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March 12, 2018 | by  | in Features Splash |
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Getting to Know Grant Guilford

A few Fridays ago, I asked around the office, “anyone got dirt on Grant Guilford? I’m about to do an interview with him.”

Kii, the Station Co-Manager, says, “I’ve heard he can be a bit of a…” he trails off. “I’ll go and see what I can find.” Ruby, our designer, says, “ask him if he made any New Year’s resolutions. Ask for a weird fact about him.” Jess Scott, who had come into the office to talk about starting a fashion column, says, “ask him what’s the worst date he’s been on.”

Grant Guilford is Victoria’s Vice-Chancellor – a university’s equivalent of a CEO. He’s from Auckland, and his last job was the Dean of the Massey Vet School. Salient had interviewed him in 2014, back when he first started. They asked him if he was just another boring white man. He said he was white but not boring. They also asked him if he had smoked pot. He said yes. They then concluded that he was a GC.

I’m met in the foyer and escorted to Grant’s office. I’ve never been escorted to an interview before. Feels kinda fancy. He looks exactly like the photos of him online, which is strange because hardly anyone I know looks exactly like the photos of himself. He’s possibly even wearing the same suit. I ask him how his day is going. “Good,” he says, and proceeds to talk about a meeting he had with the Association of Vice-Chancellors this morning.

Then he doesn’t stop talking for a solid ten minutes. A lot of it is good information, he’s telling me about the effects of first year fee free – hasn’t affected enrolments that much apparently – and the change in the Education Act which makes it compulsory to have students and staff on the University Council, among other things. But I was a little surprised by such a long answer.

I ask him to tell me a bit about himself and his role at the University. This time, he goes on for a good 20 minutes, about his job, universities, the history of universities… I tried really hard to pay attention at first.  Really I did. University council. Debt. Staff. Responsibility. Risk. Leadership. Wellbeing. Accessibility. Strategy. Humboldtian model. Financial constraints.

But he keeps talking. And talking. I start to panic. I worry that we’ll use up all the interview time this way, me listening mutely, waiting for a break in his speech that never comes. I try to cut into his flow but I can’t figure out how to do it without rudely interrupting him. I look at my phone. I realise that the record function wasn’t even on. I try to surreptitiously start recording. I wonder if he notices the anxiety in my eyes.

Finally, I muster up the courage and I interrupt him. “Sorry to interrupt, but I was just wondering how much time we have?” “As long as you like – a good half hour,” he replies.

I was surprised. Phew. I wasn’t gonna get ushered out of the room at the end of his monologue after all.  Website-Cover-Photo4

He spends a lot of time talking about the university’s financial situation. Must be something that Vice-Chancellors get concerned about. He tells me, with a hint of resentment, about how the government isn’t increasing the university’s funding. We need more funding every year, he says, not only to keep up with inflation, but because staffing costs are going up, since we keep promoting our staff. After this interview, various people have pointed out to me that the various construction and earthquake proofing projects around campus may also have contributed to increased costs.

“What do you tend to spend your wage on personally?” I ask. Last year, Grant’s salary was between $540,000 and $549,000. “Mainly on environmental stuff,” he says, “we’ve got two large tracts of bush my wife and I own. One in Nelson Lakes area, and we’ve got a bush block up near Waikato/Auckland, we spent the holidays cleaning that up.”

I tell him, “cos I think it’s hard for students to imagine getting paid that much, or why someone would need that much.” When I said “students”, I meant me, really. High paychecks confuse me. What do you even do with that much money?

He replies, “yeah, it’s not so much about wanting to get paid that much, that’s the going rate for people with my level of responsibility. The salary is paying for the accountability that we have, also, from a business sense, the chief exec earns that salary, many times over. Generally for professionals you’re looking to earn three times your salary.  All of the Vice Chancellors I know in NZ – none of them are driven by their salary, that’s just what you get paid when you are at that level.”

“Would you take a pay cut to give the university more money?” I ask. He says, “I wouldn’t… because it’s a bad look – it would look like I was worth less compared to other people in similar roles.”

Throughout the afternoon, he often mentions how much the university is tied to the government for funding. “Is that something you wish there was more or less of?” I ask.

“Less of,” Grant replies. “We rely heavily on our autonomy, that’s why we can play this critic and conscience role, and that autonomy is granted to us under the legislation, but you immediately lose it in real terms if you aren’t financially secure. Whoever holds the checkbook, calls the shots.”

I learnt some other things about Grant Guilford throughout the course of the afternoon. His favourite colour is green. His working day is 7am-10pm, and he’s had 5-6 hours of sleep per weeknight for the last ten years. He ate muesli for breakfast. His wife’s at their 70 acre Waikato farm at the moment. They’ve got five kids and 50 sheep. Sometimes his wife comes down to Wellington, if there’s a function that’s appropriate for her to attend.

I ask him if he enjoys his lifestyle. “I do.” he says. “Why?” I ask. He replies “you’re doing a lot of good. You’re moving obstacles for others to do good things. You’re not a hero leader, ranting and raving under bright lights, you’re here to care about your people, care about your students. You gotta have a sense of contribution to the community, and that creates a sense of wellbeing. I couldn’t respect myself if I was just out there if i was running a big business trying to make money”.

“Do you think you are a good person?” I ask. “Well…,” he says, “I try to be… I s’pose you’ve gotta ask others. But I do feel that people in universities, including Vice Chancellors, do a lot of good in our society. Through what we do –  teaching and research, also the role we play in society – speaking truth to power.”

Towards the end of the interview, I ask Grant what he thinks the biggest issue facing students is. He replies, “well, one that I worry about the most is wellbeing. We’re seeing a lot of anxiety… some of that is anxiety is completely normal, new university, coursework, to some extent anxiety is the medicalisation of a completely normal feeling. But that said, there are high levels of anxiety and stress in the student body. Whether or not it’s normal, it’s there, and that sometimes leads to challenges with mental health, self harm, so all of that’s a big worry. Sometimes there is genuine depression as opposed to unhappiness. but there’s many causes, sexual identity issues, money issues, performance issues, family issues, cultural issues, cultural alienation issues… it’s complicated.”

It sounds like he’s a little unsure about the line between ‘normal’ and mental illness. I’m also surprised that he didn’t mention housing. Maybe he hasn’t been on Vic Deals or talked to any students recently. Or maybe he just forgot to bring it up.

I asked Grant what his favourite band was. “R.E.M.” he said. “What’s your favourite song?” I ask him. “I don’t know… I don’t have one.” he replies. “What about favourite album, do you have one of those?” ” I’ve got all their albums… I can picture it” he says. “I just can’t remember what it’s called. But anyway, there’s not many of their songs I don’t like.”

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