Leadership Talk 2: Charlie Jeffery on Returning a University to Its Civic Roots
Professor Jeffery will speak at THE Campus Live on November 24 as part of a panel on how universities can emerge stronger than ever from the Covid-19 pandemic. The event will also include a workshop on Collaboration for Civic Engagement. Register here.
When Charlie Jeffery became Vice Chancellor and President of York University in September 2019, one of the first things he did was bury himself in the archives. While investigating the circumstances of the founding of the university, he uncovered a unique origin story.
Now he takes the values he believes shaped York’s beginnings and updates them for the modern age.
“I think you have to get to know the soul of the place,” says Jeffery, who was previously Senior Deputy Director at the University of Edinburgh. In his quest to do so in York, he found values that he believes characterize the university as being citizen, international, and passionate about equality and community.
Find the soul
The university was established by a group of people linked to Trusts and the Joseph Rowntree family. As Quakers, they implemented socially conscious ideals in their work and founded the university with that in mind.
A document that Jeffery found in the archives that was used in negotiations with the University Grants Council over whether to establish the university, said: “We want the university to conduct studies that contribute to the improvement of life and human conditions “.
“What a statement! Jeffery said. “We want what you do to improve society. “
Although York was not founded as a university of the social sciences – it focused on biology, chemistry and physics – “the basic thought of the university in the beginning was the thought of the social sciences”, he said.
Jeffery was particularly struck by a statement from Lord James of Rusholme, the university’s first vice-chancellor. James was in favor of expanding access to higher education, saying “we should care more than anything else”. He wrote to schools across the country announcing that York was looking for talented young students and when the first cohort started in 1963 it included two students from one of London’s poorest areas, a stay-at-home mom, a man in his sixties and a woman who used a wheelchair.
Another value is embodied by a statement from the founding ceremony. “The aspiration was defined that ‘York University students should be citizens of the world.’ That language ! “Citizens of the world”. In 1963!
Jeffery believes that the founding values have created a stronger sense of belonging in York than exists in other universities. But he says values had worn off somewhat since the 1960s.
“He had also lost his definition a bit. It was there in the ether, but it wasn’t so obvious in those terms. So one thing I thought I would do would just be replay those foundational ideas in college. “
Jeffery began a tour of 36 academic departments, recapping what he had found about the values of the university and listening to comments on the institution in general. At each meeting, he presented his ideas for about 10 minutes and then said to the staff, “What do you want the university to be? “
Staff felt the values they identified resonated, he says, and they discussed practical ways to apply them today.
York’s mission statement became “York University exists for the public good” and principles were developed: they would focus on action-oriented research, expanding access, strengthening of the surrounding area and international work. Jeffery now incorporates these principles into the strategy that will guide the university until 2030.
But why was it necessary to reflect on values? Why not go straight to strategy?
Values engage and inspire, says Jeffery. “They bring people together for a common purpose. We summed it up in the harsh phrase “York University exists for the public good”. It’s so much to see for the people of the university, so much for the people who come to the university, ”he adds.
“We appoint people who say, ‘Yes, I read about it. It’s good. I want to come now; I want to be part of it.
Some might argue that every university could declare that it exists for the public good, but Jeffery suggests that this belies the reality: “Yes they could but they don’t. If you do it, and you say why you are doing it, then it really is distinctive. But it’s also about what you do with it.
Jeffery says he found it “a little ironic” that “a university that had such a strong civic motivation – and this pertained to the context of the 1960s – saw itself as a national university, not a local one.”
“In fact, it didn’t reflect that inspiration much in the city, community and region around York,” he says.
Now he wants York to be a convener of coalitions that can boost the local economy. A project that the institution has already launched is called Bio Yorkshire. It brings together the university, a research laboratory and a college of higher education to commercialize York’s cutting-edge research in the bioeconomy and create local jobs.
It’s also an important message to government, he says, to highlight the value universities bring.
“If all the universities really thought this way and we had 150 local stories of extraordinary value in supporting and developing the economy and supporting and developing the fight against disadvantage by bringing together powerful coalitions, then maybe the government might think of universities differently, ”he said. said.
Using new institutional values to guide decision-making will also contribute to organizational change, says Jeffery. For example, one area that York will expand to become a university for the public good is the environment. While touring the departments, he found that organizational inefficiencies hampered the interdisciplinary education needed to create the climate problem solvers of the future. Departments allocated varying amounts of credits to modules, making it difficult for students to take courses in all subjects, such as environmental science and law.
To combat this, York is awarding 20 credits to each module at the university, starting in 2023.
“Organizational change is disruptive and people get a little annoyed about it,” says Jeffery, but they are more enjoyable when presented as being tied to goals with values behind them rather than for the sake of efficiency or effectiveness. cost.
Another initiative stemming from their focus on the environment is a department of architecture and built environment, something the university had never had before. Jeffery says there is an advantage to creating such a department from scratch now.
“It’s going to jump right into this point where everything has to be carbon neutral, not just in how the building works, but the life of the building from what you use to build it and how you renovate it,” and finally demolish it, ”he said.
Consideration of the public good has also intensified York’s emphasis on diversity. The institution aims to recruit a new generation of early career researchers with two criteria: bright minds and under-represented profiles. Once he hires the new academics, he will put them through a focused training program so that they “become some of our most innovative teachers,” says Jeffery.
As the son of a benefit-dependent single mother and the only member of his elementary school class to go to college, expanding access is especially important to Jeffery. “We have had difficult years,” he says. “Fortunately, my mother made me want to learn. And I had a good manager who saw potential.
Today, York is working with a charity that helps children in disadvantaged areas get access to college, confirming that this original statement of access is more important than “almost anything else”.
Implementing a values-based strategy is one thing, but how do you measure its success? York is in the process of defining key performance indicators (KPIs) and Jeffery says they think creatively.
“Some of them will be simple metrics about student education and research that everyone is using. Some of the things we’re trying to do will be harder to grasp that way, ”he admits.
“[For example] a modernized version of the “citizens of the world” of 1963. So what is internationalism? I would hate to think that this would only concern the number of international students, it is not internationalism. So it has to be something that would be a bit more qualitative about the types of relationships you can build.
Likewise, when it comes to expanding university access for the local population, the goal would be for students from disadvantaged backgrounds in York and surrounding areas to attend all university, not just York, so a KPI should measure that.
“I wish we were more sophisticated and subtle in understanding these indirect impacts,” he says.
When it comes to management style, Jeffery says that something he finds important is meeting people in their own context rather than expecting them to come to him as this helps build trust. .
“You have to understand the work people do if you want to help make it a collective goal. “
Born: Holcot in Northamptonshire, England, 1964
Leadership positions: Vice-Chancellor and President of the University of York; Senior Deputy Director and Deputy Director (Public Policy) at the University of Edinburgh.
Academic degrees: BA and PhD in European Studies, both from Loughborough University
Lives with: his wife and two children; a third child is at university
Academic hero: William Paterson, professor emeritus in politics and international relations. “He was a very, very important mentor at a crucial time in my career. I learned a lot from him about how to write as an academic: very simply.
This is part of our “Talking About Leadership” series of 50, 50-week interviews with leaders from the world’s top universities on how they are solving common strategic issues and implementing change. Follow the series here.