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Member Profile: Peter Mathieson

Peter MathiesonPeter Mathieson currently serves as president of the University of Hong Kong. In February 2018, Mathieson will take up the role of principal of the University of Edinburgh. A longtime CASE volunteer, Mathieson is chair of the CASE Asia-Pacific Board of Directors and also serves as a trustee of the CASE Board of Trustees and a member of its executive committee.

Mathieson will join Tricia King, CASE's vice president of global engagement, and Michael Arthur, president and provost of the University College London, to present the closing plenary at the CASE Europe Annual Conference, 28 August - 1 September, on behalf of the 103 CASE Higher Education Leadership Symposium.

How did you get your start in advancement and development?

My earlier career was as a medical researcher, teacher and clinician. In those roles, I was occasionally involved in fundraising, predominantly for kidney research, but also for medicine in Uganda. I was dean in Bristol during the University of Bristol's centenary campaign and I contributed to centenary events in Bristol and in London. However, it was only when I took up my present role in Hong Kong that institutional advancement in all its guises—alumni relations, fundraising, marketing and communications, etc.—became a central part of my job description.

Somewhat to my surprise, given my stereotypical British reserve about asking people for money or priding myself on knowing their worth and their business, I enjoyed it and found that I was quite good at it.

British universities tend to look to United States institutions as role models, and often for hiring of professionals in institutional advancement. I would say that the higher education sector in Hong Kong is intermediate between the U.S. and the U.K. in its institutional advancement practices. There are some nuances that are particularly specific to Hong Kong or at least to Greater China and Asia; not all techniques or practices from the U.S. or the U.K. would work here. It has been a fascinating learning experience for me and one which will serve me well for the remainder of my career.

How has higher education advancement changed throughout your career?

In the U.K., I became involved in academic leadership during a period of profound change. In Hong Kong, I have led the university through one of the most turbulent periods in its 106-year history. This has much to do with specific political and economic contexts. The point is that universities are not insulated from societal change. Universities can lead societal change but sadly, more commonly, they have to react to it, adapt and survive. The durability of universities—some in Europe are hundreds of years old and have survived wars, famines, epidemics and other crises—is testament to their importance to society.

In the U.K., the reductions in central government funding for higher education and the shift to a new system with rising tuition fees were uninvited and rapid. Universities needed to develop greater business awareness, customer focus and marketing readiness. One could argue that such changes should not have been driven by circumstances. Shouldn't universities aim to give their "customers" a good deal anyway? In any case, any complacency about income streams was rapidly chased away.

I became dean of Bristol's Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry two weeks before the Lehman Brothers crash. Instead of a job where I would be building, hiring and developing the faculty (as I had originally envisaged), my job turned into one of managing dwindling resources, aiming to increase the quality of outputs with ever-diminishing resources to do so. Since I left the UK, continuing economic stagnation, the unexpected and unwelcome challenges of Brexit and the changing political world order have accumulated as additional challenges to the sector.

In Hong Kong, higher education is still heavily subsidised by the government. The challenges here are more political than fiscal. Hong Kong's rapidly changing relationship with China, the evident divisions in Hong Kong society, the public and media obsession with education in general, and with the University of Hong Kong in particular, have combined to create an often frenzied atmosphere. One of the most obvious manifestations was the unprecedented occupation of some of Hong Kong's streets for 79 days during 2014 by civil protests in which university students and some staff were centrally involved. This awakening of the youth of Hong Kong had profound consequences for the education sector, and therefore for its leaders, in Hong Kong and continues to do so.

Challenges to institutional autonomy have not been confined to the U.K. and Hong Kong. In the U.S., especially at public universities, there have been striking examples of funding bodies expecting to exert greater control over university mission, including curriculum design, academic priorities and staff development. In Japan, an ill-fated directive from the government to public universities to stop using public funding to support the humanities and social sciences was quietly withdrawn when it provoked a strong reaction from those affected. In Australia, proposed radical changes to the funding structures of higher education have been part of the political discourse for some years now. Universities all over the world have to define their principles and be prepared to stick up for them.

What other challenges do institutions and higher education leaders face in today's world of advancement?

I don't think it is overstating it to say that the issues outlined in my answer to the previous question pose an existential challenge to universities in 2017, especially when taken with advances in electronic learning, which have led to the rapid growth of alternatives to the conventional university model.

Governments (and more importantly students, parents and schools) are asking searching questions of universities. Why does it cost so much? Why does it take so long to get a degree? What are my alternatives? Advancement professionals can play a vital role in helping to answer these questions. University leaders are well-qualified in terms of knowledge and experience to be able to articulate the importance of higher education to society but they may lack the marketing and communications expertise that advancement professionals can bring to the team. Institutions' diminishing ability to rely on government funding, and/or the greater expectations of funders to manage or control the higher education sector, could be seen as creating unique opportunities for advancement professionals. If universities are to take greater control of their own destinies, the capacity to draw on the support of their alumni and friends will be become ever more important.

This is not just about money, although of course philanthropic funding hugely increases the flexibility that universities have to manage their own destiny and support their own priorities. Alumni and friends provide networks, mentorship, openings for students and staff, community presence, advocacy and lobbying power. Advancement professionals are the experts in engaging and developing this enormous pool of talent and ability. Those universities in parts of the world, including the U.K., which have not previously been as dependent as others on such support are waking up and smelling the coffee.

How else is the role of the university changing? How does this impact the role of advancement professionals?

The other existential challenge to modern universities is that we are no longer the primary providers of information to our students or indeed to our staff. There is an abundance of information freely available online or via social media. Furthermore, most contemporary university graduates will have several different careers; the career in which they end up might not even exist at the time of their graduation.

The notion that universities should focus on preparing people for specific jobs, if it was ever true, is not applicable to the modern world. Our role is now to help our students to understand, process and make effective use of information; how to adapt and be flexible; how to learn from setbacks and failures; how to nurture and develop the skills which will make them global citizens able to thrive in an era of change. Advancement professionals are often the front line of university advocacy; they need to appreciate the changing role and they too need to adapt. Supporters these days are likely to be more business-minded, more goal-orientated. Preparing persuasive materials, actively engaging past, present or potential future supporters—this all requires more sophisticated design and deployment than ever before.

Advancement professionals are a shortage commodity. Never have the opportunities been greater for suitably motivated and capable individuals to flourish in these roles. Previously, only certain parts of the world understood this; it is my firm view that the advancement profession is now more globally appreciated and needed than ever before.

What has drawn you to be so involved in CASE throughout your career? How can other CASE members benefit from volunteering with CASE?

There were two factors in my decision to take on the role of chair of the CASE Asia-Pacific Board. One was the early realisation that institutional advancement was going to play a major role in my effectiveness in the job of leading The University of Hong Kong and I needed to learn from the experts, so I thought might as well get to know them better and get heavily involved in the field.

Second was advice from my former boss in Bristol, Sir Eric Thomas, former chair of the CASE Europe Board. He told me that I would enjoy working with the CASE community. It is always somewhat painful to admit that your former boss was right about anything but Eric was certainly right about this. My involvement with CASE has brought me into close contact with numerous interesting and talented professionals; it has contributed to my own education and professional development; most importantly, it has also been fun.

I strongly recommend CASE to anyone who is not yet actively involved or who contemplates a greater involvement. We all have too much to do, but the best recommendation for taking on anything extra is that it will be worth it if it makes your job easier and if it increases your enjoyment of your professional life. For me, CASE has done both.

This article is from the BriefCASE 2017 issue.