In this week’s Guild Gazette Mike Smith has an interview with the new Vice-Chancellor, Trevor Thomas:
In a world where status is shown by office size, Vice Chancellors come high on the list. His office is large, thickly carpeted, and the chairs are many and comfortable. Outside is a secretary who finds it necessary first to tell him who is there and why, then to reappear and after a tactful pause to stand in the doorway and make the formal introduction. It is all calculated to make the visitor realise the man’s importance. Behind this facade, behind the name at the head of more committees than the average person knows exists, there is a man.
His name is Trevor Cawdor Thomas, MA, LL B. He spent most of his career at Cambridge moving up the scale of influential administrative posts, until in 1960 he reached the position of Senior Bursar, at Cambridge’s second largest college, St John’s. How he became Vice Chancellor of Liverpool University is something only the men in Senate House know.
“One does not apply for the job of Vice Chancellor, one is invited”, he says.
Personally Mr Thomas seems warm, friendly and relaxed. But it is obvious that he is as experienced at handling interviewers as he is at sitting on committees. He knows just how much to commit himself, and which anecdotes to use to emphasise a point.
He expressed a concern for the problems facing students. He asked questions about grants, the cost of flats and the problems of accommodation near the campus. Yet it was always how students can fit into the structure of the university.
He wanted to know about the structure commission, but he said, “It is a privilege for anyone to do something for the university.” He did not like to talk in terms of rights. “Freedom” he said, “‘is freedom within the law, and if people want change then they can only achieve it by the proper means”.
Mr. Thomas was worried about the university becoming just a centre for commuters. Here as so many times he harked back to Cambridge, its colleges, its tutors and the atmosphere of an academic community, cut off from the world, and run by the dons.
He wants to communicate with students: “the channels are open” he said. Yet how to pass through those channels was another problem!
Mr Thomas does not wish to appear what he calls a demagogue or a public orator. He wonders whether students really want him to address a mass meeting. Personally he seemed more prepared to talk to small groups. “I don’t just want to meet the union officials,” he commented, “but it’s those students who don’t feel as though they’re a part of the university. I want to meet them and show them that they are part of it”.
From the depths of Senate House, communications with students seemed to involve more than just walking down to the coffee bar. Universities are not just for academics, administrators and students. As Winston Barnes’ resignation as Vice Chancellor just over ago showed, the government, too, has an interest in them.
“T0 follow on from Dr Barnes after he had resigned over the principle of increasing government control would appear to be saying that you disagree with him,” Mr Thomas said, “but it’s not that at all”. He went on: “I go quite a long way with Dr. Barnes and I think we must all admire him for taking the stand he did.”
However, Mr Thomas did not seem to think that government control was excessive and when asked about contracts for such controversial research as Chemical and Biological warfare he commented: “I don’t think the government would ever force anyone to do research they didn’t want to. But when they say things like we want more doctors then I think we should do all we can to see that they get more doctors.”
Particularly on the issues of chemical and biological warfare, the Vice Chancellor first admitted that he did not know whether any research was going on here, but said that the problem was a moral one and one which he would need to think about. “On anything such as this the decision would not be mine alone but one of Senate,” he added.
This shows Mr Thomas’ view of his job as a whole. He thinks that while as a Vice Chancellor he is definitely a member of the establishment he does not see himself as part of a ruling class. ‘Primus inter pares’ is how he describes his relationship with the rest of the university’s decision making process.
The question of the relationship of the university to the local community is one which has been raisled many times over the last year. It is something which does not seem to be raised in Cambridge, where the Vice Chancellor came from but it is something on which he has definite views.
“When the decision to build the university here was taken the problem of expansion into an area of bad housing was immediately raised,” he said. But he thinks that it was right to build here since it was the citizens of Liverpool who initially financed the university, and so the university should be built in Liverpool itself not out in the countryside around it.’
He sees the people who have to be moved for the university to expand as a problem: “When we buy up these houses we have to decide how much we are going to do for them,” he said. “We can leave them, but I think this would be wrong, or we can do as much as possible, but since the houses must come down soon, this too would be mistaken. The answer lies somewhere between the two.
As with everything else, he saw that he did not really have all the power. “The university’s money comes from the LEAs and the government – we cannot do what we want with it. It is right that this is so,” he concluded.