Over to You: Kath Mitchell
After a whirlwind introduction to life as the new Vice-Chancellor of the University of Derby, Professor Kath Mitchell takes some time out of her hectic schedule to speak to Rosie Marshalsay about her new role and ambitions for the University.
“It feels very exciting to be the new VC; I have met lots of people now both in the University and the city and everyone I speak to has a very positive view of the institution, which to me means we can only go in a direction which is up.”
A direction of travel that resonates with the shared ambitions of the University and city of Derby – something that Kath got a sense of very early on.
“I didn’t expect to be so well connected in such a short time and that’s a reflection of just how keen the city, and businesses within it, are to engage and work collaboratively with us, a feeling that’s most definitely mutual.
“What has surprised me the most – Higher Education (HE) institutions are very similar in terms of what they have to do, but being the only University in Derby and having the scope to work with the city and the region to develop our collective offer further is an exciting and unique position to be in. If we can achieve this we’ll also enable our students to see the vibrancy of the city and the opportunities on offer within Derby and Derbyshire as a whole. We need to retain our talent and make more of an impact but we’ll need to work together to achieve this.”
Universities are complex organisations and with the HE sector becoming increasingly competitive, whoever was going to step into the top job at Derby would need to be made of stern stuff. Kath’s now one of just 21 female VC’s in the UK, so what made her apply?
“Just before I came to Derby I made the decision that I wanted to be a VC and Derby appealed to me for a number of reasons, primarily its mission and the fact that I felt I had a synergy with it.
“It was a big decision to make though. Throughout my career I’ve managed to balance home and academic life but taking on the role of VC can be lonely as ultimately you have to make decisions that not everyone likes. I think sometimes people avoid wanting to make that type of a move.
“When I made the decision to apply it had been very well thought through. People may think that the role of a VC is only suited to a certain type of person who does things in a certain way, but I believe that there many different approaches to being a successful VC and I felt confident that I could bring what was needed to the role.”
The recruitment panel agreed and Kath is now firmly ensconced in her office on the third floor of the University’s South tower, an office which she spends little time in as she places great importance on mixing with the University’s students and staff, as well as its external stakeholders.
“The University is a critical part of Derby’s economic prosperity, as well as the city and county community, so being able to provide support for our community while working to enhance its outputs is really important.
“We have a good relationship with our stakeholders but I think we can harness that much more. It’s important that students value that relationship as well as staff, that they recognise the importance of being engaged with the city because those partnerships are going to be part of their future working.”
So how do you plan to do this?
“To make a real impact we need to work with our local education partners and particularly employers to look at the match between their needs and the research agenda, and the workforce that we’ll be providing to them in terms of internships and graduates in the future. We need to look at how we can engage with a range of sectors and embed across all curricula.
“We also need to decide what we, as a University, want to be known for. We can’t be known for absolutely everything as this dilutes our brand, but once you’re known for a specific strength which is very positive everything else becomes known. Creating the identity around where the institution is and what it’s known for has to link with what Derby, as a city, does.
“It’s also crucial to have a global view of the world, so we see things not just from a Derby centric point of view. When I lived in America everything was about the influence of Chicago globally, or wherever I was globally. We look at Derby and want it to be influential in the East Midlands and I think actually we have to look at what we do that’s international, because students then get a different perspective of where they’re studying and what it’s about.”
So it’s about thinking bigger and being more ambitious?
“Yes, it’s about knowing what the pitch might be. There are things that Derby is outstanding at both as a university and within the city, and it’s being able to articulate that so everyone understands it – including staff and students. I want the University to be significant in delivering a high level, practical and research agenda which clearly links to the environment we’re in and to manufacturing and engineering in some way. We have to decide what our identity is and on the back of that grow the profile of all our disciplines in a much more global way.
“Our staff and students are our greatest strength; they’re extremely committed and every student I’ve met is eloquent about why they came to Derby. The weakness is people’s lack of confidence about saying this, and I think this applies in some way to the city.
“In order to be successful people have to be proud but also confident to talk about ‘why Derby’ and what makes it so great.”
What does it take to be a great leader?
Patience. A great leader is to recognise the strengths in your teams, be able to work with them and also to be confident to deal with the weaknesses.
What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
At the moment I’m trying to potter a bit with my research. I like to go walking with my family and the dog, and I usually read loads.
What football team do you support?
I come from West London where I had to support Brentford but I’ll clearly support Derby County while I’m here (but really it’s Liverpool!).
If you hadn’t taken this career path what would you have liked to have done instead?
I’d have loved to have been a novelist.
Top tips for success
For me, I think the greatest key to success is working with people that will challenge you and then acting upon the challenge.
Writer: Rosie Marshalsay
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