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Institutional values and institutional behaviours: an open letter to Alison Johns (CEO of Advance HE)

Hello Alison,

A week ago today I wrote to you on Twitter but I didn't get a reply. The reason I was writing was that Advance HE had run an event earlier that day about the preparedness of higher education for the fourth industrial revolution with the title and associated hashtag #BraveNewWorld. I wasn't at the event myself but I was following the Twitter back-channel with interest when I picked up on a suggestion that there was something rather unbalanced about the programme: it was suggested that there were twelve men speaking at the event but no women. Twelve men, no women.

I was surprised to hear this so first wanted to check my facts:

I did get a response, but not quite in the way I expected. Someone I know quite well at Advance HE contacted me privately to explain. Without going into details here, I fully appreciate that there were personal circumstances that affected the organisation of the event and the Twitter thread I wrote later that afternoon was in no way inferring criticism of that individual or the person who messaged me on LinkedIn. In fact I made that quite explicit:

What ultimately prompted me to write the thread was the dissonance between what I knew about Advance HE, or what I thought I knew, and a speaker roster at a high profile event that was so out of step with the drive to promote gender equality in higher education. Put simply, how could an organisation responsible for Athena Swan and the Aurora programme get things so horribly wrong?

At The University of Edinburgh, the Principal, Peter Mathieson, has recently been leading a refresh of our institutional strategic plan. Peter has been keen to stress that the University's strategy should be 'value-led'. I am completely on board with this because fundamentally I think higher education as an enterprise should be based on core values, some of the most important of which are equality, diversity and inclusion. And I am very conscious that these are the precise terms used to describe one key area of focus for the work of Advance HE. Your organisation does some fantastic work in this context but, on this occasion, something went very awry. Twelve men, no women.

As individuals, but particularly as institutions, we have to stay true to our values or our credibility begins to wane. From your tweets, I sense you feel as much despair as I do about what is currently happening in Westminster and the way in which the behaviour of many politicians and some parties has seemingly abandoned the values which they purport to stand for. I'm not for one second comparing what happened last Friday to the catastrophe that has blighted UK politics for the last three years, but I am convinced, now more than ever, that values are the vital underpinning of any institution in the public sector, in public view. If we want to build a better future, a brave new world, our institutional behaviours need to fully align with our institutional values.

In the thread I suggested, literally off the top of my head, a list of women experts who I think could have made a really valuable contribution and broadened perspectives at the #BraveNewWorld event. One of them, Sarah Davies, replied:

In response to Sarah I suggested that Advance HE might like to run a further event, Brave New World 2.0, with a women-only roster of speakers (I suggested yet more possible names in a further tweet). At that stage I was only semi-serious but Sarah's reply has stuck with me and, the more I think about it, the more I want to see that event happen. It would be fantastic in itself, but it might also restore a bit of balance after last Friday.

So I want to conclude with an offer, a very genuine offer that I have discussed with senior colleagues. The University of Edinburgh would like to work in partnership with you to curate, host and promote Brave New World 2.0. How about it?

I really would appreciate a reply this time. It might be nice to do this openly on Twitter but if you would prefer you can email me ( As all good letters finish, I look forward to hearing from you!

All best,




8 thoughts on “Institutional values and institutional behaviours: an open letter to Alison Johns (CEO of Advance HE)

  1. Scott Turner

    Great post, Simon. Especially if it was followed up with Brave World 3.0 that was themed around a wider range of diversity (included mental health) and reflected in the speakers. I wonder if the RSA might be interested as well.

    1. Catherine Cronin

      Thanks for sharing, Clint. Yes, I started that doc 7 years ago in a moment of frustration - much like Simon’s! Thanks to contributions from many, it’s still a useful. Thank you both.

  2. Catherine Cronin

    Just catching up with your activism and blogging Simon - well done! I agree with Anne Marie Scott’s tweet tonight (also how I found your post): this is what being an ally looks like. On days when I STILL can’t believe we’re fighting these battles, actions like this keep us all going. And I love your idea of parlaying this into something positive. #onward

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