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Malcolm Grant talks UCL and tractor-driving

11 September 2013

This month, Professor Sir Malcolm Grant retired from UCL after ten years as Provost. In this interview, Sir Malcolm discusses the highs and lows of his time at UCL and what he likes doing on the rare occasions he's not working.

Professor Sir Malcolm Grant, former Provost of UCL

Of everything that you've achieved at UCL, what are you most proud of?

It is impossible to identify any single achievement, though I would certainly put our founding of a school, the UCL Academy, high on the list, together with the exceptional new Francis Crick Institute at St Pancras, of which we have been the founding university partner. More important than single items is the overall feel of UCL, the sense of a strong academic community, self-confident and world-leading in so much of what it does.

What has been the greatest challenge you've faced at UCL?

Amongst many, I think the absorption of several other institutions as UCL has grown, and especially in the area of life and medical sciences. Our medical school was previously three separate medical schools, and we have major teaching and research facilities at eight hospitals in London. We have been fortunate in having successive medical deans able to pull together these disparate strands of activity and develop a strong strategy.

How have you applied your Law background during your time as Provost?

It’s been immensely important to me. Legal issues arise all the time – from employment law to construction contracts, and from seeking planning permission for new buildings (planning was one of my areas of specialisation) to our responsibility for important historical cultural artefacts in our custody.  

What were the best and worst parts of your job here?

People.

You placed very public emphasis on the importance of teaching through the Provost's Teaching Awards – but do you think research and teaching will ever truly be given equal weighting in a university like ours?

They operate within different frameworks of recognition and in a leading university it is almost inevitable that research will dominate. The trick is to ensure that we hold the two activities together and don’t encourage the development of separate tribes.

Who was your favourite teacher when you were being educated, and why?

My English teacher at secondary school, a state school in New Zealand, who inducted us into English literature. One book we read and argued about was Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians. Memories of it returned to me many years later when we bought Lytton Strachey’s former house in Gordon Square for UCL.

You hold a wide range of positions in the NHS, universities, local government etc. What are the secrets to achieving balance and success?

It is exceptionally hard work and simply can't be done without great assistance. I've been very fortunate to have had this from the team in the Provost’s Office over the years, notably Shirley Collins, Claire Rogers and Jo Wilby, and now with Laura Banks in the NHS.

Can you ever see a day when you completely stop working?

No.

You are well-known for your moustache and even shaved it off for charity. What else have you done (or would you consider doing) to raise money for charity, and what in your opinion are the most worthy causes?

We have sponsored my children, students and others in fund-raising activity. There are so many causes!

What do you do to relax?

Drive a tractor and cut up firewood.

Where is your favourite place on Earth?

Our property in France, within sight of the Pyrenees, and with a lot of woodland.

And your favourite person?

My wife Chris – we will shortly celebrate 40 years of marriage.

What is your advice to Professor Michael Arthur, the new Provost?

This is a great time for universities, and the prizes will go – as always – to leaders who are bold, willing to take risks and who seek out and take advantage of all opportunities.

What UCL-oriented headline would you most like to read in a newspaper after you've gone?

“UCL wins Nobel Prize for its contribution to society”.

If you could describe UCL in three words, what would they be?

An exceptional place.

Interview by Ele Cooper

Page last modified on 11 sep 13 15:06


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