`Viking' who fills the order books

Lesley Gerard on the controversial career of LSE director, John Ashworth
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The Independent Online
"I am not some hairy-arsed Viking from the North bent on a bit of rape and pillage,'' John Ashworth is reputed to have told academics just before arriving at the LSE. The comment, now part of LSE folklore, was intended to allay staff fears that hi s regime would be marked by massive cuts.

Mr Ashworth claims he phrased it more politely but the message was the same. He had been managing director of Salford University since 1981. When he took up the post at Salford the outlook was bleak. When he left nine years later, the order books were full and joint ventures with local companies were flourishing.

Mr Ashworth was keen to show that he understood the LSE was different but determined to introduce reforms.

Three months after arriving, he circulated a paper entitled 2020 Vision, which warned of a descent into mediocrity if change was not forthcoming. His style jarred with colleagues. As a scientist rather than a social scientist, he signed up for summer school at the LSE and attended economics lectures.

"People were never sure whether he was learning about economics or inspecting their classes,'' said a colleague.

He insisted the LSE needed a much bigger intake, more and better research centres and should shift its emphasis and resources from undergraduates to post-graduates.

Some academics complained an American-style graduate school driven by money was emerging. Others predicted an intellectual deficit if applied research took precident over teaching and academic study.

The new director, however, has remained committed to courting research funding from industry, setting up the company Enterprise LSE.

He cites one of the major achievements at the LSE as the fact that research funding has quadrupled from £2m in 1988/89 to £8m in 1995/96.

MrAshworth has faced two public humiliations. Both are linked to the fact that the LSE does not have the space to expand and cannot capitalise on the government higher funding system which means that the more undergraduates you recruit the more money youget.

In an attempt to resolve this funding dilemma, MrAshworth said the LSE would have to introduce top-up fees. Academics voted overwhelmingly against the idea. A public campaign to get the Government to help fund a £65m bid for County Hall as new premises also failed. If he leaves the LSE he will more than likely go with one of the soundbites he has become notorious for: "I believe in seeking new ways to turn academic knowledge into something applied and useful,'' he says.