Barely a few months into her new job, the new University of York Chancellor already has a Long Boi scarf, a long-standing passion for making change, and a long list of plans to ensure her Chancellorship role is always more than just a figurehead.
Logging onto our hastily rescheduled zoom call, Dr Heather Melville’s cheery voice burst through the screen: “I am very, very, very excited. I still keep pinching myself. Is this real?”
And it only got more ‘exciting’ from there.
An equal fan of cats and dogs alike, a snacker of wine gums and hazelnut chocolate, and the proud owner of a Long Boi scarf (even if she sadly never got to meet the legend himself), UoY’s newly appointed chancellor is looking forward to stepping into the role and letting everyone know exactly who she is.
And more importantly: who the students of the University of York are… and what they can become.
Ultimately, this is Heather’s primary focus for her time as Chancellor – evoking change that will benefit the students of the present and future. Noting the powerful foundation the University exists on, and a leadership team built on the “shoulders of giants”, Heather is ready to take it to another level.
Bristling with excitement and nervousness, she is absolutely focused on “what the future could look like.”
“Because, at the end of the day, the future for me is not about the physical body of the University, and not about the leadership of the University, but about the students that make up the University. “
In fact Heather’s plan is already quite distinct:
“I want to talk about equality, ethnicity, postgraduate students. Everybody across all the spectrums of inclusion.”
“I want to mention mental health. We need to make sure that we are able to support our students who are going through really difficult times, and especially those that are away from home, a long way away from home”
“I want to connect with businesses, both local, and in London so they can see first hand the kind of talent we have.”
“I want to walk through the campus and see and feel that energy of the multicultural society that we live in, in the real world.”
“I really believe that we are ready for change.”
This change, of course, won’t happen overnight. When I pressed for further hints, Heather was particularly honest: “well I’m still in the fabulous discovery part!”
Ultimately though, the timeline is already in place. “I want to give us, you know, three to five years where I can measure it and be able to see these are the outcomes of the work. And to take people on the journey with us.”
And most interestingly, Heather doesn’t seem particularly keen on resting much throughout this 5-year plan. “When my son said to me, ‘You plan to sleep right’, my response was clear ‘I’m gonna be dead for a long time, and then I can sleep as much as I want to.’”
This enthusiasm for change has a long-standing tradition in Heather’s life. In fact it’s the whole reason she received the job offer in the first place. Discussing her journey to York, Heather described how her passion has always come from uplifting diversity, particularly for women and ethnic minorities. A leading figure in the business world and now an independent advisor to her organisation, Heather has always said that minority groups don’t need to change themselves: “what they need is exactly the same opportunities that straight white men get and that’s what we’re fighting for.”
“I have a passion for business, and a passion for creating an inclusive society. So actually, when those two come together, it doesn’t feel like work. It feels like living a dream.”
And it’s these exact values that led the University of York to offer her the job.
“Well they tricked me at first. In the nicest possible way.” Heather recounted with a laugh.
“They asked if I’d come and speak at something in York. And I was very provocative.”
“I talked about how this university needs to look and feel different, to be able to attract the talent that’s already out there. And unbeknownst to me, that was my interview.”
Of course, accepting was an easy decision for Heather.
“I think the biggest driver for me accepting this was the passion from everybody I came across from the University of York – we’re all really passionate about creating an inclusive society. And they all wanted me to come and drive that.”
Describing her future partnership with Vice Chancellor Charlie Jeffery: “it’s very unusual in my work, in life, that I’ve worked with somebody and felt our values are so well connected.”
But ultimately, Heather’s core reason is simple: “You just don’t see very many people of color, or even women at those top jobs in academia.”
“And to me, it’s really humbling the amount of people who have said ‘because you’re there, we can see ourselves there.’”
After looking back at her notable journey to York, it was now time to discuss the present issues of the student population. And wow, was Heather ready to go. Discussing everything from Covid, to strikes, cost of living and the new student centre, Heather has ideas and isn’t afraid to share them.
The impacts of Covid, she starts, can’t be ignored. “What it did was it created a vacuum of people that we just put into little boxes, and you had to stay in this room, and you couldn’t leave. Never in our history has this happened. It was a horrible, horrible time for students to go through.”
“And now we’re in a situation where you have to choose whether you eat or whether you can study.”
Addressing the current cost of living crisis, Heather describes seeing “these young people when they’re shopping and they’re thinking about the next 10 days, not just the next two days.”
“You have to choose to eat or heat your home – that’s the reality.”
In regards to the ongoing UCU strike action, she believes communication is the key. “What’s most interesting in the recent strike action is seeing and learning from how Charlie has been updating staff and students.”
Building off the University’s efforts to support students, she is particularly impressed by the range of options. “Fuel grants, poverty funds, emergency support funds, food vouchers, free laptops, period products. These efforts are important, right?”
And she is quite excited about the potential of the new student center being built on West Campus. “There is going to be a lot of investment to make student life much more attractive and sustainable. We’ll have a variety of spaces designed specifically for students, so that’s exciting.”
Coming from a working-class background herself, Heather describes relating to the wide struggles of working students in these times. “I want people to know that your Chancellor absolutely understands what it’s like to be put on the breadline because I’ve been there – 20 years ago.”
Ultimately though, Heather has found herself to be a very glass half-full kind of person. Even through hard times she finds comfort in “aspiring to have nice things”, because those nice things will one day represent the “journey I’ve been on and the ability to be creative with the things you do.”
Infact, as an avid fan of op-shopping, vintage fashion remains one of Heather’s top tips for finding creativity in a budget.
Moving on to how university is never simply about academics, Heather describes the skill sets that can and will be developed through the hardships, which always “make you a stronger and more resilient adult”.
“And trust me, the generation of the last three years are going through something that’s never been experienced before. And they will be the leaders of the future. Because they’re resilient, they’re caring.”
Wrapping up our conversation with other timely messages to this impressive student population she is so looking forward to leading, Heather once more displays the vast excitement that has fueled our conversation, and her chancellor-ship, right from the start.
“I want them to understand that they’re not on their own. The University in itself is a family. And we want to make sure we’re there to support you.”
“I want to make sure we celebrate those successes. So whilst I’m here, the graduations will be extremely special.”
“I want to keep updating students, get the message out about our work, our purpose, our values. I don’t want to be a stranger to this.”
“I want them to remember that you’ll never forget where you’ve come from and yes I want them to focus on being the best that they can be.”
As we begin to log off so Heather could head off to feed her beloved, if slightly spoiled cat Jazz (named for Heather’s immense love of jazz music), her final point was absolutely crystal clear…
“It’s all about doing something that we can actually be proud of.”