Changing universities from within…

Mary Bownes was born in Devon and brought up in Essex, where she went to the local grammar school and was the first in her family to go to University studying for a degree and DPhil in biology at the University of Sussex. From there she undertook research at the universities of Freiburg in Germany and the University of California Irvine before taking up a lectureship and setting up a lab at the University of Essex. She moved soon after to the Molecular Biology department at the University of Edinburgh where she ran an active laboratory researching developmental biology with many international collaborations, and a research team with a wide variety of visitors and PhD students. She became head of Cell and Molecular Biology.

Even before she became head of Cell and Molecular Biology she began doing more broadly based things around engaging with young people and teachers to inspire them to engage with science and the new technologies developing in biology working in partnership with schools and the national museum and others and with the needs of postgraduate students in a rapidly changing world. Mary switched entirely from research on developmental biology to trying to develop way of better engaging with schools and the wider public first about biology, then science and engineering and eventually all disciplines across the University. She moved to having leadership roles in the University initially concerning postgraduate students and then became a Vice Principal with a board portfolio covering postgraduates, scholarships, widening access, sustainability and social responsibility, and Development and Alumni very much focusing on the outward facing image of the University and its interactions with others. She eventually became senior Vice Principal – a role from which she retired a couple of years ago to focus on setting up partnerships on behalf of the University with key national institutions with a presence in the city which have a research and education remit and are well experienced in engaging with the public.

We really need those brave women who stand apart and make big political and personal statements that highlight inequalities and injustice knowing they face abuse, violence, isolation and even imprisonment for airing their views. So can you change things to complement their bravery in bringing things to our attention by finding ways to address  current inequalities and injustices that you see need to be changed from within your own organisation?

If you do this is it still perceived as dangerous? Is it still valuable? I reflect on this as I retire after 37 years in one organisation where I have constantly attempted to change things that I felt were not right. I suspect I have often been seen as more of an irritant than dangerous, but when the need for change is presented in the right way this can enable the cultural changes that are crucial to take place in a sustainable and long lasting way. Shifting the status quo so that it doesn’t move backwards the minute you aren’t watching may take a little longer than you would like, but it is possible. Just declaring it will have to happen isn’t enough. People are clever and sometimes it is easy to agree superficially with the principles and then change nothing much in reality, thus the impact is minimal.

So how do you change the direction of a huge, well-established, well-respected organisation that is enormously successful, but needs constant reminders to address both inequalities in the system and in wider society?  We have to remember that those who hold power do so because the current system has suited them. How can you get people to genuinely embrace diversity, equality, sustainability, social responsibility, fair access as just as a few examples of things that are essential in society, especially when it means they have to change the way they think about things and the way they actually do them? Especially when for many of these bigger issues some people do not really believe that there is an issue or a problem to be solved, or even if there is that isn’t relevant to them or they can’t make a difference. With some effort one can develop a strategy for how to change an organisation, but the reality is how well it is delivered and whether everybody comes on board that determines if it will actually make the difference that is needed.

I think one of the most important things is to actually listen to people and see what their concerns are. Another is to observe and think about small changes that may be very valuable to some groups and to think what would have helped you at earlier stages of your career. Just a small example was when I became Head of an Institute I remembered the comments I received about me leaving to pick up my daughter just as the departmental seminar was due to start because of the time the University Nursery closed. This didn’t help when you actually didn’t want to miss the seminar. So I simply moved the time of the seminar to lunchtime. There is no time that is perfect for everyone but this approach meant not systematically excluding one group of people, in this case usually women, from a key part of Institute life.

It is also key to remember that fundamentally many people do not actually like things to change. So when you want to change something for me a crucial part is gathering evidence that there is a need for change. You need to use the skills and qualities you have.

Being a biologist affects how I think about the world. I am well aware that there are both cultural and biological differences between the sexes which influence the way we operate. We are equal but we are all different and that needs to be embraced, not everyone moulded to be the same. It also means I am comfortable with complexity and there not being a single simple solution to everything. The big global problems facing us today are so interlinked and complex that the ramifications of changing something for the better for one group of people can have unforeseen consequences that affect different people in different parts of the world (in negative ways as well as positive ways) and this may take years or  even centuries to be clear. So you need to think through and be aware of how changes will affect different groups of people and remember that their views, just like yours or mine are shaped by cultural and life experiences as well as our genetic makeup. We need to constantly remember there are no ‘correct’ answers and rarely ‘perfect’ solutions but that is not an excuse for doing nothing; it just means that as many of the potential consequences that can be seen are thought through and included it the decision making. Things in this category include climate change, sharing and conserving the resources of our world, remembering there are real conflicts between economic development and protecting the environment and the diversity of species and no easy answers. On top of this some of the big technological breakthroughs have global consequences far beyond expectations, like the worldwide web, telecommunications, smart technologies and they can all have positive and negative effects and all can be manipulated for causing chaos rather improving life. So you can’t solve these big issues from one organisation, but you can make a difference.

Some of the things I have been involved with over m many years included mentoring schemes for women, changing the way we deal with our postgraduate education to deliver more varied skills suited to today’s society, widening access to students to the University, sustainability and social responsibility, engagement with schools and teachers to enthuse young people, especially about science and technology, and public engagement with our research. All these have required persuasion, and then backing up what you want to achieve with the mechanisms to achieve it. It won’t happen by itself!

There are a few things to remember. The first is that if you are grappling with something and how to change it the chances are that other like-minded people exist around the world. It is really important to interact with them and share ideas with them. Their enthusiasm will help keep your enthusiasm going on the days when internally you are facing the reality of dealing with the obstacles that people don’t want to change will put in your way. Also you need to be prepared to work at a much higher level than your organisation. You need external organisations to be travelling in the same direction as you, particularly funders and government. So work with them, tackle things together and convince your organisation they need to be leaders in these changes.

An essential step is to understand the structure of your organisation and where the power lies, which committees can make which decisions and how to get them into strategic and delivery plans and into the constitution, regulations and policies.

Sometimes everybody thinks that you’re not doing it the way they want. There are the activists who think you should go much faster and others think you shouldn’t be doing it at all. So you have to find a route to bring people with you. In many cases those who are activists are idealists and want instant change and whilst this might be ideal it will not be sustainable without evaluating the consequences of the changes they want and how this will affect a large diverse community that has to deliver research and education across a wide range of disciplines.  If these have not been thought through and addressed, their views can be easily countered on specifics and the cause could be easily lost, even when it is a good one.  Also walking in guns blazing telling everybody they have been doing things wrong for years is not really a good start to getting things changed, as these are exactly the people who are going to have to make the changes. So a much more consensual slower ‘bringing people on board’ approach, but not being afraid to tackle issues head on, has been best for me.

So what kinds of changes can you actually deliver this way? Well we have a system of graduate schools across the university with skills training for them all that simply wasn’t there 15 years ago, making them much more equipped for a variety of careers not just academia. We developed methods to allow access to students from disadvantaged backgrounds to study at the University, and held out with this process despite press criticism and the fantastic students that have come to study are evidence that this was worth it. It involved at one point persuading the senior team and finance managers to take a big risk and offer the best bursary scheme in the UK to help remove one of the known constraints to study for children whose families cannot afford to help. We set up the first social responsibility and sustainability office in the UK to have our academics and support staff work together to not only ensure we have sound business practises that do not take goods or services from companies not looking after the human rights of their staff, or developing modern technology for uses we consider unethical, but are also leaders in ensuring our own estate uses sustainable practises and reduces carbon output and our staff are good citizens and help in the community. We have over time altered promotion criteria for women and ensured they are not disadvantaged by caring responsibilities and can often work in a flexible way. We also changed them to include public engagement and outreach activities as well as teaching and research and knowledge exchange that relates to commercial benefit. If we take public money for research we have a responsibility to share the potential value of that research with the outside world and take on board concerns they may have about the ethics and potential societal impacts of how things might be used like stem cells, or new smart technologies.

It has been my experience that women often take on the more caring and outreach roles within academic institutions, and those abilities are often referred to as softer skills. These include the use of dialogue and consensus and listening, and there is good evidence women are less willing to engage in self-promotion. This is one thing I don’t think we have tackled yet – how to value these skills as much as the more stereotypical leadership skills of having managed a lot of people or money. So perhaps one effective way to be a ‘dangerous woman’ in today’s society is to work within the constraints of the system you find yourself in to change your institution to ensure it treats all those it comes into contact with fairly and influences others to discuss, share and tackle the big global challenges we are facing.