As soon as Professor Louise Richardson made the announcement that she would be stepping down as principal and vice-chancellor of the University back in June, speculation on who would be her replacement began to run wild. Although many students may have firm opinions on who should take over the job – and though these opinions will be taken into account – ultimately the decision rests with the principal selection committee.
The committee is made up of 11 people: four academics, four lay-members of court; one external assessor; one non-academic member of staff, the director of development, Robert Fleming, and one elected student representative, the Students’ Association President Pat Mathewson.
“It’s quite a big committee, as these things go, but it’s got a very good balance on it,” said Sir David Wallace, convenor of the principal selection committee. The committee members were appointed by the University court.
“It’s a fantastic statement of confidence in the people of this place that we’ve got [Mr Mathewson] as a full member of the committee and also that the four academics are not vice principals or senior people,” continued Sir Wallace. “Most other places, on a committee like this, would be loaded with people at the top, people who are on the academic court. It’s really been a fantastic statement.”
Alastair Merrill, vice principal of governance and planning at the University as well as secretary to the selection committee, added: “It’s a much more transparent process and a much more inclusive process than previous recruitment rounds, partly influenced by the Scottish code of governance in education.”
There has never been a student or a non-academic member of staff on the committee before; the last time a principal was appointed, the student representative was only an observer and had no real say. This time, he was made a full member “to make sure that the student voice was there right from the beginning,” according to Mr Merrill.
After the committee was appointed, they began consulting with staff about what they are looking for in their next principal. 150 members of University staff took part in an online survey during the summer break, and a meeting was held to gather staff opinions. “We’ll be holding another one in September to make sure that as many people as possible in the University are able to make their voices heard,” explained Mr Merrill.
Though the selection committee and the University court would both like to see a new principal appointed before Professor Richardson leaves in January, and a time scale has been set up to achieve this, both made it clear that if they do not find the perfect candidate during that time, they would rather hold off than appoint someone not up to the job. “The overriding thing and the most important thing, is that we’ve got the best person that we possibly can,” said Sir Wallace.
A system has been put in place to ensure the smooth running of the University in the case of semester two kicking off with no principal appointed. Garry Taylor, deputy principal and master of the united college, would become acting principal whilst Mr Merrill would become acting chief executive. Sir Wallace assured students that “they’re both extremely experienced people” who would be able to manage the roles of the principal and vice chancellor between them during the interim period.
“I think it’s safe to say that the selection committee will be working flat out to identify the next principal as soon as possible,” he said. “We are aiming to make an announcement, if possible, by Christmas, but court is very clear that getting the right person is more important than adhering to a particular timetable.”
The selection committee has hired an external recruitment agency that specialises in seeking out the best people for roles, and has worked with many universities to appoint principals and vice chancellors in the past. The agency will work with the selection committee to advertise the position, to create an applicant pack and to headhunt and approach those best suited to the job.
“And it will be a global search,” added Mr Merrill. “We will be looking at the very best from right across the world.”
No list of possible candidates currently exists, though the recommendations of staff have been passed on to the recruitment agency. Merril and Wallace said that, instead, they are compiling a list of qualities that they are looking for in a leader for the University. Mr Merrill said: “We’re in the process of finalizing the skills and competencies that we’re looking for in the next principal, taking into account the feedback we’ve received, and then we are going out to scour the world for the very best people.”
Academic excellence is one particular quality that the selection committee has established as a non-negotiable requirement. But there are a whole host of other requirements for the job.
“You’re looking for Superwoman actually, or Superperson I should say,” laughed Sir Wallace.
“We want someone who will champion St Andrews and who will not be afraid of championing St Andrews,” explained Mr Merrill. “[Professor Richardson] certainly was not afraid to champion St Andrews’ interests, but we’re not looking for an identical person. We’re looking for someone with the right qualities who will bring their own experience, their own intellectual brilliance and their own personality to the University and to the role.”
Both emphasised that they will make sure whoever is hired understands St Andrews itself, but also how it fits into the wider picture of the international academic scene. “This is a unique place that presents unique opportunities and faces some unique challenges. And we’re used to having a unique vice chancellor who recognizes that and is going to take us on into the years ahead,” they said.
Professor Richardson will be moving on to become vice chancellor of the University of Oxford when she leaves St Andrews in January. The Saint asked whether the prestige of this move would help to find a top quality replacement. “I think it is a fantastic credit to [Professor Richardson] and not a bad credit to the University either,” Sir Wallace remarked. “I was looking through some very old papers from years and years back and someone was describing St Andrews as, well, somewhere where people would come for laughs. Not anymore. For a long time we have been right up there with those institutions that want to attract the very best academic talent across the world.”
“But at the same time we have to be clear that this is not a stepping-stone,” noted Mr Merrill.
There will never be a published list of candidates for the job and confidentiality is a key part of the selection process. This is because the type of people applying already have important jobs and won’t want to be seen to be abandoning them. “It’s out of concern for individuals as well. If you’re applying for a job, you wouldn’t want lots of people knowing,” Mr Merrill explained.
The actual application process is fairly straightforward. Candidates will either see an advertisement and apply, or will be approached by the head-hunters and asked, “Have you ever thought about St Andrews as a place to work?” The initial stage will be focused on the candidates’ curriculum vitae and the knowledge that the recruitment agency has on those candidates. They will then proceed through a process of interviews and other assessments to the final stage, which will be an interview with the whole committee.
The selection committee will then choose their candidate to present to the University court, with whom the ultimate power to appoint them lies.
When asked what the most important thing for students to know about this process is, Sir Wallace said: “I would want students to know that everybody around the table absolutely has the long term interest of St Andrews at their heart.”
Mr Merrill added: “The student environment here is really a central part of what the University is, and it is important for the recruitment of students internationally as well as the in the UK. So the student experience and the quality of that experience is absolutely part of this selection process.”
For Sir Wallace, the most nerve-wracking part of this whole process is not finding the perfect candidate, but making sure that that perfect candidate falls in love with St Andrews in the same way he did. “I’ll be anxious whenever we’ve got a potentially really good person in front of us that we make the most of that,” he said. “We want them to feel that this is the place that they want to work in. That is where the pressure will be for me.”
“Once you’ve got your perfect candidate, you’ve got to sell St Andrews and make them feel the same way,” added Mr Merrill.
“I think it’s a huge responsibility and a huge privilege to be involved in selecting the new principal and vice chancellor,” he continued. “It’s an absolute honour to be working with the selection committee and to see the way in which every member of that committee, including the academics, including the non-executives, be they staff, be they students, is absolutely committed to getting the best results and the very best person for our University. The person that we recommend to court is going to be leading us through some really challenging times over the next few years, and so it’s a big ask, but [we’re all focused on] getting the very best person for the job.”