Spotlight: Peter Mathieson

In our recurring Spotlight blog feature, we chat with CASE members from around the globe their advancement careers.

Member: Peter Mathiesonpm

Position: Since 2014, he’s served as president of the University of Hong Kong. In February 2018, he’ll become principal and vice-chancellor of the University of Edinburgh.

Background: Trained as a nephrologist, Mathieson served as dean of the University of Bristol’s Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry. A longtime CASE volunteer, Mathieson is chair of the CASE Asia-Pacific Board of Directors. He’ll also present at the CASE Europe Annual Conference, 28 August – 1 September.

CASE: What’s the biggest challenges university and advancement leaders today face?

Peter Mathieson: 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 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 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. 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.


How is the role of the university changing?

The 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’s 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.

What role can advancement professionals play in that shift?

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.

Ultimately, how can higher education persevere in our changing times?

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.

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.

[But] universities all over the world have to define their principles and be prepared to stick up for them.

This interview was originally published in the July 2017 issue of BriefCASE.

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