Louise Casella, Director of Strategic Development celebrates 20 years at Cardiff University this month
Cardiff University has been part of my life from a very young age and has always been a place I’ve known and admired.
Being Cardiff born and bred the University – or more accurately “the College” as it tended to be known then – formed the backdrop to many a walk through the city or family conversation. My father’s aunt worked in the Chemistry department in the Main Building and was so proud of her association that I was always hearing stories of life at the University. To hear her talk she was of course advising the Head of Chemistry on every nuance of departmental life – in truth I think she washed the glasswork, provided multiple teas and coffees to the staff and a sympathetic ear to the students. She was immensely proud when I came to work for the University.
An abiding memory of my first day at the University was that, although it was May and the welcome from everyone I met was very warm, Main Building was freezing. The heating had been switched off (after all it was spring time and the University was very much on an economy drive) and having come to work in a summer dress, I ended up having to go in to town in my lunch hour to buy extra layers in order to last the day!
In 1988, the University was in the middle of the merger between University College, Cardiff and UWIST - probably one of the most testing times the University had ever faced, and possibly the biggest change process any University had ever seen. Media speculation was pretty rife at the time, and the future of University College Cardiff was one of the main stories being covered in all the local media. Was the university going to go bust? What was going to happen? So I had quite a lot of friends and family who thought I was mad to be joining the University at that time. But to me it looked interesting and challenging and with all the naivety that only a fairly freshly minted graduate can muster, I believed that joining the team who would bring two institutions together would be an exciting opportunity.
I was the youngest member of the merger team, working directly with the then Registrar Mick Bruton and the Principal Sir Aubrey Trotman-Dickenson, together with Vanessa Cunningham, Bernard Kutner and John Goodwin and the inestimable Pam Rowlands. Although very much the junior gofer, I was made to feel part of the team straight away, taking part in the weekly Management Team meetings and the fortnightly Executive Committee meetings. It was at these meetings where decisions were being made about the future of the University and I remember pretty much every Monday morning there would be further big decisions made – it was a busy tense time but certainly fascinating.
I believe it set the tone for the way things were done here and it seemed to become the culture that if you needed to get something done, there was no point hanging around, you just needed to get on and do it.
In 2004, and with a new set of colleagues and an equally enthusiastic team, I worked with Chris Turner to lead the operation of the Merger Project with UWCM. This time we were building from strength and had time to consider carefully and debate most of the decisions the University had to take. I’m still not sure which was easier – the pressure and imperative of seeing the 1988 merger through before further financial troubles beset the College, or the comparative luxury of 2004 and the three-year lead-in we had to from conception to merger. There were certainly times when the quick route looked infinitely more attractive with the rose-tinted glasses of hindsight!
I’ve worked with three different vice-chancellors and hundreds of people over the years, and have been fortunate enough to learn from each and every one of them. It has also been a pleasure to see many of them progress on to senior positions either here or at other organisations. I was encouraged from an early stage to get involved, and was given stretching projects from the beginning – not least playing a part in some of the most challenging moments in the history of the University – and those opportunities I don’t forget and try to ensure I show equal trust in the staff I work with now.
The point where I think we knew the renewed Cardiff University really was going to succeed came with the publication of the 1996 Research Assessment Exercise results. The Exercise had truly engaged the whole University. Staff from across schools had acted as mentors to other schools and the importance of the Exercise in changing external perceptions of Cardiff’s rebirth were strongly acknowledged. When we picked up the results from the Funding Council it was clear that just about every unit of assessment had done better than we had expected, but with only basic data we were unable to measure straight away what our national ranking might be. The following morning, having collated the data through the night at home, I was able to ask Brian Smith the then Vice Chancellor how well he thought we had done. “Somewhere around 23rd?” he said hopefully (though I know he had been hoping to hit 20th – no doubt he didn’t want to seem too optimistic), “I think it’s 15th” was my response, and I’m surprised his whoops of delight couldn’t be heard throughout the University.
In 2001 of course we rose to seventh in the RAE, but many of us believe that 1996 was the defining moment for Cardiff. It demonstrated that things had really changed, and how collaborative working can pay off. It also marked a sea change in the way people perceived us outside, becoming a place where things were happening and where people wanted to come for research, teaching and learning.
I feel Cardiff is much more my university than Swansea, of which I am an alumni, ever was. This is the University in which I have invested so much time and energy and I feel very much part of the family if you like. My husband did his Masters degree in Engineering and I’ve kind of grown up with the University having had two sons since working here, both of whom went to the University Day Care Centre and the eldest of whom (A levels permitting) will come here to study Law in the autumn.
People have said of me that if you cut me open you would find Cardiff University running through me like the lettering in a stick of rock. I feel an enormous sense of loyalty towards the University and am very proud of what has been achieved here and knowing I played some small part in helping build a strong and supportive administration is fulfilling.
Over the years and I have witnessed the University develop and grow into an institution that is open, ambitious and positive. And although today Cardiff is a big university, to me it still feels small. We have managed to foster and maintain a real sense of community among our academics, students and staff over the years. That sense of being part of Cardiff and having a collective pride in what we do here has been so integral in getting us to where we are today, and this is something I am very keen to hold onto.
At the same time, we are able to boast a global reach and breadth of interest that really connects us to the world. Cardiff has developed a bridge across the world both in terms of bringing people in, and encouraging people to look outside for new experiences. It is this global outlook that has proved to be of such benefit to Wales, as we are able to use our various activities to support a small nation like Wales play a much more prominent role on a global stage.
In the 20 years I have been here, the progress the University has made is astonishing. It has got to be beyond the wildest dreams of the people who started the University 125 years ago and if we make half as much progress over the next 20 years who knows where we could end up?
What I do know it that the University has currently one of the strongest foundations possible, with staff that remain committed to the future of the University. As a community, we have the focus and drive to succeed on a global level and really become a world-leading university.