Managing is applied psychology

Ian Florance talks to Paul Webley about his role as Director and Principal of the School of Oriental and African Studies

I walk over to the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) complex after sitting at the café in Russell Square surrounded by tourists, students and a very noisy film crew. The walls display artefacts from, and books on, many different cultures. I get lost in a photographic study of Moslem architecture, then Paul Webley arrives and ushers me into his office. Paul’s a hugely enthusiastic, friendly and honest interviewee. I ask him how he got from there (teaching and researching economic and social psychology) to here (head of a unique institution with Europe’s largest concentration of academic staff concerned with Africa, Asia and the Middle East).

Paul grew up in Hayes in the London Borough of Hillingdon, which George Orwell famously described as ‘…one of the most godforsaken places I have ever struck’. ‘We used to go up to do our Christmas shopping in London and I fell in love with the city. I became an economics undergraduate at the London School of Economics. At the end of the first year I’d won a scholarship but I changed course in my second year to social psychology. I‘d enjoyed social psychology as a first-year option, but the deciding factor was that a lot of the economics I was being taught was plain wrong. In the 1970s the Phillips curve, which maps the relationship between inflation and unemployment, didn’t reflect the reality. The whole area of indifference curves – which represent consumer preferences for goods to which they are indifferent – had been studied empirically by a psychologist – Thurstone. Economics seemed like idealistic model-building; psychology was a way at getting to reality. So, I finally got my degree in social psychology. I did a PhD and then spent a year teaching social psychology at Southampton. But I really hit my stride when I moved to the University of Exeter. I stayed there for 26 years.’

Paul describes meeting Stephen Lea, Head of the Psychology School at the University of Exeter, as a huge influence on his career and interests. ‘The mentor role is hugely important in academic life. A mentor is someone who takes an interest in you and provides an exemplar of behaviour. Stephen has been Deputy Vice Chancellor, Dean of Science and Head of the Psychology Department so he provided advice and reassurance as I made decisions to move from teaching and research into what I’d suppose you’d call administrative roles. There’s a tradition of historians and psychologists becoming deputy vice chancellors at Exeter.’

Paul regained his interest in the links between psychology and economics. ‘Psychologists, not economists, were equipped with the tools and interest to review demand curves in human beings and other animals. At the time economic psychology was seen as rather strange and marginal – a sort of dim light refracted through the hard gem of scientific economics. You can argue that this allows thinkers more freedom, but it can also count against you, given the way academic disciplines work. Daniel Kahneman’s Nobel Prize for his work on judgement and decision-making has changed people’s attitudes to economic psychology. Last year I ran a summer school in economic psychology – the first teaching I’d done for seven years! The majority of delegates were economists, which is very different from when I started.’

Paul says that he loved research and teaching at Exeter. ‘It wasn’t just that I was fascinated by the subject. I used to use different techniques to get students engaged – balloon debates, posters, discussions, case studies. When I taught a course in psychology and the law we went to law courts to get experience. I finally understood the importance of real engagement when I took a ski party leaders course many years ago. Encouraging engagement and attention, creating a relationship with students results in good marks. Actually on that course I just scraped through. I was not that good as a skier but on my assessment run I skied out of my skin. I was overjoyed just to pass.’

Paul was Head of the Psychology Department at Exeter for 10 years. He decided to stand down on Stephen Lea’s advice: ‘You can be in a post for too long. The new Vice Chancellor suggested I stand for election as Deputy VC, and I won.’

For Paul this was the big step-change in his career. ‘Heads of department are barons in a kingdom. They look at and worry about their patch. I was suddenly forced to look at how it all fitted together. I spent a few sleepless nights thinking ‘Oh my God, what have I done?’ But the VC was and is another great mentor and facilitator. I went on the top management programme at the Leadership Foundation. One morning I woke up and thought, ‘I can do this.’

Paul was head-hunted for his job at SOAS and went through a fairly gruelling selection process. ‘As you can see, my career is something that happened to me rather than something I managed and directed.’ SOAS is a high-profile institution; a college in the University of London founded in 1916. Paul describes its early years as being ‘part of the imperial enterprise’. But now he sees it as connected firmly to the areas it studies: ‘Our academics visit and stay in different regions regularly. Their laboratories are whole countries, regions and cultures. The strategy for our 2016 centenary described SOAS as a British university. It was quickly pointed out that it’s a world university.’

Over 40 per cent of SOAS’s 4600 students are from outside the UK. It offers over 350 degree and 100 postgraduate programmes and possesses one of the great European academic libraries on Africa, Asia and the Middle East. ‘I had a combination of teaching, research and management experience which helped me understand the issues. The fact that I’m not a specialist in one of the areas SOAS deals with was, in a way, a help. I couldn’t be accused of favouritism.’

Paul found many differences in the role. ‘When we’d made unpopular decisions at Exeter, the VC got the criticism; I got very little. Being number one is quite different from being number two. You get attacked and some of this boils down to personal abuse. We've had occupations, demonstrations, disputes and a strike, and sometimes this has been associated with extremely personal criticism – this can be hard to take. I’d also been at Exeter a long time and knew the culture. When you’re starting in a new job, how do you find out what’s going on without undermining your direct reports? This is much easier in smaller institutions. Your role as a head of an institution is to manage managers so you have to take special steps to keep connected with what’s going on at the grass roots of the organisation.’

Paul also points to representing SOAS, rather than managing it, as a much larger part of the role than he had imagined. ‘Communication in both roles – as manager and spokesperson – works on different principles than when I was an academic. As an academic psychologist you get used to speaking when you’ve got something new to say; as a VC you repeat things until someone finally takes notice.’

Paul seems relaxed and engaged as he discusses his role, but says: ‘Being outside of your comfort zone is frightening but stimulating. During a trip to Kurdistan in my last year at Exeter I met two prime ministers in one week, one of whom seemed to be writing down every one of my suggestions and comments for future action. You have to think on your feet.’

Having discussed his role, Paul thought about what he’d said, then commented: ‘I suppose some people might criticise me for taking on the job as a career move. But the fact is I’ve never wanted to be a head of an institution in a generic sense: I wanted to be head of this one.’ And he’s proud of his achievements. ‘The year I arrived we were projecting a deficit of £800,000. We’ve had surpluses now for four years. Only 25 per cent of our income comes directly from government, and I expanded our fundraising development office, which has raised significant sums of money for scholarships and academic projects. And this year we won a Queen’s Anniversary Prize for our language teaching. We’re in a better place than we were. I’m not underestimating the financial problems ahead for the whole HE sector. Things are going to be tough and there is still some resistance to new initiatives. But I start from the view that we should be accountable for what we do. Academics need to recognise this, and that taking care of the finances is necessary in order to achieve excellence in research and teaching. I refuse to put my head in the sand or allow other academic staff to.’

Which is where Paul’s training came in. ‘Everything I do contains a psychological component – from negotiating with unions, understanding the sensitivities of a hugely diverse academic and student population, dealing with policy makers and other stakeholders. Economic psychology has a strong theoretical underpinning, but it is an applied field as well – it deals with people’s choices, judgements and preferences. SOAS is a wonderful institution and a great opportunity to apply what I spent so long teaching and researching. Managing is applied psychology.’


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