It was an opportunity too good to miss, when the Chancellor of The University of Manchester, Lemn Sissay MBE, was preparing for his performance at the Emirates Festival of Literature 2021. He kindly agreed to speak to the University’s Middle East community about his work, in conversation on a Zoom call with Middle East Director, Randa Bessiso.
Lemn Sissay is a BAFTA nominated award winning writer, international poet, performer playwright, artist and broadcaster. He has read on stage throughout the world: from The Library of Congress in the US to The University of Addis Ababa. He was awarded an MBE for services to literature by Her Majesty The Queen.
The Chancellor is the University’s ceremonial head and one of its most prominent ambassadors, promoting the University to the wider community and playing a key part in some of the University’s important occasions including presiding over meetings of the General Assembly, and congregations for the conferment of degrees. It’s an honorary position held for seven years.
Since taking up the Chancellorship in 2015, Lemn Sissay has contributed to the University significantly. His poem ‘Making a Difference’, written for the University’s Making a Difference Awards, celebrated the University’s commitment to social responsibility, which is one of the three core goals.
He launched the Lemn Sissay Law Bursaries and helped the University expand the Equity and Merit Scholarships. Lemn is trustee of The Manchester International Festival, patron of the Letterbox Club. He is a fellow and trustee of the Foundling Museum and was official poet of the London 2012 Olympics. His Landmark Poems are installed throughout Manchester and London. Lemn was the first Black Writers Development Worker in the north of England. The Sissay PhD Scholarship for Care Leavers, the first of its kind, has been running for six years. The Lemn Sissay Foundation, established in Manchester, organises Christmas dinners for care leavers in locations across the UK.
In Lemn’s own words…
“As Chancellor, I have primarily a ceremonial role, which includes attending various ceremonies and giving degrees to the wonderful students of The University of Manchester.
This is one of the most important jobs I do – to look graduands in the eye, shake their hands (when allowed) and hand them their degrees. At that special moment, I represent every lecturer, cleaner, caretaker, academic, researcher – I am there to represent everyone at the University all in that one moment.
“During the brief moment I have with graduands, at that moment of transformation at graduation and in those few seconds we have together, I often ask them to remember the moment because it is important. They should remember that none of the people present during the graduation – from the institution and all the guests - would be there without them.
“In my graduation ceremony speech, and in conversations with students through the year as I visit the University, I congratulate them on the difference they are making during the study process – because it’s not just after graduation that students can make a difference.
“Making a difference is important - social responsibility is one of our three core goals and we focus on ethics and how to apply them in our working environments. We adopted ‘social responsibility’ as a goal before it became a term commonly used in business. I believe we were ahead of the game and society now seems to be more aware now of social responsibility than at any time in my life. Business is increasingly aware of the need to contribute to the wellbeing of society, whatever the business is or what it does.”
Connecting the role of Chancellor to his own journeys
“To be an ambassador for a University as big as Manchester is to be a representative at many of the key moments of the university’s life. But being a global ambassador means that when I travel to do my own events all over the world, my role is to promote the University in the countries that I visit.
“This could be when I am reading poetry – because this is what I do – for example in the Library of Congress in Washington DC. I am a representative of the University and try to promote the University by connecting it to my journeys, including when meeting dignitaries such as the Foreign Minister of Ethiopia, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who went on to become director general of the World Health Organization (WHO),
“I would say to our students in the Middle East that my job is to be the best that I can be, wherever I am and whatever I’m doing, as I move around reading poetry to audiences all around the world. I try to lead by example and the beauty of this approach is that it’s a path open to everyone as we try to make a difference and take responsibility.”
A lifelong relationship
“I would like our Master’s students to know that when they finish their studies this is just the beginning of the relationship with The University of Manchester’s 500,000 graduates in more than 190 countries around the world. Our relationship doesn’t stop with the presentation of a piece of paper and there are so many ways to get support around the community – so please stay in touch with the University and all our alumni, and do make connections.
“You’re all part of a very powerful worldwide family now and everyone is connected. Who knew about Zoom before the pandemic? This is as close and real as it gets – I’m in your room and you’re in mine and this is something quite personal. We are finding ways to communicate without being in the same room or even in the same country, and we care about making this work as best as we can - and it is working, even though we can’t meet physically. Just days ago, I joined a University talk by an Oscar winning film director, which was then followed by a masterclass for students – we could probably only have done this because it was online rather than face to face.”
After the pandemic
“The pandemic has given us the opportunity to appreciate what we have lost. It’s a great exercise in learning to appreciate all these things and people such as doctors and nurses in the health service.
“We have had the opportunity to look at our lives and see what really matters - wonderfully, the Arts matter; business matters; contact matters; new ideas and the environment to make new ideas matter. So, I think we will come back as a better society then when we came into the pandemic.
“When I first became Chancellor of the University, I said I wanted to inspire and be inspired. It’s what we all want and this is exactly the same for all our Master’s students - we want to inspire and they want to be inspired.”