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Talking leadership: Lisa Roberts on forging partners for sustainability

The University of Exeter’s vice-chancellor talks about partnering with businesses, including the controversial decision to keep working with Shell on sustainability

October 4, 2023
University of Exeter vice-chancellor and chief executive Professor Lisa Roberts

On a Tuesday afternoon in London, Lisa Roberts has just wrapped up a meeting with the top accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Almost every two weeks, the University of Exeter vice-chancellor takes the train up from her campus on the southwest coast of England to meet similar corporations; such trips are integral to building ties.

“We need businesses and governments to come with us and partner with us on this journey to tackling climate change,” she says. She smiles, adding that she’d rather take the train than drive because the wi-fi allows her to work.

The corporate world is Roberts’ old stomping ground. A microbiologist by education, she began her career with the consumer goods giant Procter?& Gamble. One day, however, it dawned on her that she “wasn’t doing microbiology any more”. So she?dived?back in, starting a PhD in foot and mouth disease.

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A newly minted virologist, Roberts began teaching at the University of Surrey. Eventually, as head of department and later executive dean, she set up the veterinary school?– “my baby there”, she exclaims. She went on to work as deputy vice-chancellor for research and innovation at the University of Leeds.

Then, in September 2020, Roberts stepped into her role as the University of Exeter’蝉?new leader. Set in the same city as the Meteorological Office (Met Office)?– the UK’s national weather forecasting agency?–?the Russell Group university has a proclivity for sustainability.

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“Exeter is known for [climate work]. But when I arrived I realised just how strong and how deep and broad that was,” the vice-chancellor says. The university has 1,500 climate researchers and more than 30 centres working on the different aspects of sustainability. Counting scientists at both the Met Office and the university, Exeter has “more of the world’s top 100 climate scientists than any other city”, she adds.

But despite this “nucleus of experts”, she felt something was missing. Roberts realised that the university needed a framework to tell “external organisations”?such as businesses, policymakers and the government that it was looking to join hands in tackling climate issues.

Three years in, she has tried to build a strategy that connects academics with partners outside academia. She says the motto for Exeter’s business school also summarises her efforts: “Taking climate science into the boardroom.”

Exeter now provides bespoke solutions to companies?that want to transition to net zero. Some firms?might ask for help with training or executive education on sustainability, while others might be looking for research to decarbonise a part of their business.

Such partnerships also benefit Exeter. “As universities, we also have to think about diversification of our funding streams so that we’re not so reliant on one or two,” she says.

Roberts believes that universities are well placed to make the case for partnership because their advice and the expertise they provide can be “independent”. Climate researchers, when working with companies, have the freedom to coach them on a “spectrum of answers”, rather than being boxed in by a political or business agenda, she says.

“Sometimes we have to say there is no right or wrong answer. I think academia allows us to do that,” she says, adding that companies can then choose the best paths for themselves.

But climate research itself can be divisive. As Roberts admits, it involves “meaty societal issues”, with different people holding different views on how to approach sustainability.

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This can be complicated when working with companies. Earlier this year, students at Exeter expressed concern?about a renewed partnership between Exeter and Shell – one of the biggest oil companies in the world. After??revealing that the company’s efforts at decarbonisation were undermined by the use of “phantom credits” that did not actually lead to any real carbon cutting,?students criticised Exeter for extending its contract with the company for another five years,?the student paper??reported.

Roberts explains that the partnership with the energy firm, which has been running for?15 years, is meant to help Shell decarbonise. The latest work between the two focused on a carbon capture project in Brazil.

“There is a small number of people within the community that thinks we should not work with Shell. But that’s where our climate scientists are saying, actually, we need them [Shell] to transition. And they have the financial ability to power that transition,” she says of the decision-making process.

The university is “quite clear” that it will not work with the company on the extraction of petroleum, she says. “But we will work with them on nature-based solutions, because we need people like Shell to really be leaders in in that transition.”

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Roberts says the?university has tried to have “open discussions” about the issue, hosting panels that include students as well scientists. “If people want to protest, then we allow that to happen in a peaceful way as well,” she adds.

All of this work towards sustainability falls under the “greener” element of Exeter’s three-point strategy that Exeter has recently adopted. ?The other two elements are “healthier” and “fairer”.

The university’s strategy document for 2030 reads “we will use the power of our education and research to create a sustainable, healthy and socially just future”.

Roberts has restructured the university completely to deliver this vision. Last year, she overhauled 34 departments to create 25, using the ideals of interdisciplinary learning. These 25 departments were then put under three different umbrella faculties, mirroring the strategy.

“We didn’t close anything, but we just put some things together that really should be together,” Roberts explains.

Each of the three larger faculties now leads on one of the “greener, healthier, fairer” strategies. The faculty of environment, science and economy was created to streamline efforts on sustainability, or the “greener” mission.

“People love what we’ve done there. Because there, you’ve got the business school, together with environment and climate, and engineering and sciences, and maths and AI. That fusion of business with climate and environment is really strong,” says Roberts.

The second faculty, which spearheads the “healthier” vision, is the faculty of health and life sciences. It includes the medical school as well as departments?such as psychology. The final one, the faculty of humanities and social sciences, works to contribute to a “fairer” world, says Roberts. She notes that the 172-year-old institution has historically been known for humanities, although in the last 20 years it has gained a reputation for STEM.

Roberts has also appointed pro vice-chancellors for each of the three faculties, whose role is to foster collaboration between the areas.

Reflecting on these recent changes, she says that “sometimes structures just come in the way”. She believes the streamlining has also helped to simplify research, because many of the awards and research grants that the university gets are interdisciplinary anyway.

She doesn’t hold back in taking credit for the boldness with which she has shaped strategy at Exeter. “In terms of my university, I clearly have a plan,” she says.

The approach contrasts with her own plan, Roberts admits. “I’ve never been someone who has their five-year plan of what to do in terms of your career.” She thinks about times when people have tapped her on the shoulder and nudged her to apply for a role?–?something she tries to do for others now.

“Whatever I’ve done, I think, throughout my whole career has always been delivered with partners.”

tiya.alexander@timeshighereducation.com


This is part of our “Talking leadership” series with the people running the world’s top universities about how they solve common strategic issues and implement change.?Follow the series here.

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