Warwick gets the American beauty treatment

Vice-Chancellor since 1992, David Vandelinde has moved Bath into the top 10 of British universities. What is he going to do for Warwick, one of our big five universities?

Earlier this year, David Vandelinde, the top dog at Bath University, answered a phone call from a firm of headhunters. Would you be interested in taking the helm at Warwick, he was asked. The idea did not appeal hugely at first. He was happily ensconced in the West Country, was enjoying the house he had bought with his wife in the undulating English countryside, and felt he had lots more to achieve locally.

Earlier this year, David Vandelinde, the top dog at Bath University, answered a phone call from a firm of headhunters. Would you be interested in taking the helm at Warwick, he was asked. The idea did not appeal hugely at first. He was happily ensconced in the West Country, was enjoying the house he had bought with his wife in the undulating English countryside, and felt he had lots more to achieve locally.

But as an American, even one as old as 58, Professor Vandelinde was not one to sit about counting his blessings. Having crossed the Atlantic in 1992 to become Bath's Vice-Chancellor, he knew a thing or two about difficulty and challenge. The idea of taking charge of the UK's most dynamic and successful university grew on him. He had, after all, been in the West Country for eight years; and he had told Bath he would stay for more than five years and be gone in about 10. So maybe he had done his time.

"If you don't stay some place for at least five years, it's too short to have any significant impact," he says. "If you stay for more than about a decade, you've probably given the university your best shot and it's healthy to move on."

And so it came to pass that an American landed one of the plums of the UK higher-education system, succeeding Sir Brian Follett, the current Vice-Chancellor of Warwick University who has held the post for eight years. The appointment was announced yesterday. The man who had raised Bath's game by moving a small university from the leading 20 to the leading 10 of British universities, is to run Warwick, a much bigger institution in terms of student numbers and turnover and one of the nation's top five universities. Another British university is to benefit from New World ideas and energy.

For Professor Vandelinde, the decision was the hardest career move he had ever made. For Warwick, it could be a rougher ride than the academics imagine. For although it has an outstanding reputation across a range of subjects, some critics have noticed a tendency for Warwick to rest on its laurels, particularly in certain departments. In addition, it has a name for proliferating committees that have to be consulted before anything can be done. Professor Vandelinde understands the importance of consultation and carrying your staff with you, but he may want to cut a swathe through the committee structure.

The new big cheese at Warwick, who is former dean of engineering at John Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, made quite a few changes at Bath. First, he encouraged early retirements (around 65 have gone early, mostly senior lecturers). Second, he reorganised the university into three faculties - science, humanities and social science, and engineering, (plus a school of management), setting up a new tier between the VC and the departments. This has broken down the barriers between disciplines, though critics claim it has increased bureaucracy.

Third, he sorted out the finances and decided what the university should be trying to do. Professor Vandelinde invested massively, borrowing money to upgrade the campus and to literally blast all the grime off the buildings. Bath may be a Sixties nightmare, built in honey-coloured Jane Austen stone, but it had become dingy over four decades. "These kinds of things make a difference," he says. "The main thing is to believe in yourself and to believe in the capacity of the university to achieve its own destiny."

Fourth, he introduced an American measure: regular external reviews of academic departments on a five-year rolling programme to ensure that they were performing as well as possible. That benefits both teaching and research, he says.

Fifth, he tried to make the university less formal by introducing an American-style long-service anniversary dinner. All support staff, everyone from the cleaner to the assistant registrar, who have served five years, or multiples of five years, are treated to a fancy dinner on the university campus with - you guessed - the VC. They have their pictures taken with David Vandelinde, are given a certificate and are generally made to feel wanted.

For all his boffin-like achievement, Professor Vandelinde brings two important American characteristics to the job of vice-chancellor. He has the can-do attitude that Americans drink in with root beer and Bud Lite. And he has the ease of manner that comes from being a working-class lad from West Virginia who won a scholarship to Carnegie Mellon, the private university in Pittsburgh. At Bath, he was not afraid to ask the silly questions that only an outsider can.

"I was not born and bred in the British higher-education system, so I asked things like 'Why don't we do it this way?' or 'Why can't we do it that way?'," he explains. "I'm sure that from time to time that was useful for the university thought process. I've learnt a lot about why and how we do things here in Bath. We have been able to take the best of both worlds."

At Bath, Professor Vandelinde did not set out to push the university up the research league table: that was simply the effect of numerous decisions taken. "We set out to be as good as we could be," he explains. "There's no magic about it - just a lot of hard work." The research assessment exercise (RAE) is taken very seriously at Bath, just as it is at every university, because so much money rides on it. Almost every member of the academic staff is encouraged to be research-active, as it is known in the jargon. The university conducts rehearsals for the RAE and runs critiques within the university, not just in the month before the exercise, but regularly.

Another American transplant is Vandelinde's annual one-hour talk to parents of freshers, for which he receives a lot of thank-you notes. Nowadays, this is a widespread practice in universities, but eight years ago, when Professor Vandelinde began the practice, it was rare. "We do two things through this talk," he says. "We try to fit faces with names so that they realise there are some real people at this university who care about their children. Second, I get a big kick out of telling the story of taking my older son to university, because it's a really traumatic experience for parents dropping off their first child.

"You've been nurturing this child for 18 years and you find you have mixed emotions when they leave. Essentially, they're leaving you for ever. During my talk, I have parents laughing and crying at the same time."

Professor Vandelinde's touchy-feely approach might not go amiss at Warwick, which can appear austere for allits academic excellence. So, prepare for a more cuddly image. At the same time, the academic side will not be neglected. Expect a system of regular academic reviewers to be introduced as at Bath. That way, sleepy departments will be woken up.

And Professor Vandelinde will certainly not be too shy to borrow money for new develop-ments if he sees fit. Finally, he will be looking at how Warwick can punch above its weight by forming strategic alliances with other universities here and in the USA.

"Warwick is very interested in trying to increase its international profile," he says. Watch this global space.


Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
food + drink
Life and Style
Shoppers in Covent Garden, London, celebrate after they were the first to buy the iPhone 6, released yesterday
Liam Payne has attacked the media for reporting his tweet of support to Willie Robertson and the subsequent backlash from fans
peopleBut One Direction star insists he is not homophobic
Life and Style
healthFor Pure-O OCD sufferers this is a reality they live in
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey
tvSeries 5 opening episode attracts lowest ratings since drama began
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck stars as prime suspect Nick Dunne in the film adaptation of Gone Girl
filmBen Affleck and Rosamund Pike excel in David Fincher's film, says Geoffrey Macnab
Life and Style
Warner Bros released a mock-up of what the new Central Perk will look like
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham
booksLena Dunham's memoirs - written at the age of 28 - are honest to the point of making you squirm
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden sings his heart out in his second audition
tvX Factor: How did the Jakes - and Charlie Martinez - fare?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Year 2 Teacher - Maternity cover

£120 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Luton: Year 2 maternity cover, startin...

KS1 Teacher

£95 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Key Stage 1 teacher require...

Upper KS2 Teacher

£120 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Upper Key Stage 2 teacher ...

English Teacher

£110 - £130 per day + ?110 - 130: Randstad Education Reading: English Teacher ...

Day In a Page

A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments