‘I’ve been working all my life, secretly, without knowing it, to be in this chair today’ – Professor Evelyn Welch shares her insights

Professor Evelyn Welch MBE started in her role as Vice-Chancellor and President in September 2022. For this year’s Alumni Briefing, she joined Jonathan Phillips (BSc 1994), Chair of the Alumni Association, to share news and updates from her first few months in post, and to answer questions from Bristol’s alumni community.

Here, we explore some key takeaways from Evelyn, hear about the University’s greatest opportunities and challenges for the years ahead and uncover Bristol’s superpower.

On education
My family is originally from Galveston, Texas. My father met my mother at Harvard, Massachusetts and I grew up on the east coast. Education was the thing they were most passionate about; it’s what made their opportunities possible. So, I knew from a young age I was going to work hard and study hard. I too went to Harvard where I learnt a lot. I will forever be Harvard’s class of ’81 – I know how much an alumni community can do for one another and their universities, and how much they can gain, as I do as a Harvard alum, from having that university affiliation.

On settling into Bristol
Staff and students have given me the most remarkable recommendations for places to see in Bristol. The walks have been very special – I was out in Leigh Woods recently and before that in the Mendips. There are beautiful hills and walks within a very short distance from a vibrant city centre – you don’t get that in many parts of the UK. I’m struck by how many bridges there are too – everywhere you go, you meet water, and you need to find a way across. I’m absolutely loving it. The only thing I would change is the traffic – it’s horrendous!

On the new role
I never expected to be in the chair of Vice-Chancellor and President of the University of Bristol. No academic thinks ‘I want to run a University’. I learned a lot from running a department, and then a faculty. Above all, I learnt my greatest lessons from having a large and complicated family. I have three children of my own and three stepchildren so I have learned a lot about patience, portion control and speaking so that my children would listen and listening so that my children would speak.

That interaction between a complicated family life and real academic opportunities led to me taking on more and more leadership roles within universities. I was the Pro Vice-Chancellor of Teaching and Learning at Sussex, then Pro Vice-Chancellor of Research at Queen Mary and then the Provost at King’s College London. So really, I’ve been working all my life, secretly, without knowing it, to be in this chair today.

‘I will forever be Harvard’s class of ’81 – I know how much an alumni community can do for one another and their universities, and how much they can gain.’

The University’s greatest opportunities
I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate to have inherited a new Vision and Strategy from my predecessor, Professor Hugh Brady, and the senior team and many others from across the University who have contributed. This strategy takes us to 2030, and we have a campus plan that takes us to 2026. We have put these together with all our communities, including alumni.

The first pillar to the strategy is research – research that is not only outstanding, but will make a real difference to health inequalities, net zero and the creative industries. The second pillar is transformative education that is available to as many people as possible. We want to widen the range of people we bring into our university community and work with local schools and colleges to make sure the University comes to the students, wherever they are in Bristol, rather than waiting for them to come to us. Finally – and this is the new bit – we want to be a truly global civic university. This third pillar is new and speaks to our aspiration to be the University for Bristol, as well as the University of Bristol. It’s really exciting.

The University’s greatest challenges
Our greatest challenges are money and communication. We know what we stand for, we’re proud of what we do and we’d love to do more of it. Now we need to work together to get the message out that universities are a place of opportunity; places that can change lives. I need this entire alumni community to join with me and speak with pride about what we’ve achieved to date and what we need to do differently going forward in the future.

On the new Temple Quarter Enterprise Campus (TQEC)
The new Temple Quarter Enterprise Campus is so exciting. It’s one of the reasons I came to Bristol – to build something really unique for the future. It’s an opportunity for the University to stretch itself down into the heart of the city and have that greater connectivity with Bristol Temple Meads. I put boots and a hardhat on just the other week to see our progress and it’s truly amazing.

We’ve opened our first building – the Bristol Digital Futures Institute. In 2023, we’ll be opening MyWorld, which will be important to local Bristol and national creative industries.  The campus will be an exciting space where we can be truly interdisciplinary – we’ll have Engineering and the Business School there, as well as small and medium enterprise partners and start-up businesses. We’ll be bringing all our pillars together to make a real difference to the future of the University.

‘Bristol’s superpower is absolutely it’s people. There is something in the community ethos here.’

On student experience
I went to Welcome Week on the Downs this year and I was bombarded by so many student societies – I could have joined 100 different sports clubs, as many food societies, clubs to do with politics or succulents and more and more faith-based clubs. Our strength lies in the rich variety of student societies we have to offer, and we work very closely with the Students’ Union to make sure there is something for everyone.

Recently we’ve been working with the SU to ensure we are supporting students through the cost-of-living crisis. The SU asked us to focus on those who are most in need, so we give a sum of money up front to those who need it most without asking them to ‘prove’ their need. We’ve also created a £1 and £2 meal option in student cafes to ensure everyone has access to a hot meal.

We’re lobbying the Government to raise the maintenance grant, which hasn’t gone up since it was set in 2010. This is the thing that would make the biggest difference to the greatest number of students, not just at Bristol but nationally.

We absolutely rely on our alumni to reach out and support future students of the University of Bristol, to look after recent graduates and to create and sustain that friendship.

On overcoming barriers in her career
When I started out there wasn’t maternity leave, certainly not for people on temporary contracts as I was for my first seven years in academia. Three of my children are born in July and August so I was starting the new academic year with very small children. I have come across many assumptions that I’m the person in the room who will take the notes, that I’ll be the teaching and learning associate and not the research. Where possible, I have turned these assumptions and barriers to my advantage. The University of Bristol opened its doors to women across all degrees from day one and for that I’m extremely proud.

You can read about the University’s new Vision and Strategy here. For your opportunity to hear from Professor Evelyn Welch next year, please save the date for an alumni lecture on Friday 9 June 2023 and we’ll be in touch with more details. 

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