant appears humbled to be invited to take on his new role. “Normally, when they’re looking for a new chancellor, universities go looking either for a member of the royal family or some great celebrity – and I’m neither of those!” But his ten-year stint at UCL, he believes, has provided him with the experience to “immediately understand the problems that people at York feel” and to “provide advice and guidance”. Not every chancellor can say:  “I have universities in my bloodstream.”

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Grant had visited the University of York at different times over the years in departments linked to his academic specialisms – Law and Economics – but hadn’t had the opportunity to get a feel for York as a whole institution. The role has been a “huge learning curve” as he has got to know the University. He cites events such as York Talks in January as giving him an insight into York’s core principles and values. Over the last six months Grant recalls meetings with many staff “passionate” about their interdisciplinary work across departments. It’s moments like these, he says, “when you start listening to people talk about what excites them, you get a real sense of what the University is.”

He goes on: “It’s so easy to look at the buildings or the finances and to get certain impressions of a university. But actually just listening to people, that’s what I enjoy the most, and that’s what’s taught me the most about York.” As well as academic staff, he praises YUSU and in particular its current president Ben Leatham – who has “got it”, Grant says – for their success in supporting students and promoting debate across campus.

As for the campus itself, Grant sees York’s ability to define itself in terms of its geography as an advantage. “It’s not in the middle of a busy, bustling city such as London”, which he knows from experience is “high cost and high energy”. At York, unlike urban universities, it is much easier to “create and feel a sense of community.” This doesn’t mean that the campus isn’t evolving: among many more developments, refurbishment of Alcuin and Derwent Colleges are currently underway.

York’s relative modernity compared with the likes of UCL, Oxford or Cambridge allows it to avoid being tied down by traditions that “really stop you doing what you want to do,” bringing with it the ability to “attract some very high quality academic staff and students.” But Grant would advise against getting hung up too much on comparisons, he says, “rather than being self confident enough to do their own thing. Because to me that is the sign of a really good institution.”

He is optimistic for the future of the University – which is in “a very strong position”. York is “on a continuing rising trajectory” and “becoming increasingly noticed amongst universities across the whole of the UK.” And does he have a message for our alumni? “I really would urge all to remain in touch and be supportive, and to be very proud of the institution from which they’ve graduated.”