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      MAKING A DIFFERENCE

      Work/life experiences of Brookes’ academics

  • PAUL'S STORY

    For me it’s about living life to the full. If you put your own happiness and that stuff at the centre of everything then you quickly realise what you want to do.

    Paul is Pro Vice-Chancellor and Dean of the Faculty of Technology, Design and Environment at Oxford Brookes University. He joined Oxford Brookes in March 2011.
  • Academia is Paul’s third career, following earlier spells in political campaigning and working as a television producer and filmmaker. What might appear as initially disparate professions are held together with a golden thread of belief in, and political commitment to, social justice.

    Politics isn’t something that sits separately. It is very much part of everything I do.

    Paul worked in areas of unemployment and housing as a campaigner and lobbyist in the 1980s, before moving into making documentaries and programmes about unemployment and mental health. At Oxford Brookes he is equally concerned with political matters. For him:

    Education is a right, not a privilege. You can offer a university education that is accessible and elite. It’s not a trade-off.

    He brought his contention, that the University should have permeable walls, to his first SMT portfolio at Oxford Brookes in civic and community engagement. In management he retains his egalitarian politics:

    I wear a suit at work these days, but that shouldn’t detract from my belief that people should be enabled to have the responsibility and the power to make decisions as locally as possible.

    He has led on the introduction of distributed leadership and management and it is evident that, from his mental health work, to his role at Brookes, Paul aims to empower the people around him.
    Paul’s move into universities came when he was headhunted to head up a film and television department at Bournemouth University’s Media School. From there he moved to set up another Creative Skillset media academy at Falmouth University before bringing his vast experience into management at Oxford Brookes. This desire to keep moving and take on new challenges drives Paul, who recognises that he has a pattern:

    Every five years building something, get to a point where it’s built and then move.

    Thus, Paul is constantly assessing his next challenge:

    You should always be thinking where you want to go next and not stagnate.

    His motto is:

    Achieve things and then move on.

    This self-reflection is accompanied by his sporadic diary writing. He says he’ll write down what he wants to do in five years’ time, not look at it again and then one day miraculously rediscover it and smile. He describes this as a “magical process.” His definition of success is linked to this reflective process:

    Something you’ve written down, and you wish to achieve, and it happens… Essentially: you want to do something, you make a plan and you do it. It’s the filmmaker in me. I have to have something tangible, a plan that I work to and then deliver.

    Paul recalls the impact of his early life on his career. He inherited his work ethic from his father, who worked in a factory, and it was also his father – who was always making cine films of the family - who ignited Paul’s interest in film. His politics are also informed by his upbringing. After growing up in Erdington, a suburb of Birmingham, which he describes as “one of the five places in England where you are least likely to go to university”, his perspective is “working class focused”.

    A big change came when Paul decided to get married and have children (he and his wife, Debbie, have two children) as he had to slightly relax his hard-working impulse. He laughs that this decision involved a commitment to not travelling around the world as he had done during his television career; ironic given the travel involved in his current role, heading up international student recruitment at Oxford Brookes.
    Three years ago, Paul was diagnosed with throat cancer. This was a scary, difficult period:

    I had 11 hours of surgery to remove a large tumour from my tonsil area and then have my throat reconstructed using tissues from my right arm. This was followed by six months of radiotherapy and chemotherapy. I spent a lot of time on my own, pretty much going through hell… It very much looked like I was going to die at that point.

    However, this experience made him even more reflective, and determined to live.

    Cancer reminds you of your priorities. I was certain before I got cancer that I wanted to be a Vice Chancellor, but I’ve rethought the timeline of that ambition. I’m doing more writing and photography again at the moment. I also have had to help my wife and kids get over what they witnessed of my suffering. Incredibly, everyone has moved on in a good way.

    Upon returning to work, Paul used this newfound perspective to make sure he achieves what he had hoped to in his current role. One of his key aspirations is to bring all of the University’s “making activities” together - so that engineering, computing and the creative design disciplines, for example, can all share space. That desire will now be realised over the coming three to four years. Coming out of the worst of the cancer treatment period,

    One of the things that kept me going was a great relationship with my VC and senior colleagues, who said, ‘you just take as long as you need.' You really want to hear that. I’m sure if I’d been at a different kind of employer that conversation would have been very different.

    Creative work also helped him in this difficult time: photography, reading, writing and film/TV:

    I worked my way through all the Italian neo-realists, the entire series of Breaking Bad. I did a lot of stuff I hadn’t done for a while…

    Ultimately, Paul is motivated by making a difference whilst staying true to himself.

    Everybody likes to think that they’ve had some effect on something. When you get to my stage of life you start talking about legacy. I try not to, but you like to look back and think that things changed for the better, and that you have had an impact.

    Of course there are rules, but they are there to be broken. For me it’s about living life to the full. If you put your own happiness and that stuff at the centre of everything then you quickly realise what you want to do.