Adam Tickell, University of Sussex Vice-Chancellor, reflects on his undergraduate years, his switch from academia to management, and the joy of swimming in the sea.
When new students arrive at this time of year, I’m reminded of my own years as an undergraduate. Leaving home for the first time, however streetwise you may be, is a dislocating experience. It was for me, 35 years ago, and it’s still the case for young people now. It also reminds me that, even though I don’t feel I’m aging, young people come in and challenge my sense of eternal youth. My own children, when they were students, would tell me that I knew nothing about politics. Annoying though that could sometimes be, it was the perfect reminder that priorities change and understandings change, and being challenged on our assumptions is healthy for all of us.
I took a year out after A-levels and left home to work in a bookshop in Notting Hill Gate in London before I went to the University of Manchester. This was in 1984, the time of the miners’ strikes. Manchester was quite a radical university at the time and I got involved in student politics for a couple of years, but was eventually turned off by the factional fighting.
I studied geography because I’d had a great teacher. I was torn between history and geography. At the time, the universities I wanted to go to, including Manchester, required you to have a modern foreign language to study history. I took drama instead of French, partly to irritate my dad. I’ve regretted being monolingual ever since, but never regretted studying geography. I still read history books for pleasure , but geography as a subject gives you a really broad base. You get to be competent at using statistics and are introduced to a wide range of different methods and subjects. I did a PhD about the growth of foreign banks; a theoretical take on the banking industry, which then morphed into the culture of finance.
I never envisaged I would become a vice-chancellor. I didn’t even want to be an academic. When I graduated in 1987 it was a tough old time [for the economy] and there weren’t many interesting jobs. I was then offered a PhD studentship and was seduced by the academic life. I particularly liked going to conferences. It’s a bit like Norm walking into the Cheers bar. You immediately feel comfortable with these people from all over the world who share your interests and have become your friends.
I went down the management track because I have a tendency to poke my nose in. I never thought I was the best at everything, but I often thought I was better than the people I saw doing those jobs. I made a conscious decision to stay in management ten years ago. But I find my job now every bit as intellectually challenging as being an academic, and it’s really interesting. I enjoy meeting academics here and going round their labs and hearing about scholarship, because they have an infectious enthusiasm when they talk about their work, and that’s great.
I love meeting alumni. We recently had a reception in Hong Kong with those who had graduated from the 1970s right through to recent graduates. All of them, without exception, spoke so warmly and had such affection for the University. For me, that always speaks to the huge responsibility we have towards the people who come to us. It might feel to us that they are only here temporarily, but these are moments of their lives that they will never forget.
I still feel as though I am quite new here , and yet I have done this job for longer than I have done any other job. I have stayed at other universities longer, but I have often moved into another role. Now I have been Vice-Chancellor for three years and I just feel like I’m getting to know Sussex: I love it here and look forward to the years to come.
I do a lot of work in Westminster and Whitehall, and that is fascinating too. Politicians want to hear what we have to say. They know that universities are really important, not just in terms of education, and research, but also in relation to the UK’s sense of self. Polling data shows that academics are still among the most trusted people in any profession. Politicians don’t always agree with us, but it is a real privilege for me to be included in those conversations.
I hope that in time Sussex will be defined by its values , which we articulated in Sussex 2025 as kindness, integrity, inclusion, collaboration and courage. They resonated very strongly because they came out of a long process of consultation. But they have also been regarded with a degree of cynicism and scepticism. It’s incumbent on all of us to think really hard about what that means. I have been called out, and that’s okay. I don’t think people deliberately behave in ways that are antithetical to our values. But when they are busy or stressed or sitting on Twitter and not really thinking about how something they do will be received by people, there is something quite powerful about saying slow down and think.
I realised a while ago that, whatever I did, I would never finish all the work I have to do. You can go two ways with that. You can try to work harder in an attempt to get on top of it. Or you can be kind to yourself, and prioritise what needs to be done. This is what I do. Everyone needs to give themselves permission to relax.
I enjoy cycling and swimming. When I was 40 I cycled from Land’s End to John O’Groats in eight days, and until four years ago I used to do long-haul rides. I still cycle to work (I don’t have a car) and I swim in the sea during the warmer months. I love the freedom of it. It’s lovely when it’s rough and when it’s placid. I live in Hove, which is the smallest place I have lived in since I was 16, but it’s large enough that it’s anonymous, although I know when I go down to the sea in my trunks that people do recognise me.
This profile is part of our This Sussex Life series.
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By: Jacqui Bealing
Last updated: Thursday, 3 October 2019