Professor Iwan Davies announced in February that he will be stepping down from his current position as Vice-Chancellor (VC) of Bangor University before the next academic year. Seren met with him to discuss his term as VC and the next steps for Bangor.
The team were welcomed into his office, where he explained the history of the room and the treasures within it, laughing about the dust that has collected over the past 130 years. Before him, many other Vice-Chancellors have worked in this office, although the role may have changed slightly over the years. Professor Davies kindly explained what his duties are as VC:
The position of a Vice-Chancellor is one where ultimately you have responsibility for the University as a whole; you are the accountable officer of the University, which is a very big responsibility. Effectively, where there are any issues, where there are any breaches of regulation, it is the accountable officer [who deals with them]; the Vice-Chancellor. That’s part of the burden, but also part of the stewardship of the role.
In terms of day-to-day, I see the role as being the external face of the University. Part of that, is that during the pandemic this University was more visible than perhaps it would have been pre-pandemic. Partly because I did more visits overseas virtually than I could have possibly done physically. It’s about representing the University in different fora, which means liaising with governments of all colour, with political parties, with civic society, whether that’s the archbishop, through to multi-faith organisations; I am always ready 24/7. It’s a sobering position because you share the joys of the institution, but you also share some of the real big burdens and often people only see the joy, they don’t see the burdens. But that has meant that we had to take some really tough decisions in order to ensure that the future position of the University was secure. You have, always, a 3-5 year vision; you have to persuade and you have to also have the confidence of the University community.
Someone once said the role of the Vice-Chancellor is 80% external, and one of the things that I have been able to do is have that external focus, but actually maybe not to the extent that I would have wanted, partly because of the pandemic, and because there were so many issues relating to having to respond to this unprecedented situation which required that kind of leadership at that point in time. But it is very much an external role. I often say that the role of Vice-Chancellor is not the same as being the headteacher of a school, it’s not a caretaker; it’s being an ambassador of the university, and this university has a global footprint.
Seren: What led to your retirement from the role of Vice-Chancellor?
VC: The tenure of Vice-Chancellors in the modern world is not like it might have been in the nineteenth century- perhaps the first VC here was around for thirty or forty years. I think in the context of the modern world, and particularly in the world where you have been a student, has been probably the most turbulent period over the last generation and beyond. There’s a wonderful expression by Vladimir Lenin, when Lenin says there are decades when nothing happens, and days when decades happen. Part of the point here is that you have to ensure that you are relevant and that you are part of a process and what you can contribute to the University during that period of time. For me, when the pandemic occurred, I said it many many times that I saw myself as the Vice-Chancellor of the pandemic. It is essential that the University now has leadership that reflects the post-pandemic period. In a sense, it is a different period, and it was that which really persuaded me that it was time, after three years, to step down and to pass on a baton. Passing on the baton is what the strategic plan of the University is all about. It is ensuring that that particular baton is transferred cleanly and in a way which allows the University, led by my successor, to move on in terms of development of the strategic plan.
Seren: Is the next VC ready to go, or are you still searching for the best candidate for the position?
VC: Vice-Chancellor as a role is an important one, but it is not, and cannot be, the University of the Vice-Chancellor. Bangor has a tradition, its own identity, its own values, which reflect its history, but also its aspirations. A university is far bigger than the person who leads it, and I have had the privilege of leading it for a period of time. The University is now engaging in a competitive process, it is a long process, where there are search agents involved and numerous conversations are had with people from probably all over the world, in order to see whether there is a best fit. Where there is a best fit, then there is a privilege of stewardship. That is how I see the role – a privilege of stewardship. But it is not a personality-led development. We are open and trying to understand what the best fit is.
Seren: What does post-pandemic leadership look like to you?
VC: First of all it is inclusive; it takes the University communities together on an ambitious agenda. It is leadership which engages and is accessible, but is also incisive in terms of the ways in which we prosecute key objectives of the University for the benefit of North Wales. It is also a leadership which recognises how key Bangor University is for North Wales. Bangor also sits within a world community of universities, and to be able to represent the international credential of the University is an important part of the process, I would say.
Most of all what I would be keen to see is engagement with the wonderful student body that we have in Bangor. That is throughout the system, whether at undergraduate level or postgraduate level. Engage with the student body, as that is where the real energy is.
Seren: Speaking with Seren before you mentioned that focusing on the student experience was potentially the most important thing for you during your term. In terms of your interaction with students, what are you most proud of?
VC: I was keen that we had an immortalisation of around what the last two or three years has meant to individuals and students in particular. There are two poems that have been commissioned for the graduation ceremonies in July. Those graduation ceremonies are a celebration of what I describe as this interval time that University provides and what that meant for individual students. I was much struck by the messaging from the poems, and one of the messages in one of the poems is that the impact of the pandemic meant that we could no longer breathe each other’s air. It was as if we were submerged under water.
One of the elements I am extremely proud of is the resilience of the student community in the way in which students got to know themselves and their own ability in the way of self-examination, which is the greatest form of awareness. I think in terms of the student experience, given that huge constraint, the idea of being underwater for a period of time, and the way in which the student community dealt with that in conjunction with the University. There were some great examples of innovation online around field work. There was an engagement in terms of the way in which we felt, even though that was through a Teams process, that was actually quite remarkable. And the fact now is that we are emerging where we can breathe each other’s air.
What I am really thrilled about is how volunteering progressed during the pandemic. Massive heroism of the student community who were out there in the community at some risk. That student experience you couldn’t possibly have imagined five years ago. The reward of individual students graduating this year is that they have actually achieved a huge amount – perhaps more because of the pandemic, despite the pandemic – than might’ve been before. That experience is absolutely precious, but I don’t deny for a second the challenge of it, the horror of it, the personal tragedy of it, and the sheer mental anguish of it. But all of those are what the last two or three years have taught us.
Seren: How should the University approach teaching and learning now that the risk of Covid-19 has lessened, but bearing in mind that there are still staff and students that are cautious? How can we ensure that the student experience is protected?
VC: I can’t but refer to the challenge we have now in terms of the European crisis in Ukraine, and one of the things that struck me was a remark of a senior officer in the UK armed forces. He said one of the most important things in any challenge or conflict situation is that you leave no one behind. And to me, post-pandemic, it is really important that we leave no one behind. And one of the great things that the pandemic has shown us, whilst it was massively traumatic, there are some outcomes which we need to reflect on and need to adopt in terms of good practice, having learned through what has been a wretched period.
One of the discoveries relates to how we communicate with each other. The pandemic was genuinely, what I call, an inflection point. By that I mean that society and the way in which we act as society will have changed. We cannot return to the analogue world – we are now in the digital world. So to answer you, it is the use of technology, to ensure that no-one is left behind, in a way which is creative, in a way which allows us to breathe each other’s air perhaps safely, but in a way which respects the learning from the pandemic. And it is the dynamic way in which we interface.
One of the big learnings we had from the pandemic is, is that the student body have different levels of confidence. A lot of people surfaced questions in Teams more than they would have done face-to-face, because they used the chat facility. We used Whatsapp in the context of teaching and learning, which we never would have thought of doing, or at least not regularly, in a pre-pandemic situation. We would be using social media in a way which was different because of the pandemic. Essentially it is just looking at ways in which we don’t see impediments anymore, and we can communicate in different ways now.
Seren: What are the next steps for Bangor University?
VC: I am hugely excited by the future. I think that one of the positive things that has come out of the pandemic has been the commitment for mobility of students. I am really keen for students to take the opportunity for international travel. I am really keen that students get exposed to different cultures, and part of the opportunity for us now is that there is funding available through Taith and I know that our University has made really ambitious allocations for Taith funding so that [international experiences]are a normal part of the student experience. One of the great things about Taith is that it is genuinely worldwide. Essentially you have the entire world at your disposal. The international graduateness of Bangor students is something I would like to see. The other thing I would like to see as well is how we can translate volunteering work into something which then expresses itself into the world of work. I think that is important and that students perhaps need to engage earlier in terms of employability, they need to take up internship opportunities. The opportunities are there, don’t leave them on the shelf, is what I would say. Look out for them, and that is part of the communication that is needed.
But most of all, if I wanted to suggest one thing to the student community is that every student should visit our Rhizotron. Treborth is one of our precious assets and has global significance in terms of its gardens. But people forget some of the facilities we have got, and the Rhizotron is something students should engage with, and should appreciate the work that the University is doing for the environment and sustainability.
Seren: You have mentioned before that sustainability is at the heart of what we do as a university. What does this term mean to you, on a personal and institutional level?
VC: Sustainability has become a bit of a watchword, hasn’t it? And it has become a word, which has, as you said, been used almost indiscriminately. So, what is needed is to ground the word sustainability. I think at one level, you could say that sustainability is ensuring there is abundance for all. The importance of ‘for all’ is a key consideration. But sustainability you can define as a lawyer; if you ask me in a court of law, what I define sustainability as being, I take it to the UN development goals, I take you to perhaps the Future Generations legislation of the Welsh Government. And there you have a real forensic definition of sustainability and I think particularly that the goals and the approach of the Future Generations Act 2015 is genuinely innovative from a Welsh Government perspective.
What I absolutely know is that sustainability is a multifaceted phenomenon. But ultimately it is about each one of us as individuals. I think part of that is recognising our role and our contribution to the planet, but also I would say as well, whilst recognising our contribution to the planet, having real optimism about our ability as a species to deal with the challenges ahead. I have confidence in that, and the reason why is that if you look at the pandemic, what it showed was the ability to overcome the challenges of Covid-19 through inoculation. That was a real triumph. The impact of developing the inoculation was significant. But the cost was huge … if every human being, 8 billion people, were given the inoculation, the cost of that to the world economy would be 0.02%. The impact of not operating on a one to one basis can be huge, but actually dealing with people one to one can actually be quite modest in the way in which you deal with challenges.
It’s how we deal with each other and the importance of dealing with each other. That’s important from the point of view of dealing with low carbon, for example. The reason why I am confident that we can get to a point where net zero is possible, is that as we develop technology and different ways of working, we can be in a situation where the cost is quite modest compared to the huge gains. And I think that that is the point that I’m trying to make regarding the inoculation issue, that people tend to focus on the headlines, and it is the individual I’d like to see developing and being informed around sustainability.
Seren: So as a university, what can Bangor do?
VC: We can make a difference to the world, that’s what we can do. How can we do that? Well, some of the work, in terms of our research here, is huge. The research coming out of Bangor, in terms of water, ground, mountains and air, is genuinely world-leading. If you come to Bangor you can study any climate of the world. So there is a deep understanding of how the world works, in terms of natural geography. I am a great advocate for promoting world-class research, because it was world-class research that got us out of the pandemic, and it will be world-class research that will get us out of the challenges around low carbon. There are individuals here in terms of the low carbon initiatives of the University, there are individuals who are dealing with bio composites, around the way in which we package goods, waste-water testing…there is a whole gambit of different opportunities here. So maintaining our research trajectory, a profile, investing in it, and promoting the understanding that a lot of great research regarding the pandemic was done here.
Seren would like to thank Professor Davies for taking the time to talk with us, and wishes him all the best for the future. When asked, he explained that the search for a new Vice-Chancellor is underway and will take some time. We expect to see the announcement of his successor before the end of the summer.