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And so, we are almost at the end of our sixth VC’s tenure. Professor Mark E Smith, CBE (as of a few weeks ago), perhaps has not quite lived up to the rock star credentials of his namesake. He made a strong start and endeared himself to large parts of the University community by scrapping two schemes overseen by the previous incumbent, namely the proposed (or threatened) merger with the University of Liverpool, and the dreaded Business Processes Review (BPR). He is well-liked by many senior staff at the University, and courteous and relatively even-handed in many interactions with the University community. In talks to wider groups, he has a tendency to focus on detail and technicalities, particularly for contentious issues (see report on the VC all-staff meeting, in this issue). And he has amused some colleagues with a few verbal quirks, using characteristic metaphors such as ‘taking the temperature of the room’ at Senate to decide what Senators wished to do (some of whom might have preferred to be given the opportunity to vote on issues, rather than have their will interpreted in this way).
Relations with staff seemed to sour considerably at the start of the ongoing pensions crisis, where the VC looked rather disconnected and uncaring compared to other VCs, who not only made public statements of support for their staff, but in some cases even stood with them on the picket lines. When the VC did visit the Lancaster UCU picket line, he was dropped off by his driver in the University’s official Jaguar, and then proceeded to attempt to answer questions via megaphone, in his usual technical style. There was little sense of solidarity with staff, despite his claim that his own pension was also affected. He may have been put in a difficult position in this regard due to his role as the chair of UCEA, which represents employers’ interests, and his own substantial pay package.
Other developments during his tenure (see subtexts passim), including the Professional Services Project (the BPR by another name?), changing the Professional Development Reviews of old into a Performance and Development Review, the destruction of the University Court, the disempowering of Senate, the incidents involving bigoted material and behaviour among the University community, the realisation that we have a massive gender pay gap, and the increasing centralisation and managerialism that have crept into many the University’s structures and processes, will do little to leave good memories of his time here.
It may be that another VC would have done far less to arrest or at least slow the flood of utilitarian thinking and marketisation that afflicts the higher education sector, in the face of government policies that very explicitly push in this direction of travel. It is clear from the initial consultation of staff during the new VC’s recruitment process that many staff wish to find a new leader who will stand with staff and students against these trends, rather than attempting to explain them away. Despite this, it is likely that Mark Smith will be remembered as someone who worked hard for the University, and cared a great deal about his work – which is more than can be said about some VCs! We wish him and the staff and students of Southampton University the best of luck in their future endeavours.