This month Professor James Stirling becomes Imperial College London's first Provost, responsible for the core academic mission - education, research and translation.
When Henry Taylor Bovey was appointed Imperial’s first Rector in 1908, the College had an income of £65,000, just three buildings and only around 500 students.
Since then the role has become infinitely more complex, requiring the juggling of many different priorities – not only excellence in research and teaching but also in forging corporate partnerships and alumni relationships.
For this reason Imperial has now decided that a President and Provost model – which has proved successful in many top US universities – is the right path for the College.
After a global search, Professor James Stirling becomes Imperial’s first Provost this month.
James was born and raised in Belfast and went on to study at the University of Cambridge on a Natural Sciences Entrance Scholarship. After appointments in the USA, Switzerland and the UK, in 2011 he became Head of Cambridge’s world famous Cavendish Laboratory – boasting some 30 Nobel laureates – from where he joins Imperial.
“I was the 13th Head of Department and, when you look back at the history of the Cavendish, the phrase ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ comes to mind,” James says. “You look at the names of the first few heads of department – James Clerk Maxwell, Lord Rayleigh, J.J. Thompson, Ernest Rutherford – and to be part of that line of command has been an immense privilege.”
Still, James says he has admired Imperial from afar for some time. Having previously concluded himself that a dual leadership model was the best way forward for UK universities, he was immediately interested when he heard that the Imperial Provost job was available, noting that it wasn’t just any university, but one of the world’s best.
“The external perception of Imperial is an institution that has adapted very well to the challenges facing any UK university with aspirations to be world class in the twenty-first century. There is a certain amount of envy, not least in Cambridge, of the excellent research environment at Imperial, and of the quantity and quality of research outputs and impacts that are produced.
As Provost, James will report to the President & Rector and take responsibility for delivering and enhancing Imperial’s core academic mission – education, research and translation. This allows the President & Rector, Sir Keith O’Nions, to give more emphasis to strategic issues and the College’s development.
In taking on the Provost role, James will also draw on his three years’ experience as Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research at Durham University, where he had overall responsibility for preparing the university’s submission to the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise.
“It was there that I came to realise that the way world class research is defined, carried out and assessed doesn’t differ too much whether one is talking about engineering or mathematics, history or French.
“The values that people attach to scholarship, in both research and teaching, are common across all the subjects – the key is to recruit the very best people and then give them the time and space to discover and innovate. Excellent infrastructure and support are also crucial.”
In order to lead academics it helps to have been in that position. James has enjoyed considerable success and recognition in his own research area of theoretical particle physics – publishing over 300 research papers and picking up prestigious accolades, notably Fellowship of the Royal Society and a CBE for services to science.
While impartial in the role of Provost, James is clearly pleased to be coming to an institution with a strong heritage in his own field – physics – noting the pivotal role Imperial Professors Abdus Salam, Tom Kibble and others played in developing the theory relating to the now-confirmed Higgs Boson particle.
“One of the things that has pleased me most about the Higgs Boson discovery is the way it has grasped the public’s imagination; I think as scientists we communicate the excitement of what we do to a general audience much better than we used to. This is another of Imperial’s great strengths.”
Out and about
James says one of his first tasks at Imperial will be to help ‘bed in’ the new management structure and of course getting out and about meeting staff and students.
“My learning curve started back in January and has been getting steeper and steeper all the way through. I’ve been fortunate to have been able to spend a significant amount of time here in the last few months but I still have the feeling I’ve only scratched the surface. So, over the next few months I will be very busy finding out more about the organisation, which will involve a programme of visits to all the academic and administrative departments and meetings with student representatives.”
As a keen folk musician who has played in a ceilidh band, James was interested to find out about some of the artistic and musical activities that happen at the College.
“There is perhaps a perception out there that Imperial is a university that focuses on its core academic subjects – science, technology, medicine and business – to the exclusion of everything else, and so it was a pleasant surprise to come here and see how culturally diverse it in fact is.”
James might also be vying with President & Rector Sir Keith O’Nions to present the medals at the annual varsity rugby match, being an avid follower of the game from his student days, when he captained his College team at Cambridge.
And who knows, perhaps we’ll see James cheering on Imperial against Cambridge in the not too distant future.