Role-holder interview: Janet Beerphotograph of Janet Beer, University

Q: If we could go through some of the main things that you do, then that’d be great!

JB: My work is, I think, probably more than many others in the institution, a mixture of the internal and the external, and that’s probably about equal. In fact this week – that’s the week beginning 21st March 2011 - I’m in the institution more than I usually am, partly because I found it impossible to get to particular events, and so I’ve changed certain arrangements. So, for instance, I was invited to a Guardian Newspaper round table discussion which started at 4 pm in London on Monday but I had to send apologies.  Monday is my heaviest day in the institution with, senior management meetings usually from beginning to end. So, for example at 8:30 on Monday I had a meeting with the Academic Registrar. Then I was scheduled to do some work on graduation speeches for April – because they’re coming in quite close to the deadline – and it was easier to schedule them into my diary.  However, I didn’t complete this because events overtook it, so I worked on them later that day.

I then met a new head of Department, in company with Chris Cooper, PVC Dean from the Faculty of Business.  Next was an hour-long SMT meeting from 12 till 1. This regular meeting is with the new Senior Management Team  (or newish):  PVC Deans, Registrar, the brand new PVC Research, PVC Student Experience and me and the Finance Director. We then had a second meeting of the new senior leadership group, which is held on a Monday lunchtime once a month for all the academic leaders in the institution, along with the directors and some other key people, Roger Grew from strategic planning and George O’Neill – the assistant Comms Director – and a few others.  This is 10 or 15 minutes from the front from me or a member of the senior management team, and then an opportunity for the heads of depts., the new academic depts.  To network, but also to ask questions, to raise issues that are either internal or external. Typically  - I say typically, we’ve only had 2 - I would start off with something about the external environment and then, this week for instance Paul Large talked about where we were on the fees discussion as regards our consultation with staff inside the university, our students and also with the final part of this, with the governors.  Following this– at 2 O’clock – we had Executive Board. Executive Board is the senior management group in the University to which the Vice Chancellor has delegated authority. So that’s a decision making body of the university, and that went on until 5 O’clock.

At 5 O’clock we invited the Brookes University Challenge team that had been so successful in the current competition to come and have tea with us.  And so, the four students and Ian Bailey, their coach – who works in Technology –– came and had tea and entertained us for an hour with stories of Jeremy Paxman and the scruffy trousers he wears behind the desk. And that was huge fun – that was a lovely end to the day. And then I actually had the evening at home – which is quite unusual.

Tuesday, I had a one to one with the Registrar. I then had a meeting with Simonetta Manfredi, who is organising with me a conference here in September on senior women in leadership. I then went and had a very nice lunch in Brookes restaurant, served by a couple of our delightful students, both of whom are sorting out their work placements for next year. One’s going to work for Cunard: one’s hoping to go to the Marriott, in Knightsbridge. This lunch was with Marianne Bell who is the new editor of BBC Oxford and Susie Baker.  We had a very, very productive lunch talking about the kinds of things that we could do in collaboration  – not just student work placements (although they’re important), but also letting them know about what’s going on and also about Universities Week – which is in June – and one of the immediate things that has come out of that is that the BBC are going to feature a Brookes student story every day for a week during universities week on BBC Radio Oxford, which is lovely. So that was very productive.

My next meeting was a Challenge meeting – that is to say Schools of Technology, Design and the Built Environment coming together with the new management team to discuss challenges for the next two years. It is “challenge meeting” time of year.  Following this I had a telephone catch up with the director of the Universities Alliance. Another important part of my role is a national role as head of Universities Alliance and so Libby Aston and I caught up on various things that we both need to do and whether we could fit in other commitments that conflict with arrangements that she and I already have.   So it was just a general catch up.  The Alliance I guess will take up, approx a day a week. – It varies. Last week there was a Board Meeting that took up a whole day, but at other times it’s snatches and bits of the day. My final meeting was with the assistant Comms Director, George O’Neill – and we discussed a variety of things that have to do with our public face and then at 7pm I had dinner with the president of UUK….

Q  - So that’s a picture of how the week goes – it’s really interesting…

JB: Yes and yesterday we had a Challenge meeting – Health and Life Sciences - that went on for 2 hours. And then I met with Colonel Matt Shaw, who is the new head of the Officer Training Corps in Oxford and he came in with Adrian Parker, who is our liaison person.  We, talked about the students that we have, about their leadership development, and about reasons why they sign up with the army and the other services and their work with them and the benefits that our students derive. That was very interesting. And I also met the new – well, he’s in his second year – the warden of Rhodes House, at Oxford, whose called Dr Markwell and we talked about the possibilities for having Rhodes Scholars studying at Brookes. Then, at 12 O’clock, we had the Business Challenge meeting and that went on for about an hour and a half and that was very interesting. Again, with the new senior team. Next at 3pm we had the Learning Resources Challenge meeting which relates to library and information services. I then got in the car and went to London – to a reception for Vice Chancellors and Chancellors. Our Chancellor Shami Chakrabati was there, along with the Chancellors and Vice Chancellors from other universities.  There were speeches by Sheila Hancock who is Chancellor of Portsmouth, then by the president of UUK and also David Willetts. I got home about half past nine and fell into bed.

And this morning…. I’ve been to the dentist; at 8 O’clock, and had a conversation with someone from the Higher Education Academy about a speech I’m going to give at a big PVC conference next week on the Student Experience. Later on this morning I’ve got a one to one with the PVC Dean followed by more Challenge meetings.  Next I am talking to a colleague in Psychology regarding a conference he is organising and that I am opening later this month.

Tonight I’ve got a dinner for senior women who are involved with our leadership Conference.  Tomorrow I’m spending the first part of the day opening an event between the Business School and the Burgundy Business School, which is a partnership they’ve just developed. The rest of the day I will be at Nuffield College at an international women’s conference.  I was invited to speak at a round table discussion on leadership challenges.

It’s more Oxford based than it normally is in a week, and there’s no particular governor activity but – apart from that - it’s probably a pretty typical week in terms of the balance of inside/outside.  Local events, detail of the universities operations, for instance in the Challenge meetings and with Executive Board.

One of the things that I’m trying hard to do in the institution is to improve communication right across the University, and the monthly Good News meetings I have will mean that what’s going on nationally will be cascaded effectively through the institution. The Challenge meetings are very enjoyable. You get to see quite a bit of the detail of the subjects and areas of the directorates and how they’re operating.

Q: Have you always done those?

JB: No, when I first came they existed by School and they were conducted by the Director of Finance and a Dean. In my second year I said – well this a bit silly. It’s a really good opportunity for senior management to find out more to set challenges and so now the whole senior management team conducts those challenge meetings.

Q: Thank you - great.  Lots of meetings.

JB: Yes – lots of meetings. Also, you know – also lots of finding out about what’s going on in the institution and then going out there and boasting about it….

Q:  And the senior women in leadership things that you’re attending…are they because people recognise what you are….?

JB: They’re because I have a particular interest. So for example this conference that Simonetta and I are organising. I think it’s going to be something special. It’s about not just higher education, but politics and public sector/private sector and third sector and we’ve got a panel of women, senior women – so, a chief constable, a senior woman from the Church of England, a senior woman army officer talking on that. We’ve got Marie Teigen coming from Norway – to talk about quotas. She’s the woman who did all the work to get 40 per cent representation for women on all the boards in Norway. We’ve got a senior woman coming from the European Commission, we hope. We’ve also got the two leading researchers in the area,  Susan Vinnicombe and Beverley Alimo Metcalfe. Giving keynotes…

Q Thanks. So this could be quite a lengthy second section too. This is to give people an idea of what roles you ‘ve had that gave you a pathway to… you got to where you are…

JB: OK. I had quite an unusual start to an academic career. When I finished my PhD in the eighties there were no academic jobs: it was the last time there was a lot of slash and burn in the sector. So when I finished my PhD I went to work in local government – the ILEA. I was there 6 years and – at the time – it felt like a bit of a failure because I thought I was going to be an academic. But, I really enjoyed it and would not have changed it for the world. In terms of the kind of staff development it gave me, and leadership development and also management experience because at the age of 23, 24 I was managing huge teams of people, which most academics never do – and also, getting the best personal development I’ve ever experienced because GLC/ILEA really took care of that. And then I had my children while I worked in the ILEA and they gave me the opportunity to keep my senior role, just as we do at Brookes, but to work jobshare after I had Tom. And whilst I was on maternity leave I turned my PhD into a book and when the ILEA was coming up to abolition I thought – well maybe there’s a chance of getting an academic job…and I did. In 1990 at Roehampton and I was very grateful to them for giving me a chance because I hadn’t taught for seven years, but I had the book coming out – that was published in 1990 - and so I went back to being an academic. But because I’d had the local government experience I very quickly took on a number of different leadership roles. I became chair of Equal Opportunities at Roehampton and also acting Head of Department before I actually left there to be a head of department - at Manchester Met and was at the department there for 4 years. Then I became PVC Dean and had some excellent staff development opportunities at MMU as well, under the guidance of Dame Sandra Burslem who was a fantastic Vice Chancellor and brilliant boss, In 2006 and after four years as a PVC Dean I got the Brookes Vice Chancellorship and started here in Sept 2007. So it sounds very straightforward but of course it wasn’t– and people always say to me – what inspired you to go for the next job. And mainly what inspired me was fear of being managed by somebody…who I thought might get the job if I didn’t go for it…

I couldn’t ever have told you that when I went back into university teaching that I wanted to be a Vice Chancellor…I didn’t know anything about Vice Chancellors. I just wanted to teach and have the opportunity to write – and through the nineties – the early nineties – I was on this deep, catch-up curve.   I had small children and couldn’t go out in the evenings, and had to catch up on the years I’d had outside of academia and my subject association was very important in that. Alongside that I’ve always been very active in my children’s education, so I was on the Board of Governors at their primary school, and at their secondary school.  I was Chair of Governors at the sixth form college they went to, and this is why my children say I’m an interfering old bat – and possibly very true. And so there’s been that dimension as well. That gives you leadership development also. I mean it was quite a tough chairmanship actually. Yes, so there were lots of things going on the way. But I still try to keep my research going, so having picked it up again after those years in local government I’m very reluctant to let it go.

Q: what job did you actually do for local government?

JB: I did about 6 different posts. I was on their graduate training programme and when I first joined I was in Teaching Staff Recruitment, I then went to Establishment Branch, which was their support staff – so I had 2 HR jobs - and then I went to Further Education Branch. Here I had oversight of colleges and polytechnics in London in terms of their capital investment building programmes and then – after I came back after I had my son Tom – I went to divisional office too, in charge of all staff, all teachers, all caretakers, all office staff, everybody, supply, blah, blah blah, in Camden and Westminster. Then after I had my daughter I was back in Further and Higher Education but part of the office that was looking after the handover of the polytechnics to independence…. Oh, and I had a job in Schools Branch at some point.  This was about handing out special payments to schools that were working in very challenging environments.

Q: Was that all because you sought out different things?

JB: Well, yes and it was just the way it worked….you didn’t really do anything for longer than a year, they’d move people round the service. But some of them were promoted posts. I had to find them….

Yes, I had the fast stream training when I started at the GLC/ILEA which was a year’s full staff development and training, with only about two weeks out of the classroom.  I also had absolutely tremendous equal opportunities development  - there was a big push under Frances Morrell and Ken Livingstone, and I did quite a lot of cutting edge – and frankly terrifying – Equal Opps development, where it was very, very radical and run by scary people from America. Yes, I’ve always been a staff development junky, and luckily my boss at MMU was similarly minded and she sent me on the top management programme with the Leadership Foundation. She also sent me to the Women Leading Business course at Harvard. And anything that I wanted to do, basically – especially on the Equal opportunities front, she supported

Q: Was it the case that you had to go to her…

JB: She pointed me in the direction of those 2 major things, and also anything else that I wanted to do, she supported

Q: And was there anything else that you needed….

JB: The out of work experiences I’ve already talked about haven’t I? Like governorships and so on.

Q And – on the job - did you have any less formal sorts of training in your jobs, like mentoring, for example?

JB: Yes, my boss in the Higher Education Branch of the ILEA was incredibly helpful, and one of the heads of department that I worked with at Roehampton - Ann Thompson - she was a great head of department, but you learn as much from bad bosses as you do from good bosses. I want our Heads of Department to be well supported and well developed, because it’s a critical role for the institution. If you get one person who is not very good at it, the whole institution suffers. It’s the toughest job in any university, the head of an academic department. There are lots of jobs that are tough but this is toughest…

Q: Why’s that?

JB: Because you’ve got to be everything to all your colleagues, you’ve got to be a buffer between them and the person above you.  You’ve got to represent that department but you’ve also got to be collegial, you’ve got to take tough decisions and tell people things they don’t want to hear and you’ve got to manage the unmanageable. It’s a random group of people, none of whom can be pinned down at any one moment in time, and it’s just tough stuff. And you’ve got to look after all of those wonderful students and make sure they’re getting the best deal.........So. I never saw myself on a career path.

Q: No!  And that’s what we want to get people aware of – that often, classic career paths don’t really exist.

JB: What I have said to groups - mainly of women – that I’ve talked to in the past about my career is that I’ve just said Yes! to everything. So say Yes! to as much as you can – it’s the bane of Bev’s life actually, because she just wants me to say No! occasionally.  You say Yes! to everything and when an opportunity arises, you say to yourself, What have I got to lose?... because men do that and women don’t. And also, nothing is ever wasted– Because that bit of work that you did at your child’s school demonstrates that you’ve this or that skill. Or say – for instance – being chair of the board of a college with a 30 million budget – added to my financial experience and added to my faculty experience, which had only been a 4 or 5 million budget. So that was a bigger scale operation and I had ultimate responsibility for that. That’s not the day job, but – often women think, Oh, that doesn’t count, that doesn’t count – EVERYTHING COUNTS.

Q: Did you ever actively seek to fill any gaps that you thought you had… or did you go ahead and do the things that you were interested in?

JB: The research – I knew I had to pick up speed, after I got back into academia. That was a very deliberate thing, and I took on the editorship of something called The Year’s Work in English Studies in 19th Century American Literature – and that meant that every single book in the field that was published got sent to me for review. Of course, it’s only a five sentence review and you have the best intentions that you are going to review them as they arrive, but I’d end up at Easter, with a pile of 50 books to review, but that really got me up to speed fast. Somebody who taught me at Reading said – Do you want to do this?  - and my head should have said no, because it was a lot of time, and I had a full time job and I had little children, but of course it was really helpful in terms of getting up to speed. So the only time I’ve ever done something that was strategic in terms of filling gaps was that. Usually, the other stuff has just happened because it’s come along, and I’ve thought – well, I’ll do that….

Q: So, you’ve grabbed the opportunity.

JB: Yes – What have you got to lose? – It’s a really good thing to ask yourself. So, in terms of changes on the career path – I suppose that period of local government at the beginning taught me that you can’t really plan something, because – well – I planned to be an academic and there you are – Margaret Thatcher put the kybosh on that one. When they went and abolished the ILEA, it was beginning to feel personal.

Q: I guess, though, it looks like you still kept as the end goal –

JB: Not necessarily, because I was applying for jobs, I was quite shocked to be offered the job at Roehampton actually, so I was applying for jobs on local government as well. …. I’d just started to work on the exit strategy, because the ILEA had about a year to run…

Q: And how long did you do, roughly, each of these jobs for – after local government?

JB: I went to Roehampton in 1989, I was a senior lecturer, then a principal lecturer after about 3 years, and then I was acting Head of Department. I left and went to MMU in 1997 – no 1998. I started there in 1998.

Q: And you said you were in local govt for about 6 years?

JB: That’s right. And then ’98 to 2002 Head of English, then 2002 to 2006/7, and then I got the job here. As I kept telling the registrar, I never do anything for longer than 4 year. although there’s 5 years at MMU, as after I got this job here I carried on for a year

Q: Yes, I think people are recognising that now more and more – 2 or 3 years on your CV isn’t a bad thing. I think you’ve gone through the bit I asked on your sheet about – advice with the benefit of hindsight for others…

JB: Yes. Essentially, don’t undervalue the things you’ve done, and think about things (you’ve done) in a different way, things outside the university as well. Do you volunteer, do you help out, or organise something else, do you run the village fete you know…whatever it is. Just think about it and what it brings and what you’d like to do. Also – just give it a go.


last update 18 May 11