Michael Gunn

Since giving this interview, Michael Gunn has been appointed as the Vice Chancellor of Staffordshire University.

"The serendipitous way that I pursued my career is becoming less of an option. It is becoming more of the case that you've got to have a career plan..."

"At school I didn’t really have a clue what I wanted to do, other than to do something different from my A levels. I couldn’t tell you why I chose the law, but I did. I went to the University of Manchester to do a law degree, and I thoroughly enjoyed it although I had no desire to do the law beyond a degree. At the time I couldn’t have contemplated taking on lots of debt, which would have been necessary if I was going to go into a legal career. I went off to work on a graduate scheme in the health service, but I realised that I enjoyed the law. So I applied to do a Masters degree by research at Manchester. However, one of my undergraduate tutors rang me and said, 'There is a job going at the University of Nottingham and you should go for it.' This was a lectureship, and I got the job at 22 years of age with no doctorate.

"When I entered the profession, doctorates in law were very few and far between. Some people were legally qualified, but most weren’t. It is more difficult to get a job now, and so you have to have a doctorate – but back then, it wasn’t unusual to go straight from being a student to being a lecturer. My wife, who I met at Nottingham, went from being a student in July to being a lecturer in September. I was well mentored by my colleagues in the subject, in teaching and in research.

"I was at Nottingham for 15 years before the days of research assessment exercises. The expectations were that you taught, you researched, and you helped in the running of the department. You had to learn how to research on the job. I started an active research career from the early 1980s. From a couple of years in I was publishing, and I published successfully throughout my time at Nottingham. I got teaching that I enjoyed.

"During this time I also helped in the running of the department. I was doing what would now be called 'workload allocation'. A point came when I decided that I rather liked that sort of activity. I deliberated on the decision to go into management, but I didn’t particularly seek advice on it. I knew I wanted to make a difference. I knew I had more talent to develop in terms of leadership. So then I saw a job as the Head of the School of Law at the University of Westminster, and I got the job. As Head of School in a new university, I had to learn how to manage.

"Moving into management is a big step. I had been very involved in a particular area of law reform, and I had to step back – and that was difficult. There is a bit of an investment that arguably you don’t pay back in full if you go into management. Had I stayed at Nottingham and become a professor, I would have published more and with greater impact. There is a bit of a regret, especially when I see things written now which I was thinking about years ago, but never had a chance to write up.

"However, when I went to the University of Westminster, I put in place the foundations that gave Westminster Law School the only five in the RAE in a new university. The time was right to go to Westminster. I enjoyed research, I enjoyed teaching. Would they completely satisfy me? Perhaps not. I then moved to De Montfort University to a research professor role. I found it quite difficult. I think that, whilst it was a job I could do, it wasn’t satisfying. I only did it for two years, and then took up a post as Head of Department at Nottingham Trent University. We put the Department on a good keel and developed the research. I ended up being Dean of the Law School.

"I then moved to the University of Derby to be Pro Vice Chancellor (PVC). You get to the point where you are ready to do the next job up. Or at least you think you are ready. Whether anyone else thinks you are ready is a telling part of the recruitment process. The step from Dean in a single subject to PVC is a big step, as you are taking responsibility across the institution.

"As you get more senior, you move away from your subject, you don’t teach, and you experience ever more curtailing of your research. These are three very big things to take, because what brings you into a university and keeps you there is your subject, teaching and research. I can’t say that it’s been easy. It has been the right thing for me to do. If it hadn’t been, I wouldn’t have stayed. I retain an interest in my subject, I’m still a member of a research group, and I still publish occasionally.

"I didn’t plan my career at any point. I probably only decided when I saw the jobs advertised. Obviously I think about what I do, and I’m at the point where I’ve got quite a range of options, but I never had a career plan. It is something that I ask people about in the appraisals that I do. The serendipitous way that I pursued my career is becoming less of an option. It is becoming more of the case that you’ve got to have a career plan."