Interview: Professor Mark Smith

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Asked for his initial reactions to being appointed Vice Chancellor, Smith said that he was “hugely excited” to be taking up the position, explaining that “Lancaster in the sector has a very positive reputation, particularly in the past decade in the way that it has been seen to improve and do lots of great things. To have this opportunity at a university with that reputation is really very exciting for me.”

Smith spoke of his appreciation of being able to learn about the University throughout the application process. “There were lots of chances to ask questions and find out where different bits of the University thought they were going. Particularly, how it sees itself developing over the next few years, and all of that was very positive and there was plenty of chance to meet people and talk to them. The interview process itself was very thorough in the sense that there was plenty questions asked of me and hopefully I gave some of the right answers,” he said.

Smith has clearly had the opportunity to educate himself about Lancaster, citing the National Student Survey (NSS) and the Research Excellence Framework amongst an increasing amount of publicly available information about institutions as useful indicators of the University’s position.

From a student’s perspective, he said, “something that would be very relevant to you is the National Student Survey. You go back ten years ago and that didn’t exist. This now gives a public snapshot of how the students view the teaching. So you can get a lot of information about a university externally now.”

The most recent NSS results were to be published soon after the interview, and although he hadn’t yet seen them, Smith told SCAN that they were “certainly something I’m looking forward to having a look at,” having spoken with Lancaster’s Pro- Vice Chancellor (Colleges and Student Experience) Amanda Chetwynd.

However, Professor Smith was keen to stress that he wanted to get to know the side of Lancaster University not portrayed by statistics. “You then of course have to find out what the people who make up the University really think about it as well, because of course the people who lived it day-to-day can add the colour to those numbers. So it’s taking those two things [statistics and opinion] together.”

Smith will arrive at Lancaster following the University’s recent rise in national league tables, which he is keen to continue. “I think obviously the answer is one has to be keen to maintain that position but of course you have to keep asking yourself how do we do that because there are a lot of competitive institutions in the UK who actually want to move themselves up, so therefore you can’t stay where you are by standing still.

You’ve got to keep challenging yourselves and saying, ‘how do we improve actually where we are?’ Understanding what it is you can do better, understanding why it is you are where you are, [which] sometimes isn’t easy for any institution, and I’m not talking about Lancaster specifically here.”

SCAN suggested the importance of avoiding complacency, which Smith agreed with. He appeared impressed with the mentality of the people he had met so far at Lancaster. “[Complacency] is the worst of all possible things. But I don’t see any complacency here I have to say. From the discussions I’ve had with people, they want to keep the position and improve upon it, and they want to keep earning the right to be in that position.”

Talk of Lancaster’s collaboration with Liverpool University has been rife in recent weeks, with the Lancaster Guardian running a frontpage article in July claiming that these could even lead to a merger. Having asked about this during the application process, Smith said: “What I think is, my understanding […] is that there are discussions going on about how universities, in this case Liverpool and Lancaster, can cooperate more to make themselves more competitive. So particularly in research – if you look at the agenda for research coming out of both research councils and government – the idea of collaboration is something that all organisations are being challenged on.”

Smith sees the current discussion as “a very broad range discussion about what is and isn’t possible, [and] what does it mean for the institutions. I think that’s the stage we are at at the moment, looking at the case of where does it make sense for us to work together.”

Smith was also keen to point out that collaboration should not be seen as a way of saving money, having already commented to the Lancaster Guardian that the talks would not lead to staff redundancies. “It’s about how do we work together as institutions to actually improve,” he said. “It’s a very ‘what if?’ strategic discussion, not a nuts-and-bolts ‘how do we save a little bit of money?’ discussion.”

The conversation moved on to consider the role of the Students’ Union, about which the new Vice Chancellor was very positive. “I think university is all about two key things, although their missions are very broad. One of those two key things is obviously the student education experience element, and any university which doesn’t do this with their students’ union I think is missing a trick.

“I look forward to hopefully very fruitful discussions and interactions with the Students’ Union to be able to understand from your point of view what the University is doing well and doing less well, and how we work together to keep Lancaster in the position that it has earned itself over the past few years.

“I think if you don’t understand what that key constituency, the student body, what they think about things, then you’re missing a trick, and as I say, I’m looking forward to doing that,” he said.

Alongside being known for his rapid movement up the senior management of Warwick and now Lancaster Universities, Smith has an excellent reputation for his research in the field of Physics. He hopes to be able to keep up his own work as well as leading Lancaster, taking inspiration from Warwick Vice Chancellor Professor Nigel Thrift. However, Smith is under no illusions regarding the scale of his responsibilities as Vice Chancellor.

“I’ve got no illusions as to what the number one job is, it’s actually to be the Vice Chancellor of the University of Lancaster, that is the number one priority and then we’ll see what space gets left [for research],” he stressed.

“As I’ve moved through the Warwick system as Pro-Vice Chancellor and then Deputy Vice Chancellor, I have been able to maintain a research career, but [I’ve] had to alter what [my] expectations are, what [I] can actually achieve and I think I’m in a similar position now. I just need to similarly work out in this current context what is and isn’t possible.”

Smith will maintain contact with his previous employer Professor Thrift for advice; “he has been a very good boss to work with and I’m sure I’ll be leaning on him every now and then to ask him how he manages it all,” he said.

Professor Mark Smith will become the sixth Vice Chancellor of Lancaster University in January 2012, when Professor Wellings departs to take up his role at Wollongong University, Australia.

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