It has been a busy week, and I need some light relief. So what follows is some light-hearted comment about university vice-chancellors. I was one myself, so I am allowed to poke fun at them and with them. The job is a difficult and lonely one, and most of the stories come when vice-chancellors get together, as they do from time to time.
At an international meeting I was sitting with a group drawn from all over the world, and the discussion came around to how we had got to the post ourselves. In the Western world the progress from academic to administrator, then a rise in administrative level until you reached the top, was a familiar one. But I was struck by the story of an Indian VC.
‘I was the commander of the Army group in ……… when a most serious riot occurred at the university. There was much destruction and some deaths. So I was asked to help. I brought in some special forces troops, quelled the riot, put out the fires, found the ringleaders and shot them. Then the university said to me “Would you like to be our Vice-Chancellor?’ So here I am!’
We looked at him with new respect.
After-dinner speeches at vice-chancellor dinners are usually very funny occasions. I didn’t go to this one, but its memories live on.
‘Vice-chancellors are public figures who are always maligned to a certain extent. For example, of one vice-chancellor it has been said that if he had his conscience removed, it would be a minor operation. Of another, that when he had an idea in his head, it was always in solitary confinement. Of a third, that he never makes the same mistake twice, but he’s made them all once. Of a fourth, that he can follow you into a revolving door but come out first. Of a fifth, that at receptions he shakes the hands of one quarter of those present and the confidence of the remaining three quarters.’
The speaker, also a vice-chancellor, of course, went on to say that ‘we shouldn’t take notice of bad-tempered criticisms of that sort, when we know that they are small-minded and have no basis in fact’. Rather, we should extol the dynamism and wisdom of so many vice-chancellors, such as the one who said that he was expected to be ‘a ball of fire by day and a bag of wind by night’. Ken McKinnon, the wise and long-serving V-C of Wollongong, once said that whatever he had done during the day, he became a barman at night.
Herman Wells, an American who was president of the University of Indiana (currently being led by an Australian, Michael McRobbie) once ordained that ‘a Vice-Chancellor should be born with the physical strength of a Greek athlete, the cunning of a Machiavelli, the wisdom of Solomon, the courage of a lion, if possible. But in any case he must be born with the stomach of a goat.’ Clark Kerr of the University of California laid down all the virtues that a V-C must possess, the last of which was that ‘he should be a seeker of truth where the truth may not hurt too much’.
Once upon a time vice-chancellors were nearly all married men, and their wives have had a great deal to put up with. One explained that though her ears had not been pierced, they had certainly been bored. Another said that her trouble was that half the time she was pretending that she knew what she didn’t know, while for the other half she was pretending she didn’t know what she did.
There are lots of jokes about their husbands. My favourite is of the V-C who discovered that he had passed on to Hell rather than the other place. The Devil met him and said that there was a University of Hell, and that it needed a Vice-Chancellor. Shown around the campus the new arrival became more and more impressed, and wondered what the catch was. There didn’t seem to be one, until the Devil, on departure, said to him, ‘Oh, by the way, there are two medical schools…’