Member Profile: Alex Miles
The University of Nottingham's Nottingham in Parliament Day drew 3,000 participants to 45 events across London's House of Commons and House of Lords. There were incredible discussions, archery demonstrations, and even robots.
All in all, it was extraordinary, says Alex Miles, director of global and political affairs at the university.
"The joy of my job is to discover the colleagues and initiatives across the university that, when aligned with moments in time and places in the world, can create something bigger than the sum of their parts," says Miles, who came to Nottingham in 2015.
This year, Miles is taking on the task of leading another exciting event: this year's CASE Europe Annual Conference, Aug. 27-29, in Birmingham. Here, he shares more on the conferences's "Disrupt or Be Disrupted" theme and explains why advancement professionals need to ban the phrase “that’s not my job” from their vocabulary.
CASE: How did you find your way to advancement and your current role at the University of Nottingham?
Alex Miles: As one of the first wave of university public affairs professionals (when I started at Warwick in 2012, there was only about 20 of us in the U.K. sector), we were looking for a home. That’s when I started to get involved in CASE, as I think advancement is at its best when it is at its broadest: encompassing and actively exploring the shared skills of storytelling, advocacy, brand and relationship management that unite the different CASE professional families.
I started at Nottingham as head of public affairs in 2015. I’ve had a four other roles at Nottingham since then: deputy director of external relations, interim director of a university think tank we spun out of my unit, and most recently, my new position as director of global and political affairs.
What do you love about your job?
Breadth, scale, and freedom. I am incredibly fortunate to work at a university like Nottingham where our global presence presents a veritable deluge of challenges and opportunities on a daily basis. The joy of my job is to discover the colleagues and initiatives across the university that, when aligned with moments in time and places in the world, can create something bigger than the sum of their parts. In many ways, a university is simply an institution that exists to increase the likelihood of serendipity to occur. But that’s not to say you can’t nudge things along!
What’s one professional achievement that you’re particularly proud of?
I have to admit that I’m still dining out on Nottingham in Parliament Day three years after it took place in October 2016. What started out as a bit of a mad idea in my team eight months prior to that then turned into a full-on Nottingham take-over of Westminster. Leading more than 100 partners, the university helped run 45 events across the House of Commons and Lords, with everything from table-tennis playing robots, a Robin Hood archery lesson, debates on modern slavery, trade, science demonstrations, a Michelin-starred chef exploring food security through a risotto, and loads more.
All in all, we had more than 3,000 people attend the programme, including 170 parliamentarians and took about 600 down from Nottingham in a special "Nottingham in Parliament Express" provided by our regional train company. It was absolutely bonkers but the social media, press and advocacy impact of the day was extraordinary. The relationships we built both with both national policymakers and local partners are still delivering benefits today.
What’s a big challenge you see advancement professionals facing today?
Honestly, from a U.K. perspective, I increasingly see the structural separation between fundraising/alumni relations departments and marketing/communications/public affairs/global engagement divisions within institutions as an unhelpful divide. It precludes efforts to address collective action problems that don’t neatly align with our department structures (for instance, Brexit).
The duplication of effort, the missed opportunities, the inefficiency caused by these silos: these are all things senior colleagues are increasingly discussing. Some bigger institutions are starting to address through the creation of combined departments. In an extremely challenging environment in the U.K., where we need all the friends we can get, there is huge potential for advocacy, efficacy, and efficiency gains through a more integrated model. As a public affairs professional, I have learned an enormous amount about stewardship from fundraisers, but too often, our structures impede joint work.
Therefore, my provocation would be that (with a few exceptions), I don’t believe the wider U.K. university philanthropic culture justifies the continuation of default replication of the U.S. approach to fundraising structures. However, I’m looking forward to being accosted at CEAC this year by my development colleagues pointing to this interview and telling me I’m wrong…
What’s a professional lesson you’d pass along to someone just starting out in advancement?
Ban the phrase “that’s not my job” from your vocabulary. Invest in curiosity and take the time to increase your understanding of different parts of the university.
But don’t take yourself, or your institution, too seriously—regardless of how Hogwartsy it may be.
The theme of this year’s CASE Europe Annual Conference is disruption. Why is that important for higher education to explore?
No idea why we chose it, to be honest. It’s all pretty chilled at the moment in terms of sector issues, the political situation, and wider technological and cultural changes to society.
As a result, we may end up having to set off a fire alarm during the conference to generate some excitement.
So, whilst you may think you’re attending CEAC to learn how to surf the tidal wave of disruptive trends about to land on higher education, hearing from extraordinary professionals from across the global higher education sector and beyond it, do bear in mind that it may just end up being a series of fire drills.
What are you most looking forward to at this year’s conference?
Oof! That’s hard. I love Lyse Doucet, having listened to the BBC’s From Our Own Correspondent over the years. Having the founder of Movember come and talk to us this year will be brilliant. RADA are back with their amazing master classes (I missed the Les Miserables singing session last year, which was apparently incredible). However, the joy of CEAC is just wandering off track into something that ostensibly is nothing to do with your role and having your creativity sparked by what you find there.
That and the fire alarm drill…