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First 100 days (Nonesuch autumn 2015)

Professor Hugh Brady

Professor Hugh Brady Nick Smith

Students in Wills Memorial Library

Students in the Wills Memorial Library Dan Rowley

Bristol's Harbourside

Bristol's Harbourside Craig Auckland, fotohaus

5 November 2015

On Wednesday 2 September, Professor Hugh Brady took office as the University’s 13th Vice-Chancellor and President. After serving ten years as President of University College Dublin (UCD), and enjoying a distinguished medical career that included almost a decade at the University of Toronto and Harvard Medical School, he spoke to Nonesuch about his experiences in Ireland and the US, and his plans for Bristol.

Why did you choose to move into higher education?

From early on in my career, even as a junior hospital doctor in Dublin, my work involved clinical practice, education and research. I loved the combination: very challenging, but exceptionally rewarding. Then, after almost a decade at Harvard Medical School, I was asked to serve in a variety of roles which, at least subliminally, aroused my interest in academic leadership. The real game-changer was when I was appointed Professor of Medicine at UCD. Former UCD President, Art Cosgrove, gave me the opportunity to lead a number of very large institutional submissions to a major new research programme co-funded by the Irish Government and the Irish-American billionaire, Chuck Feeney, famously described by TIME as ‘the man who gave it all away’. I realised I liked institution-building: bringing together academics from different disciplines to work on large thematic research questions.

How has your medical background shaped your leadership style?

As a clinician, you are trained to assimilate input from all directions, interpret that information and use it appropriately (albeit much faster than at a university). You have to enjoy working in multidisciplinary teams, frequently in high-pressure situations. Modern universities are, to some extent, a scale-up of that environment – a cauldron of ideas to be harnessed. That said, the beauty of a university is in the diverse cultures it accommodates. The worlds of medicine, law and the arts are in many ways so different, yet they also have much to offer each other.

What is the single most important understanding you have brought to Bristol from UCD?

Perhaps patience! The temptation is to want to do everything quickly. But universities have survived for almost a millennium because they play a long-term game. A vice-chancellor is a custodian of an institution’s history, while also being challenged to take the university through its next evolutionary step and steer it through increasingly choppy waters. What’s exciting for me about Bristol is that the fundamentals are so strong: my job, at its heart, is about building on success.

What constitutes a first-class student experience?

Students expect to graduate with knowledge and skills that will serve them well throughout life. Top students understand that their experience will be so much richer if they are taught by those at the vanguard of their fields – Bristol consistently attracts superb students because its staff are among the most talented in the world. Our University’s research-informed curriculum equips students with the strong academic fundamentals, critical thinking skills, flexibility and ambition to thrive in an environment where they can expect to change career direction, or even careers, many times during life. We are also preparing our students for lives as responsible global citizens. We want them to have respect and empathy for people from different cultures, ethnicities and backgrounds, and to take care of their own health and the health of their environment. I care passionately about the internationalisation of the student experience and the quality of the students’ experience outside the classroom – the debates, the societies, and the sports clubs, where so much informal learning takes place, where opinions are shaped, and where lifelong friendships are forged.

What advice did you give your triplet sons about their choice of university?

Very little, other than to choose what really interested them. When I went to university, you tended to follow a particular pathway – medicine, law, engineering – and were expected to stay in that profession from the day you entered university until the day you retired. Now, appropriately, many programmes offer broader entry routes, with specialisation taking place later – often through a postgraduate degree. I reassured my boys that they have more choice and opportunities than ever before but urged them to challenge themselves and immerse themselves in their university experience. Did they listen to me? That’s a different question.

How do you think public perceptions of higher education are changing?

Students today expect to be treated as partners in the education process. That expectation has been heightened by tuition fees, but it is also part of a wider social trend: patients want to be more involved in their clinical care; citizens are demanding more say in how their neighbourhoods are run. I welcome this trend. At Bristol, students are represented at all levels of University governance and are well-informed, insightful and challenging contributors.

What role do alumni play in your plans for Bristol?

Alumni are very important – a Bristol education should be a launch pad for a lifetime of engagement with the University. So many alumni already contribute in different ways: as mentors, career advisers and volunteers, and by providing work placements and internships. Many have been extremely generous financially, for which we are very grateful. Philanthropy will increasingly be a critical determinant of Bristol’s success, allowing us to support students, recruit world-class staff, and fund research in a way that would be impossible if we had to rely solely on fee income and government support. Alumni are also role models and ambassadors: for them to endorse Bristol is very important. There is a great sense of pride among Bristol’s staff and students. That pride is amplified even further among our alumni.

What is your vision for research at Bristol?

Bristol is already a world-class research institution: the results of the 2014 Research Excellence Framework placed Bristol unequivocally in the top five research universities in the UK. Professor Sir Eric Thomas (Hon LLD 2004) and his team deserve great credit for this achievement. However, for Bristol to retain its excellent world ranking, it must continue to outperform many larger and better resourced institutions in Europe and the US, as well as compete with the emerging powerhouses in Asia. It will be challenging, but I am confident that we can compete successfully in this deep-pockets, high-stakes environment if we play smart. Why? Firstly, the University is deeply committed to excellence: it has always sought to recruit the very best scholars from around the world. Bristol’s academic fundamentals are very sound. Secondly, Bristol has a fantastic spirit of collegiality – evident from the minute you walk onto campus – that will serve us well as we put together the multidisciplinary research programmes increasingly favoured by funding agencies. Thirdly, we are building a series of impressive partnerships with the city, industry and other top universities – locally, nationally and internationally. These partnerships are throwing up interesting research questions, creating test beds for ideas and technologies, and generating new streams of funding. It is a competitive game, but I have no doubt that Bristol can maintain its position among the world’s great universities.

Had you and your family spent much time in Bristol before moving here?

We spent many good weekends here even before I applied for this job: my sons are rugby players and played regularly for Blackrock College against schools in Bristol and Cardiff. In fact, when I announced my move, I think they were more excited than I was. They are at university in Dublin now, but will undoubtedly visit frequently. What do you perceive to be the role of the University within the city? Perhaps the biggest surprise for me has been the level of engagement that already exists between the University and the city, and the enthusiasm on both sides to develop the relationship further. So many exciting questions – in health, transport, the environment, engineering and social policy – are generated in the city, and our staff are working with partners across the city to use Bristol as a test bed to explore solutions. Our School of Policy Studies, for example, is working on issues such as housing, health inequality and child welfare, our population scientists are engaged in ground-breaking studies with the NHS; and our engineers are partnering with the city in a world-leading digital initiative, Bristol is Open. To be a world-class research university in one of Europe’s great smart cities is a major selling point when recruiting students and staff, and affords us educational and research opportunities that many of our competitors don’t have.

What will be your focus during your first year?

My first priority will be to get to know staff and students and engage the wider Bristol family, including alumni, in a conversation about the University’s future. I hope alumni will participate in this process, as it will inform the road map for Bristol for the next five to ten years. It is an exciting prospect, and a challenge that I am looking forward to.

Castaway choices

The five discs, one book and one luxury item Professor Brady would take to a desert island.


Getz/Gilberto Stan Getz and João Gilberto
Wonderful to listen to by the fire on a winter’s evening.

The Joshua Tree U2
The album that propelled four talented young men, of my vintage and from my home town, from local to global stars.

Bringing It All Back Home Various
A stunning RTÉ/BBC collaboration on the history, influences and reach of Irish music.

Kind of Blue Miles Davis
A timeless classic.

Porgy and Bess (Glyndebourne album) Gershwin
One of my most memorable musical experiences was observing Sir Simon Rattle at an open rehearsal in Boston’s Symphony Hall – mesmerising. My friend gave me this recording of Rattle directing Gershwin’s great American classic some years later.

District and Circle Seamus Heaney
One of the world’s great poets, and a charming man whom I was privileged to know. Sadly missed.

1973 Barbarians-All Blacks rugby match on DVD
I never tire of watching this exhilarating display of free-flowing rugby when there was still room on the team for small guys. I was a four-foot-something scrum-half at the time. Cliff Morgan’s commentary was as captivating as the rugby.

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