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.

l.hodges@independent.co.uk

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