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.


Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
A boy holds a chick during the Russian National Agricultural Exhibition Golden Autumn 2014 in Moscow on October 9, 2014.
Life and Style
love + sex
Ashley Young celebrates the winner for Manchester United against Newcastle
footballNewcastle v United 1 player ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Ashley Young celebrates the winner for Manchester United against Newcastle
footballNewcastle 0 Man United 1: Last minute strike seals precious victory
Life and Style
Tikka Masala has been overtaken by Jalfrezi as the nation's most popular curry
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Seth Rogan is one of America’s most famous pot smokers
filmAmy Pascal resigned after her personal emails were leaked following a cyber-attack sparked by the actor's film The Interview
Benjamin Netanyahu and his cartoon bomb – the Israeli PM shows his ‘evidence’
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
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

Ashdown Group: IT Manager - Salesforce / Reports / CRM - North London - NfP

£45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and reputable Not for Profit o...

Reach Volunteering: External HR Trustee Needed!

Voluntary post, reasonable expenses reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: Would you ...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40,000: SThree: SThree have recently been awa...

Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - Covent Garden, central London - £45k - £55k

£45000 - £55000 per annum + 30 days holiday: Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - ...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot