If you were to define the ambition that Lemn Sissay MBE has for his chancellorship of The University of Manchester, it would be this: “Inspire and be inspired.” For the energetic poet, writer and broadcaster, the universe has aligned to bring him this role at this time in his life. Walking among the throngs of people on Oxford Road, Lemn cuts a sharp and distinctive figure in his suit and shades, his purple University of Manchester umbrella tucked in the crook of his arm. He smiles warmly and pulls back his headphones as students and staff stop to shake hands or chat. Lemn Sissay may be a celebrated champion of the UK arts scene, but he is approachable and engaging to all – a rock-star chancellor.
His zeal for life and opportunity is infectious, but within a few minutes of talking, his enthusiasm for the University and the business-like determination with which he wants to further its success take centre stage. “I could not be in a more inspiring place on earth than The University of Manchester,” says Lemn, who was elected as Chancellor with more than 7,000 votes. “I can stand on solid foundations. I’m wanted here and that makes me incredibly proud and makes me feel that, at this time in my life, this is where I should be, doing this. “Everywhere I go in my work as a writer I meet alumni. I’m so aware of the breadth of the University’s reach, touching all corners of society.
“Reach for the top of the tree and you may get to the first branch, but reach for the stars and you’ll get to the top of the tree.”
“This is a two-way street for me. It’s a great opportunity for me to learn from some of the most alive minds and, on a very simple level, the welcome I’ve received from students, lecturers, alumni and University leadership has been like fuel for my spirit.” The excitement his appointment has generated is perhaps no surprise given his profile as a public artist. Lemn’s poetry adorns walls and paves paths across the nation from the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London – he was official poet of the 2012 Games – to Hardy’s Well here in Manchester. Having published his first book of poetry aged 21, he now holds an MBE, is an associate artist of London’s Southbank Centre and has worked with the British Council.
The cogs in his head are constantly, almost visibly, turning, making connections between the meeting he’s just finished and the one he’s about to enter, working out how he can marry the two to further the University’s cause. Lemn’s excitement about his new role, and the research and discovery that take place here, is palpable, and he’s determined to use it to showcase the University to stakeholders on an international stage.
“I’m made for the global ambassador’s role,” he says. “I relish that. I want to embody the spirit of The University of Manchester as its Chancellor, and that means I’m looking forward to meeting people from all parts of the world and trumpeting our ideas and ideals.”
This is a university that has a social conscience that isn’t about ticking a box; it’s part of the lifeblood of the University and is something to be incredibly proud of.
The guest list for his moving and uplifting installation ceremony in October was testament to his broad horizons and ability to build friendships and connect people from vastly different backgrounds. Among his guests were the Ethiopian ambassador to the UK, an American socialite and his school English teacher.
The son of an Ethiopian woman who came to the UK to study, Lemn would not meet his mother again until, aged 21, he crossed continents to find her. Born in Bilinge, near Wigan, he was fostered and then adopted, despite his mother having believed he would be returned to her when she had completed her studies.
At the age of 12 he was given up to a children’s home and spent his teenage years living in care – something which has clearly shaped his appreciation for life and determination to give back to society’s most vulnerable. He is a patron of the Letterbox Club, a reading charity for children in care and adoption, and each year hosts Christmas dinners for care leavers.
Lemn first became aware of the University when he came to Manchester as a young man. “The University is a unique presence for the young, developing minds in the North West, because this is a city where so much is built on the creative explosion that comes from its alumni,” he says. “The moment you engage with Manchester as a young person you’ll be touched by the University. The tendrils of the University then grow longer still as each person travels and takes it with them.”
It’s clear that his priority is what the University can offer its students and, in turn, what its students can offer society. “I have very clear aims. I want to support the work the University is doing to close the attainment gap – to make sure everyone has the opportunity to reach their full potential.
I could not be in a more inspiring place on earth than The University of Manchester.
“The success of an organisation is, for me, defined by how the most unseen parts of it, and the most unseen parts of society, are strengthened – something the University works very hard towards. This is a university that has a social conscience that isn’t about ticking a box; it’s part of the lifeblood of the University and is something to be incredibly proud of.
“Another really important aim that I’m passionate about is that the students experience a strong sense of well-being and happiness throughout their time at the University. The leaders and the groundbreakers in our society are as attentive to who they are as people as they are to whatever degrees they’ve got. People don’t meet your doctorate, they meet you.”
He wants to raise money for a series of PhD scholarships for care leavers, resonating with his own experience as a boy, and wants to see more public art outside lecture theatres, not just housed in the Whitworth. He also wants to explore the idea of art as a calling card for the five research beacons – a way of opening the world’s eyes to our impact in new and creative ways. “It takes a little non-linear thinking,” he says.
But he’s not just about the arts. “Scientists and artists are bedfellows,” he asserts. “They’re alternating rings of the tree of education. People will remember the creative scientist, the creative doctor, the one who sought the answers to the questions outside the parameters.”
A poetic sensibility often reveals itself when he speaks. “There will be people thinking ‘who is this person who talks about how he feels?’ As in any institution, they’ll just have to see how I work,” he says.
We return to the synergy of the chancellorship coming to him at this point in his life, after he has overcome and achieved so much, including the award of his own honorary doctorate for services to the arts from the University he now serves as Chancellor. “Anybody in business will know that if you continue to research, you’ll come across opportunities that you may not have been expecting,” says Lemn. “Opportunities arrive, like graphene did on the back of a piece of sticky tape, where you know that everything that you’ve learnt has put you in a position of being able to isolate graphene.
“Everything I have done in my life has allowed me to be in a position where I can make a difference to The University of Manchester.”