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Elizabeth Whitehead

Elizabeth Whitehead's oration

President, Master, Graduates and Granduands, Guests, and Colleagues,

Today it is my great honour to welcome Elizabeth Whitehead to a College Fellowship at Birkbeck, University of London.

There are some people who are central to university institutions and, if they do their job well, invisible to most students and academics. Whitehead is one of these people.

Between 1998 and 2018, she led facilities management at Birkbeck. In other words, until she retired, she was in charge of things that most people don’t notice - that is, until they fall apart or simply aren't there.

The job of facility management is a formidable one. When the profession developed in the early 1900s, in response to the explosion of office administration and the subsequent interest in scientific management, it has taken on more and more responsibilities. New responsibilities are always being added to facility management: rarely subtracted. The list goes on and on. It includes security, heating and energy management, lighting, lifts, and hospitality, cleaning, space allocation, environmental sustainability, and, most important, safety. As this implies, facility management has an impact on the commitment and longevity of staff working in the premises. It is one of the key mechanisms for attracting and retaining students. Today, facilities management is one of the fastest growing professions in the UK and worth 5% of
the UK’s GDP.

At Birkbeck, we depend on efficient managers, like Whitehead. This was particularly true in the period Whitehead worked at Birkbeck. During her time in the College, the job became even more challenging. There was increased pressure on space in central London, combined with escalating costs in an economically difficult climate. Whitehead has had to deal with constantly changing needs, technologies, expectations, and environments. Adaptability and high levels of knowledge were indispensable. And she rose to the challenges. When things go awry, I am told by people who worked alongside her at Birkbeck, everyone looks to Whitehead to solve the problem. She is the “invisible shield”.

So, what is her history? Whitehead grew up in in Flixton, suburban Manchester, which is where she has returned upon retiring. Her father spent his national service in the merchant navy before working as an engineer at a company called GEC in Trafford Park. Whitehead also has one brother. She attended the local grammar school, after which she went to Leeds Polytechnic (now, Leeds Beckett University) where, in 1979, she took a diploma in Management. London, with its wealth of jobs, then beckoned. To the dismay of her parents, who wanted their only daughter to stay close, she accepted a job at Goldsmiths as a junior domestic bursar in Dean Hall in Blackheath, one of their halls of residence. She promised her parents that she would stay in London for between six months and a year. Instead, it took her 40 years to return to Flixton, Manchester. Her time at Goldsmiths ended in 1981, after which she worked in NHS hospitals for 18 years.

Whitehead joined Birkbeck in 1998 and stayed for 20 years, when she retired. It was a challenging time for any Director of Facilities Management. New buildings were erected, including the so-called “extension building” and the campus in Stratford, east London. Properties such as the ones in Gower Street and (more recently) Russell Square had to be completely refurbished. Libraries and labs, overhauled. In 2003, the main Malet Street site was redeveloped and opened by the Chancellor of the University of London, HRH Princess Anne. All of these changes were challenging - and most had to be done over the summer, when the buildings were relatively empty. And since building works are always late, Whitehead and her team typically worked late into the night to get things ready for classes. Is it any wonder that she was mildly annoyed at being asked on the first day of term: “Did you have a good break, Liz?” But, as a consequence, in the 20 years she spent with us, Birkbeck
was transformed.

What about the person? Colleagues describe her as both wonderful and terrifying. I am told that she is imposing (as facilities managers must be) but a “teddy bear” at heart. She has a reputation for being generous in giving praise to her staff who work so incredibly hard. She always does the right thing, not the quick thing, and looks out for everyone's best interests.

Whitehead is a social person, with a love of singing an eclectic range of songs. She enjoys the cinema and theatre, but her chief passion outside of work is travel: Borneo, India, Thailand, Nile, and Egypt, to name just a few. Her real talent, though, is for friendship. Some of the people she met at Dean Hall, so many decades ago, remain her close friends.

We are deeply honoured that she is now a Fellow of Birkbeck, and a friend to all of us.