Durham alumnus. Renowned geneticist. Proud father. Failed musician. Prof Chris Higgins is a man of many faces but as Durham University's newly appointed Vice-Chancellor and Warden he has taken on a new mantle. Michael Lavery met with Durham's 23rd V-C to find out more about the man and his mission.
Professor Higgins, congratulations on your appointment and welcome back to Durham. How does it feel to be back?
It feels wonderful. I am very excited to be in Durham again and am truly honoured to lead the University as its Vice-Chancellor.
I first came to Durham in 1973 for an interview at Grey College and immediately fell in love with the University and the City. I was a Botany student from 1973-76 and then spent three years doing a PhD. My father joined the University's teaching staff in 1978 just as I was completing my PhD thesis - a rare example of reverse nepotism perhaps! My father retired as Head of Mathematics in 1991 and my parents still live in Durham.
After my graduation in ‘79 I left Durham and only returned occasionally to visit my parents, and in the late 90s, to examine a PhD thesis. However, I was back as recently as 2005 to attend Congregation, this time in the Cathedral, as a proud parent for my daughter, Julia's graduation.
My Durham experience as student, alumnus, parent and now staff member is one of complete happiness and pride. Durham helped shape my life, as it has for many others.
How has the University changed from your time here and do external perceptions of Durham match with the reality?
Durham's ethos, history and sense of magic is the same today as it was when I was a student here but there now seems to be more energy and ambition within the University. We're blessed with a significantly larger, more diverse and more cosmopolitan student and staff community. There's also a vastly improved fashion sense since the 1970s!
Those in the know appreciate Durham and understand its excellence and what makes it so distinctive - but the secret is too well kept and we need to do more to raise our profile, most notably on an international stage.
From the visits I made prior to my installation as Vice-Chancellor it is clear that Durham is a university is in good heart with a great sense of happiness and ambition for excellence in research, learning and intellectual endeavour.
As Vice-Chancellor, what do you believe are Durham's strengths?
With our commitment to quality, our research and teaching excellence, the collegiate system, and our wonderful staff and students, we can truly hail Durham as "unique".
People often point to Durham's somewhat modest size, but this brings big advantages. Durham is nimble and the University plays a key role in enhancing the local community. And of course, the real excellence of staff and students and the collegiate system create many great opportunities for personal growth and the development of leadership skills.
What do you believe are the biggest challenges that Durham faces?
Achieving national and international recognition and influence for what we already do so well is something that our entire University community, including our alumni, must pull together to tackle.
Whilst being small brings some advantages, Durham's size and the physical and financial restrictions to growth in Durham and Stockton can cause problems with increasingly inflexible funding models.
Durham needs to ensure its traditions of excellence are truly sustainable and sufficiently robust to resist pressures of government changes to the higher education sector. We must continue to enhance our areas of strength, engage with our key audiences and stakeholders and nurture our distinctive staff and student community.
Where do you want to take Durham?
Education is becoming a global market, not just for research but also for teaching. Durham must build on its internationalisation strategy to nurture a multicultural community which can deliver social and intellectual enrichment for all. In turn this will help us to establish greater, and more appropriate, influence and profile for Durham internationally. We really need to start punching our weight.
By maintaining our standards of excellence, Durham should aim to be the 'Princeton of Europe'
What characteristics and strengths will you bring to the University as our new Vice-Chancellor?
As an academic I hope I have a good understanding of the value of excellence in research and learning which is independent of external pressures or influences.
I have a real appetite to get things done and I hope that with that sense of purpose I can, by steering the ship rather than making radical changes to direction, ensure the University as a whole continues to grow, both in terms of excellence and reputation.
What are your other passions away from Durham and HE?
I have always been committed to encouraging greater public understanding of science and ensuring intellectual rigour in public decision making. But perhaps most importantly I'm the proud father of five daughters, ranging from 12 - 26 years old.
I also have a great passion for music and often describe myself as a 'failed musician' as I would have loved to have been a professional violinist. However, I realised that I was not quite up to the required standard after a spell as a junior at The Royal College of Music so I came to study in Durham where I led the University Orchestra and spent more time in the music department than in the laboratories. I spent over 100 evenings in the orchestra pit of the Assembly Rooms too!
I play my violin privately now although I still love music, particularly Opera and we often plan our holidays around major operatic concerts and visiting world opera houses.
What do you value most in higher education and who is your role model?
I value intellectual rigour in all sectors and am tough on woolly thinking. A role model is Charles Darwin, not only in the way that he observed and challenged the world around him, but also the way in which he presented his ideas with such intelligence and conviction. is inspirational. He was both a thinker and a doer.