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Me and my shadow: Professor Bob Nichol on work-shadowing the Vice-Chancellor

It gives me great pleasure to report back on my experience of work shadowing with Graham Galbraith, our Vice-Chancellor.

When first advertised, I thought hard about who I should request to shadow. Such an exercise is healthy and allows people to see their work environment from a different perspective. It exposes you to different problems faced by colleagues, and allows you to assess how you would cope in the same situation. You also get an opportunity to learn new skills, and gain invaluable practical advice. I would strongly encourage everyone to consider this shadowing experience.

As Director of the Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation, I felt I knew many of the jobs across the faculties and professional services, had experienced the role of Head of Department, and had seen much of the role of a Dean. I concluded, therefore, that I would like to shadow someone from the senior management of the University and in the end decided there was only one role I was truly unclear about; the role of Vice-Chancellor.

So, I applied (only two pages) and submitted it directly to Graham via email. Knowing Graham a little I had expected a positive response but I was surprised about how enthusiastic he was about the idea. He quickly agreed and we arranged for me to shadow him for three events, both inside and outside the University. In the end, I believe he was quite glad of the company, and he certainly seemed to enjoy telling everyone; “Bob is my shadow.”

Professor Bob Nichol

Professor Bob Nichol

My first shadowing event was to attend a meeting of the University Executive Board (UEB). I was told that all business was confidential (so I can’t give details) and to not say anything (this was very hard!) Everyone made me feel very welcome.

At the meeting, UEB discussed a range of academic and operational issues. While the conversations were robust, I was impressed at the level of detail and care given to the arguments. It was good to see the comradery, and I left re-assured that UEB really has the best intentions for our University; even if the issues are complex and it’s tough to find a solution to satisfy all. I was proud of the professionalism of my colleagues.

It was interesting to observe Graham’s role at UEB. It would be easy for him to get dragged into solving all the detailed problems presented at the meeting. It would also be easy to lose sight of the bigger picture, or become overly negative; there are always hard problems to solve. Graham’s positivity seemed limitless!

Finally, I was impressed at the organisation of the UEB. It was a lesson in efficiency, as problems were succinctly discussed, solutions proposed, and notes taken; all to schedule and on time. I left the meeting with a clearer sense of our direction, and while there will be challenges along the way, we are heading towards becoming a truly outstanding modern university.

My next event was a Board of Governor’s meeting. I dusted off the suit again, and headed for the new White Swan building which is an extension to the New Theatre Royal. We started the meeting with a tour of the new facilities available to my colleagues in CCi. I was blown away by the building, but also by the rehearsals we witnessed from the students and the passion and excitement of the staff. It’s always a joy to see people doing what they love, and that dedication was clear to see.

Following a quick lunch, I sat again next to Graham in the St Andrew’s boardroom, this time in front even more people; a mix of Governors, staff and student representatives. Again, I was told not to say anything (still hard!) while Graham lead the meeting through an array of key University business, including an overview of the new Estates Master Plan. Once more I was impressed by the attention to detail given to such matters, and shocked at the amount of money being discussed. That said, we do have a brilliant plan.

My last shadowing experience was to accompany Graham to a meeting of the University Alliance. This event really intrigued me. It was also the most frightening because it involved a board meeting of 19 university vice-chancellors. The location of the meeting was near Whitehall in London and took a whole afternoon covering a range of issues, but mostly focused on the national higher education landscape. I arrived early and was warmly welcomed over lunch by a number of the VCs: I got the feeling they were quite jealous of Graham having his own shadow!

It is worth relating one amusing conversation over lunch. One vice-chancellor asked me what I hoped to learn from my shadowing experience, to which I replied, “to see the main problems facing vice-chancellors.” The gentleman smiled, and replied “parking.” Given our own parking issues I instinctively laughed, at which point another VC echoed “me too.” Almost on cue, Graham arrived and asked us what we were talking about, to which we replied in unison “parking!”

It is somewhat re-assuring that this is a problem across many universities, so we are truly ‘all in it together.’

More seriously, the meeting was fascinating. I was impressed at the collegiality in the room, as well as the depth of discussion. My prejudice was that such meetings would be rather superficial, dominated by politics and egos. I witnessed quite the opposite with the VCs eager to find common solutions to their problems and foster a real desire to work together. A clear focus for them is responding to the government’s changing HE agenda (e.g. TEF, marketisation of UK universities, complex international landscape, etc). I have much sympathy for them.

I have now ended my shadowing experience with a great appreciation for the role of vice-chancellor. It’s clearly never boring, and one must continually keep an optimistic view. Research has shown that optimistic people do live longer; so give it a try!

Read information about the University’s work-shadowing guidelines.

3 total comments on this postSubmit yours
  1. This was a great read – thank you so much for sharing this with us all. You sound like you had an excellent shadow experience.

  2. Second that, great article Bob

  3. Thanks for sharing this with us all, but parking as a problem! Well, there are trains, buses, bicycles and motor-bikes and car sharing, and we have schemes to help people use cars less.

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