VC's message

Professor Eric Thomas, Vice-Chancellor

Dear students and colleagues,


It won’t have escaped your notice that 2009 is the University’s centenary year. King Edward VII signed the Royal Charter granting the institution the authority to confer degrees 100 years ago.


By any assessment, the University has had a great first century. We are acknowledging this through a range of projects that are, we believe, inherently worthwhile and that should leave a lasting, beneficial legacy.


The Royal Charter came into effect on 24 May 1909, but events and activities to mark that moment will take place throughout 2009. You can find out about them on the centenary website.


I am grateful to my deputy, Professor David Clarke, for chairing the project board that has overseen the planning of the centenary celebrations. Thanks, too, to all those who have served alongside David, and to the hardworking colleagues who have pulled the various projects together despite the many other calls on their time.     


Here I would like to offer you a few ideas about what has made Bristol a special university and what will keep it that way. I have set out some thoughts on this in the University’s 300-page centenary book, called 100: A collection of words and images to mark the centenary of the University of Bristol. I am one of the 59 people, from inside and outside the University, who were asked to contribute. An edited extract from my chapter follows.

‘Every university has a unique set of characteristics, a unique culture. Central to Bristol’s story has always been the pursuit of intellectual excellence. I feel that ambition very strongly every day; it informs all discussions and planning. It is taken as a given – almost as part of the DNA of the place. This is true of many universities, but it is almost palpable here. I think geography is important. As the University was growing, it could almost see its role models – Oxford, Cambridge and London – and staff from those great universities could easily move to Bristol. Its proximity to the capital meant there was a very large population from which to attract the most talented students. We have also been fortunate in having inspirational Chancellors as role models. These have included Winston Churchill, Dorothy Hodgkin, Jeremy Morse and (currently) Brenda Hale – individuals of great talent and intellect, right at the top of British society.
‘The University produces fantastic graduates who go on to succeed in every area. I meet thousands of alumni each year and it is striking how many of them are intellectually challenging, creative, entrepreneurial in every sense and slightly “edgy”. By that I mean they are sharp, and prepared to come at problems and challenges from different and unconventional angles. Maybe this is a result of the combination of influences that the University and the city exert on people during some of their most formative years. Maybe they chose to come to Bristol because they liked the distinctiveness of the place. Maybe they wished to avoid the wholly predictable. Such characteristics are highly sought after. As the editor of a national newspaper told me, “Bristol graduates don’t behave as if they have the golden ticket”. It is inspiring to meet them.
‘Furthermore, we have superb staff. Their belief in what their talents can lead them to create is quite literally liberating. It enables me to set ambitions and an agenda that really push the boundaries. This is not vanity on their part, but rather a realistic understanding of where they can go and how they can get there. It stretches right across the horizon of academic and business activity; it is a combination of confidence and risk-taking. The staff also work in a very interdisciplinary way – far more than I have experienced elsewhere. This is a longstanding strength of the University and has its roots in historical patterns of behaviour and leadership.
‘Many of these qualities, including an entrepreneurial and creative outlook, have their counterparts in the nature of the city itself. Bristol is a major asset to the University (and we hope that the reverse is also true). It is a successful and enterprising city and is currently in one of its heydays. It has moved from being a mercantile city through an industrial phase to become a modern knowledge city, an ideas city, a Science City. Its major industries today are aerospace, creative industries, silicon design and manufacture, and professional services. The city is a thousand years old, and yet it feels dynamic and young. It is a wonderful, diverse place to live and it helps us attract the very best staff and students.
‘Students make a university. They provide its stimulus, they are its beating heart and they go on to become its ambassadors. For their first year in office, new vice-chancellors form a group of which I have taken over the chairmanship. I always say to them that if the job is getting difficult or they are feeling a bit down, they should go and see something the students are doing. Their values, talent and ambition are mesmerising. Our students give over 100,000 hours of voluntary activity to this city each year. They have the confidence of youth – nothing is unachievable. Every year we are renewed when the latest cohort arrives. Our academics are reinvigorated by them. We get fabulous young people here and I am clear that they will be more than capable of dealing with the challenges that the future will deliver. My old age, should I get there, is safe in their hands.’

Such is my simple thesis on what makes Bristol special. In one sentence, I would say it was down to an unwavering passion for excellence, truly outstanding people and an exceptionally stimulating environment. Such strengths will help us find a way through the economic difficulties that are bound to be a feature of 2009.


If you would like to take issue with any of this (it’s perilously easy for leaders to grow misty-eyed over their own organisations), or to share a different perspective, do get in touch. A centenary is a good time for reflection and dialogue and I would genuinely be interested in hearing your views.


Whatever you believe and whatever your role at the University, I wish you a very happy and successful 2009.

Professor Eric Thomas