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It is very difficult to let go; Liverpool's major academic player Prof Sir rummond Bone hangs up his mortar board this month.

Byline: Peter Elson reports

IS DRUMMOND BONE the black sheep of his family?

Coming from an illustrious Scottish clan famed for their artistic careers, he ended up running a university.

With both his parents painters, he began life along expected cultural lines with a dedication to poetry and a desire to be a novelist.

Then something went drastically awry and he started to climb the academic ladder in the establishment world of higher education.

But it's all over now. This month Prof Sir Drummond Bone, 61, hands over the reins at the University of Liverpool to Sir Howard Newby.

Sir Drummond and his wife, Vivian, will leave the vice chancellor's lodge in Sefton Park Drive. They will return to their former manse home in Fifeshire which overlooks prime minister Gordon Brown's birthplace, a friend and former school mate.

"It's very difficult to let go. Yet there's an element of relief when you know that next week's problems are somebody else's," says Sir Drummond, who was in charge of 5,000 employees and 20,000 students.

"Seven years is ideal: you can get things done, without running out of ideas - and you've not changed it so much that it's too difficult to manage yourself."

Whatever else has faltered in Liverpool, further education institutes have kept the city's reputation intact and Sir Drummond has played a leading part, taking the university to higher levels and far-flung places.

Universities now have a global role, and the University of Liverpool, thanks to Sir Drummond and his team, is known around the world, especially due to its amazing joint-venture university in China.

With his softly spoken accent, redolent of the Edinburgh literary salons and slightly foppish, fly-away hair bordering on the Byronic, it's unsurprising that his hobbies include ski-ing, music and Maserati sports cars (of which he owns a brace).

His antecedents include celebrated painter Muirhead Bone, novelist David Muirhead (a friend of Joseph Conrad) and designer Mary Adshead Bone, who married Muirhead's son, Stephen Bone, and was daughter of Liverpool University's first professor of architecture.

As a leading expert on Lord Byron and other romantic poets, Sir Drummond is co-editor of the UK Journal of Romanticism.

Is all this artiness, inherited and accumulated, useful in grappling with the arcane world of university finance and politics, internal and external?

"I didn't broadcast the fact I was an English literary man, no," he chuckles, enigmatically adding: "It's pretty vestigial."

Rather than chairing tortuous log-jammed committees arguing with government (yet again) about resources, wouldn't he rather have been reading a nice book of poems?

He merely smiles diplomatically and adds that his wife Vivian's scientific background counterbalances his bias.

Fortunately, though, he's an expert on irony through his literary studies. "The way irony works in language and the view of life it forms allows for the contradictions you observe," he says.

"Once you start to work on that, these people like Byron, Sterne and Melville become a big influence.

"The problem is that you get an academic label around your neck and you've got a reputation you're expected to live up to.

"But no academic actually wants to become a vice chancellor, but once I'd become a dean of faculty, it inevitably signalled a move into management.

"Then, at London University, Graham Davies dragooned me into becoming a pro-vice chancellor and you have to ask yourself what do you want to do.

"Sure, it's career progress, but you start losing touch with research and students, but of course you can change things on a larger scale."

Perhaps such a lofty career was meant to be. Well-connected in the Edinburgh world of movers and shakers, he has known political luminaries such as Menzies Campbell, the late Donald Dewar and the late John Smith.

"Gordon Brown is a real thinker in the French sense of being an 'homme serieux' and this does not quite fit the role of PM, where people want quick decisions."

Sir Drummond also suffered the critics' ire when he stepped in as chairman of Liverpool Culture Co at a bleak time in the Capital of Culture preparations.

He later described the experience as one year of his life that lasted several years.

An attraction of the Liverpool University vice chancellor's job was bringing town and gown far closer together, but he received a nasty dose of the city's turbulent politics - a different sort of culture shock.

"Everyone thought '08 was going to be a disaster. I never had any doubts about the programme, bizarre as that may sound.

"Particularly after the Philharmonic's chief executive Mick Elliott, became involved.

People do not realise the major role he played.

"The city's visitor numbers are now terrific and it was worth all the agony - from the safety of retrospect!

"Getting our potential staff to see Liverpool was always half the battle and Capital of Culture has made a huge and positive difference in attracting them.

"The nice thing is that the university is now financially in a very good shape. Arguably, we've majored too much on finance and not enough on teaching and research.

"I want people to understand we had gone through a very shaky financial situation and the key thing is to invest and get that confidence back."

Vice chancellors are not expected entirely to rely on intuition and on-the-job training.

He attended the Sunningdale management and cabinet administration courses.

He got his "hands dirty" as vice principal at Glasgow University and headed research and business projects and crucially negotiated with banks over spin-out companies to boost cash.

'THERE was also a bunker mentality about Liverpool University and to combat that I tried to raise the profile in the city, nationally and internationally."

The most visible success in Liverpool of Sir Drummond's vision is the restoration and refurbishment of the university's Victoria Building, a city landmark and national icon as Waterhouse's original "redbrick university" - but painfully redundant.

Backed by the university's chancellor Lord Owen, this is now the showpiece Victoria Gallery & Museum.

It is designed to draw in the public to enjoy the institution's celebrated art and object collection for the first time ever.

This is likely to be Liverpool's greatest physical legacy of 2008 and is a facility unmatched by any other British university.

"I was involved in opening the visitor centre underneath Glasgow University's Hunterian Gallery. Likewise in Liverpool, we had nowhere to display our huge and very important collection which we want to share with everyone."

As he is well aware, the presence of a university shapes a city and provides audiences through staff and students for venues such as the Tate, Philharmonic and FACT.

This blend of cultural, educational and financial uplift is sorely missed in neighbouring Birkenhead. Intriguingly, Sir Drummond hints of plans which could impact on this, but won't be drawn further.

Having produced one novel and several short stories long ago, he is looking forward to returning to writing.

Perhaps his life running universities was no more than a career break? Doubtless he's found plenty of fodder to fuel his future fiction.

The key thing is to invest

Gordon Brown is a real thinker


Sir Drummond hands over the University of Liverpool reins this month; With Sir Bob Scott who he replaced as chair of the Culture Company; Prof Sir Drummond Bone was instrumental in the regeneration of the Victoria Building; In his role as vice-chancellor he met many visiting dignitaries including; Thai Princess Maha Sirindhorn Chakri and Princess Anne
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Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Sep 1, 2008
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