Eight hundred years of history

Eight hundred years of history

  • Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz

For an institution that is more than 800 years old, seven years feels like the blink of an eye. And yet that is the maximum length of time that every Vice-Chancellor gets to make their mark – to deliver a vision, to make a contribution and to make an impact that can be felt decades or even centuries into the future.

How do you approach the time you have? What do you prioritise? And what do you want your legacy to be? These are the questions that may well determine your success – or otherwise.

One man who knows how quickly seven years can go by is Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, who in 2010 began his inaugural address as the 345th Vice-Chancellor by reiterating Cambridge’s purpose in the world. This October, he will hand over the helm to Professor Stephen Toope. So how has he approached his time at the top?

Sustaining excellence

“You do have some key agendas,” he says. “The key driver for me – and one I think most people are fed up of my citing – is the part of our mission statement which says our role is to ‘contribute to society through the pursuit of education, learning and research at the highest international levels of excellence’. First and foremost, I felt my role was to ensure that Cambridge remained among the top international universities able to do that,” he says. “Alongside that, I wanted to rapidly begin to develop the physical estate and provide the physical infrastructure needed to sustain excellence, as well as getting the right individuals here. And finally, I wanted to strengthen the postdoctoral community.”

And then, as Sir Leszek wryly observes, events take over. From the very beginning of his term in office, the ability to plot out a seven-year plan has been tempered by the need for pragmatism in the face of external pressures. He says: “Even within six weeks of starting, we had the debate on the big increase in student fees, and what they would do in terms of our ambitions to widen participation.

“That’s what happens all the time in a role like this. The changing nature of political climates and challenges means you may have a vision and you push toward it, but you’re going to be deflected and pushed around. The trick is to always keep your eye on the horizon of maintaining excellence.”

All the while, there is the daunting complexity of the University to contend with. “I think most people may not appreciate what a huge enterprise Cambridge University is,” he says. “This is an institution with the best part of 13,000 undergraduates, 6,000 postgraduates, 4,000 postdocs and around 11,000 staff. On the financial end, it’s an organisation that turns over £1.6bn per annum.

“It has strategic partnerships with the NHS, involving all 31 Colleges; it has links to the City, and to the political issues that are going on in Whitehall. And it has a high level of influence with large companies and virtually all the charities and major funders of research projects.”

Combining the big picture with an individual focus

Effecting change in a short period of time often means having to shift focus from broad considerations of policy to the individuals who make up your team or community – the people who will actually deliver the strategy. “He has done a fantastic job at this,” says Professor Christopher Dobson, Master of St John’s. “He has managed to combine the big picture of Cambridge’s role in the world with an interest in individual people’s research programmes, or the nitty-gritty of giving lectures that students go along to.

“One of the things I admire is his ability to relate to all sorts of different people, from prime ministers to undergraduates. Approachability is a very important part of leading a diverse group of people in our slightly strange, democratic system. And, of course, his support for particular projects has been incredibly important, from Addenbrooke’s to women’s rowing. He’s somebody who takes on issues and sees them through.”

What about the form of complexity that is unique to Britain’s two oldest universities – the collegiate system? How does that help – or hinder – a time-limited delivery plan? The Vice-Chancellor says: “That question, about how impossible it must be to work with 31 Colleges, is probably the most common one I get asked. And my response is that it is probably one of the highlights of the Vice-Chancellorship for me."

“I don’t mean to say that we’ve always seen eye to eye on every issue. But the Colleges remain unique to this University and our friends in Oxford. It’s a system that provides individual support at an incredible level for our undergraduate and graduate students, to help them achieve in ways that many other universities are not able to do. It’s expensive, to be sure, but I believe that expense is more than worth it, in terms of what we’re able to deliver.”

Indeed, the Colleges have been vital in helping to bring about one of Sir Leszek’s most prized achievements: ensuring better conditions for those engaged in postdoctoral research. He says: “These individuals are so much the bedrock of what Cambridge is able to achieve, particularly in terms of its research area. I wanted to make sure that the collegiate University was able to recognise postdocs, not just as individuals who work on particular projects, but as fully integrated members of the academic community.”

Developing stronger partnerships

Sometimes, the role you sign up for changes as much as the environment, and in the past few years, the ambassadorial duties of the Vice-Chancellorship have gained far greater prominence. “At Russell Group universities, the role has changed,” says Professor Abigail Fowden, Head of the School of the Biological Sciences. “A vice-chancellor used to be the senior administrative officer, but now they’re much more outward looking. I think this has played to his strengths. He is an extremely good communicator, and this has been an advantage in the business of advocacy with the Government.”

Sir Leszek says that three types of engagement have proved particularly important. He says: “Firstly, there has been the development of regional agendas. Cambridge is not a university in isolation; it has been seeking to work with our nearest friends, from the University of Essex and UEA Norwich to our closest colleagues at Anglia Ruskin. We’re increasingly coming together to establish a sense of regional identity and regional engagement."

“The second is at national level and with the major funders; to ensure we can participate as effective collaborators and partners on major programmes and projects. Then we have the international developments in China, India, the United States and many other parts of the world. It isn’t just around developed countries. The Cambridge-Africa programme is something I’m particularly proud of. I think that’s fantastic for the future, because it ensures that young people will take a truly global perspective on what the University of Cambridge can offer.”

Professor David Dunne is the director of the programme, which supports the career development of African researchers through partnerships with universities and institutions across the continent. He says: “His definition of an international university is one that shares its world-class expertise, facilities and experience to support fellow academics in the world’s least-resourced countries. He has shown absolute commitment to that during his time in office.”

That commitment has resulted in action. Under Sir Leszek’s watch, the University has established 25 PhD scholarships for applicants from sub-Saharan Africa, and fee waivers for postgraduate applications from the most economically disadvantaged countries. Professor Dunne says: “I think he has a particular commitment to supporting African researchers – one that may have been reinforced by his early experiences as a young medic in West Africa. He has often given speeches about the responsibility of universities to the world’s poorest billion people, and I think this is an absolute keynote of his influence on this University.”

Responding to significant challenges

Domestically, the greatest disruptor emerged in the Vice-Chancellor’s final 18 months of office. “Brexit has been a challenge,” he says. “I make no bones about it – I was a staunch remainer, but I recognise the decision that the referendum reached and understand why we will be leaving the EU. At the same time, we mustn’t damage the fantastic academic collaborations that we have with our European colleagues and counterparts. We are the UK’s most successful single institution in Europe, and it’s so important for Britain’s position in the future that these relationships continue to evolve and develop.”

Securing the University’s financial future has been one of the Vice-Chancellor’s main strategic objectives. Here, Sir Leszek has built upon the work of his predecessor, Professor Dame Alison Richard, in making philanthropy a priority. “We have many sources of government, international, commercial and other research funding available to us as an institution. However, philanthropy is unique. Very quickly in this role, one begins to realise the many advantages in having established relationships with like-minded philanthropists who subscribe to the University’s mission, understand us as an institution and really wish to contribute.”

When he took office, the 10-year fundraising drive to mark the University’s 800th anniversary was being wound down; it has been followed by the “Dear World... Yours, Cambridge” campaign that aims to surpass its success. He says: “On top of the £200m or so we raised for the back end of the old campaign during my tenure, we’ve raised £860m for this latest one. I’m sure that it will reach its target of £2bn, ensuring we maintain the diverse funding base that allows us to have the academic freedoms to carry on being the institution that we are.”

A far-reaching legacy

The legacy of Sir Leszek’s seven years in office on Cambridge’s built environment has been profound, and nowhere is it more evident than at the £1bn North West Cambridge development. “It’s the most ambitious project any university has really embarked on, to develop a new part of the city to ensure we can remain competitive despite rising accommodation costs,” he says. “Then we have all the other buildings that have been put up during my time – in particular, the development of the Addenbrooke’s campus.”

Beyond this, what does he think his legacy has been? “I suspect that will be up to others,” he says. “But I hope I’ve been able, during a reasonably difficult time, to sustain Cambridge’s enviable international positioning as a major centre of learning; to attract amazing staff and students to this institution; and to leave it well-placed to take on whatever challenges may be present in the future.”

Colleagues will have more personal recollections of his style of leadership. Professor Fowden says: “He has a scientific mindset – his views are evidence driven, and we get clear-cut decisions as a result.”

“I’ve always felt that he enjoys the job,” says Professor Dobson. “I’m sure there are bits of it that aren’t fun, but you always get the feeling that he’s fundamentally optimistic and looking for the opportunities that exist, even when circumstances come along that he might not like much. I don’t think you can have a forward-looking institution if the head of it isn’t optimistic.”

It is a sentiment that the Vice-Chancellor echoes in his handover notes for his successor. “I would say, you are privileged to have the best job in the world,” he says. “So enjoy it – and make sure that you fully engage with all of the wonderful people who are here in Cambridge.”

Interview by William Ham Bevan. This article first appeared in CAM - the Cambridge Alumni Magazine, issue 81.