15 January 2002: The Guardian

Take A Chance On Me

Do universities need chancellors? What do they actually do? Simon Midgley finds out from Diana Rigg, Peter Ustinov, Anna Ford et al

Your starter for 10: What do the Duke of Edinburgh, Jon Snow, Senator George Mitchell, Cherie Booth and Diana Rigg have in common? Answer: Apart from being in the public eye, they are all serving chancellors of British universities.

The Duke presides over degree ceremonies at both Cambridge and Edinburgh universities and is patron of London Guildhall University. Snow lords it up at Oxford Brookes and Senator Mitchell makes flying visits to Queen's in Belfast. Cherie Booth keeps in touch with her Liverpudlian roots by queening it at Liverpool John Moores, while Dame Diana Rigg wows them in the aisles at Stirling.

The roll call of the great and the good who are titular heads in the groves of academe includes sometime politicians and industrialists, members of the royal family, distinguished academics, retired mandarins and diplomats, the odd field marshall, a scattering of thespians and a clutch of television newsreaders. Dames, lords and knights abound.

Just how do universities set about finding a new chancellor? And why does anyone take on the role? The post is unpaid and carries no executive responsibilities to speak of apart from conferring degrees at graduation ceremonies and presiding over meetings of a university's court.

Peter Ustinov, who gives bravura performances on graduation days, estimates that he has shaken 23,000 graduands' hands since he became chancellor of Durham nearly 10 years ago. "My father would have been so pleased had he lived long enough to see that I had struggled into a university at last," he jokes.

"I am as keen as mustard on the job and I think that Durham is a helluva place. I love the slightly plebeian miners' tradition in its background." Ustinov has just founded a charity to fund educational ventures with the help of the University of Budapest. This gives the master of anecdote a chance to regale Guardian readers with a story. "The rector there apologised to me. 'I am afraid this university,' he said 'only has three Nobel Prize winners.' I looked slightly disdainful but concealed the fact that Durham had none, although it had some very good long-jumpers. The Hungarian then added 'but we had one professor even more famous than the Nobel Prize winners, Professor Rubik'."

Diana Rigg, who has embraced the role with gusto, says that graduation ceremonies are "all about making that moment special for each person because in the audience are mothers, fathers, partners, children, wives, husbands, brothers and sisters. Another chancellor, Claus Moser (Keele), said to me right at the beginning, never ever forget that whoever you give a degree to will always remember who gave them that degree."

"I have learnt a great deal about university life. I am in touch with the students' union and I have also made it my business to work my way round the university gradually and visit all the departments so at least I know what I am chancellor of."

Dame Diana said that when offered the chancellorship she pointed out to the authorities that she was a working actress and might not be able to "pitch up for everything that they wanted me to do, but so far I have been able to make all the degree ceremonies.

"Of course it is a very great honour, it's not like being a rector, where you are voted in by the students for the students. Being chancellor, you are a representative of the university so it has a degree of gravitas attached to it."

Ulster University is currently searching for a new chancellor. In fact it has been searching for nearly 18 months now, ever since the previous incumbent, Rabbi Julia Neuberger, gave up the post for personal reasons in June 2000. A search committee consisting of the university's chairman of council, vice chancellor, members of council and senate determine what criteria are used to select possible candidates for the role.

Irene Aston, the university's director of planning and governance services, says: "Each institution has its own distinctive missions and regional dimensions. We have determined that our chancellor should, if reasonably practicable, have significant connections with Northern Ireland.

"The person should be widely known and respected nationally and internationally. Clearly the role can be an ambassadorial one, so having someone who is recognised from a wider global perspective is important.

"We need someone with some experience of public life and also in relation to the voluntary and private sector. Universities have very broad roles within their communities, so a chancellor needs to be able to interact with representatives of a wide range of organisations at different levels.

"He or she must also have an empathy with the value systems of the university community. They need to be able to understand what universities are doing socially and economically.

"Effective communication is also important. The chancellor needs to represent the university at various formal functions and be able to deliver speeches effectively."

Each member of the select committee is asked to bring forward a nominee selected against those criteria. Collectively the committee reviews each nomination to find the best fit. Once a candidate is identified, that person is then invited to consider taking up the role.

There is no set timetable governing how long the process should take, which is just as well given the length of time their search is taking.

Aston says that in the delicate political and religious climate of Northern Ireland, the most important thing is to get the right candidate. But why have a chancellor at all? "It gives us a status in the community that we would not necessarily otherwise have," says Aston. "I think there is some credibility in having someone who is personally selected to reflect the ethos and the type of institution you are. Not every institution is the same, so not every chancellor will be the same."

According to Ulster University's statutes the appointment can be for life. However, in practice the university leaves it up to the chancellor to decide how long he or she wishes to do the job. "I suppose it's better to have some kind of rotation," says Aston. "Universities are very dynamic and their ethos and directions change."

While chancellors, generally speaking, perform the same sort of ceremonial role in all universities, their period of tenure varies - at Stirling, Diana Rigg will serve 10 years, while at Manchester, Anna Ford will serve just seven - as does their method of appointment.

At Oxford University, for example, the chancellor is elected by convocation, which consists of all degree holders of the university who are also members of the university. Nominations have to be made by no fewer than 50 members of convocation and voting has to take place in person at the university.

But is a chancellor really necessary? Harold Macmillan, a previous chancellor of Oxford University, put it this way: "You have to have a chancellor because otherwise you could not have a vice chancellor, and then where would you be?"

Fame but no fortune

The Princess Royal looks after London University, while the Prince of Wales represents the University of Wales. Princess Alexandra bats for Lancaster, while the Duke of Kent leads for Surrey. The Earl of Snowdon, meanwhile, is provost of the Royal College of Art.

As for politicians, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead presides at Oxford, Lord Owen is emperor of everything he sees at Liverpool, Chris Patten has Newcastle, and Lord Carrington confers at Reading.

The former Tiller Girl and Speaker of the House of Commons, Baroness Boothroyd, heads the Open University, while Lord Brittan of Spennithorne does the business in Teesside. Lord Ashcroft presents for Anglia Polytechnic University, while Lord Ashley of Stoke speaks ceremonially for Staffordshire.

At the racier end of the spectrum, Lord Brian Rix represents the University of East London, Sir Peter Ustinov regales the graduands at Durham, Sir Peter Hall directs at Kingston, while Lord Attenborough hams it up at Sussex. Making the headlines at Manchester is Anna Ford, a Manchester graduate and the first female president of the student union.

And finally, as he used to say, Sir Trevor McDonald presides at South Bank University.

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