Provost’s View 26/09/13: Introducing myself to the UCL community

26 September 2013

Welcome to my first Provost’s View. It is wonderful to finally join you at UCL some nine months after my appointment was announced last December. I am deeply honoured to be the tenth Provost of UCL and the fourth to bear the title of President & Provost of this outstanding comprehensive university. 

I regard my post as the best senior position in higher education and I recognise that I have been entrusted with the leadership of one of the best universities in the world. UCL is a unique institution with a very proud history and a tremendous reputation and I am certainly looking forward to working with all of you. I’d particularly like to extend a very warm welcome to those students joining UCL for the first time.

It is my intention, during term time, to write a relatively brief column each week, and a more in-depth topic-oriented piece on a monthly basis, as just one of the ways in which I intend to keep up regular communication with all staff and students. You will be able to send in your comments and thoughts. I am not going to promise to answer all of those on an individual basis, but if themes emerge, I will certainly do my best to address them.

How will this differ from the previous Provost’s Newsletter? Well, it will still focus on the issues and events of the week, from my perspective, but it will not be a vehicle for transmitting UCL news nor notices – for those you must turn to The Week@UCL for staff, and to student communications channels. This will hopefully avoid any unnecessary duplication.

In contrast to the Provost’s Newsletter, I will publish my columns on the UCL website, rather than through all-staff and all-student emails. There will be a period of transition with email reminders for a few weeks and the columns will be regularly linked from The Week@UCL as well as from a number of top-level UCL websites. You might be delighted to hear that I will not be resorting to Twitter, Facebook or any other social media, as there is just not enough time in the day, and such activities are not really my style.

Provost at UCL Laws graduation

The warm reception that I have received since my arrival at UCL three weeks ago has been wonderful and I want to thank everyone that has sent me their congratulations and their very welcoming comments. 

I would also like to thank my predecessor, Sir Malcolm Grant, for his very generous comments about my appointment and for all his help during the past few months – he has been incredibly generous with his time and has kept me closely informed during the transition about the important active issues. There certainly hasn’t been a dull moment over the summer!

On my very first day as the new President & Provost, I had the pleasure and honour of attending the Faculty of Laws graduation ceremony, accompanied by my wife Liz, at which both Sir Malcolm and Lord Dyson, Master of the Rolls, received their honorary doctorates. It was a wonderful occasion, with the largest academic procession I have ever seen, and a very large number of distinguished guests including two previous chairs of UCL Council, Lord Young and Lord Woolf, as well as the current chair, Sir Stephen Wall. The Dean of Laws, Dame Hazel Genn gave a stunning oration, highlighting Sir Malcolm’s outstanding achievements and I must confess that I did just begin to feel a little bit of pressure!

The ceremony included ‘a metaphoric passing of the baton’ from Sir Malcolm to me, as he closed his characteristically articulate, notes-free, acceptance speech by introducing me formally to UCL. My own view of Malcolm’s leadership of UCL is that he has not only achieved a great deal over his decade of UCL leadership, but that it was all delivered with great style and it is very clear that he was much loved by staff and students alike. If I can achieve at that level, I will be a very happy tenth Provost.

I very much enjoyed the opportunity to give my first UCL public speech at the Laws graduation ceremony, even though it was somewhat of a baptism of fire. Much of what I said about my future vision for UCL and how we might take things forward will be covered in my opening lecture of the Lunch Hour Lecture series on 3 October and that will no doubt inform the content of one or more future editions of Provost’s View.

Provost with honorary doctorates

From left: Lord Young; Sir Malcolm; Lord Woolf; Sir Stephen Wall

The added twist at the graduation ceremony was a mortar board that was just a little too big for my head (no comments please) and so, as well as trying to speak clearly and with authority, there were some delicate, but hopefully discrete, moments of hands-free ‘mortar juggling’. Fortunately, I am lucky enough to be able to give of my best when the adrenaline is flowing, and that coupled with nine years of graduation ceremony leadership in Leeds saw me through the event without serious mishap.

If you have read this far, you will have detected that my style is perhaps a little different to Sir Malcolm’s; something you will hopefully get used to with time. For the record, I have resisted the temptation to grow a moustache, but you will be pleased to know that a plastic version featured amongst my leaving gifts from Leeds. University humour clearly knows no bounds.

What sort of President & Provost will I be? I can understand that these are potentially worrying moments for an institution as a new leader descends full of energy, enthusiasm and fresh ideas. Hopefully, I have all three of those attributes, but I am also keen to ensure that any changes we may make will be for good reasons. I don’t, for example, feel the need to change things just to assert my authority. I can reassure you that I am not intending to change the faculty structure, nor the structure of the senior team, nor the financial model of UCL. I will, of course, reserve the right to suggest change if there is a good academic rationale or other sound reasons so to do. Usually that will be obvious to all of us.

I believe that I am the first ‘medic’ to hold the post of President & Provost of UCL and I am, of course, very proud of that achievement. I am alert to the fact that having a medic as an institutional leader may have some of you worried about where my emphasis might be. Let me reassure you all that I am highly supportive of the concept of a major comprehensive university covering most, if not all, disciplines. My track record in Leeds was of broad disciplinary support, but also a major interest in creating interdisciplinary activities in research and education. If anything, I think my concern is that I may put too much emphasis on everything but medicine, but in such circumstances, I’m sure that colleagues in the School of Life & Medical Sciences will speak up!

Finally, let me finish with my initial impressions. UCL is an outstanding academic institution and you have all achieved a great deal, with obvious acceleration in your academic excellence and international profile over the past decade. The history and values of UCL hold true and you all seem to revel in the fact that you enjoy an intellectually rebellious history and culture. I completely understand that and acknowledge that I will need not only to work with that grain, but to enjoy it too. I believe I will and I am confident that UCL can continue to grow in stature and reputation over the years to come. I am looking forward to meeting many more of you in the not too distant future.

Professor Michael Arthur
UCL President & Provost

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