Skip to main content

Hazel Willis


Today, it is my great honour to welcome Dr Hazel Willis to a College Fellowship at Birkbeck, University of London.

Hazel joined Birkbeck in December 2021 as Interim Executive Dean of the School of Science and it is the case that everything about her educational and personal history suggests that she was made for an institution where we pride ourselves on doing education differently. Hazel did not follow the usual, well-worn path into academia. Rather than going straight from school to university, after A-levels she went to work for Barclays Bank and started a family, welcoming to the world two beautiful daughters, Becky and Emily, who are with us today. Like so many of our Birkbeck students, Hazel combined work and bringing up a family with further study, first some additional A-levels, followed by a degree, and then a PhD in Psychology which was awarded by the University of Cardiff in 2003.

Her first academic appointment was at the University of Gloucestershire in 2002 where her potential was spotted by Vice Chancellor, Dame Janet Trotter, who supported Hazel’s career development and was rewarded for doing so when, as Deputy Head of Department and Faculty International Projects Manager, Hazel helped Psychology achieve a top spot in the rankings in the second year of the National Student Survey. During this period, and again in common with so many of Birkbeck’s students, Hazel juggled multiple roles and further study. While working at Cheltenham, she also lectured at the Open University, and, just in case there might be a moment of time left unaccounted for, she performed valuable service to the sector as an external examiner and journal reviewer. And, as if that weren’t enough, she also studied for an MBA at the Open University. The fact that her various employers fully funded her studies demonstrates the value they placed on her.

During this period of her life, Hazel travelled regularly for work across Europe and Asia, securing business partnerships for a number of institutions as she worked at post 92s, Russell Group universities, private institutions and their collaborative partners overseas, gaining the vast experience and honing the skills she would eventually bring to Birkbeck. Such travels came to a temporary halt with the pandemic but at this point twenty years of experience of online partnerships at the OU and beyond stood her in very good stead as the entire sector pivoted to online working. At the time she was heading up the School of Nursing and Healthcare at Edinburgh, Napier, working in collaboration with all the Scottish Universities, NHS Scotland, the Nursing and Midwifery Council and the Scottish Government. Altogether in her multifaceted and challenging career, Hazel has in fact worked at over 25 institutions across various collaborations, projects, salaried and consultancy arrangements.

What Hazel’s impressively varied career clearly demonstrates is that she is never one to shirk a challenge and it is perhaps this spirit of adventure that prompted her to accept what might have been her greatest test yet, the role of Interim Dean of the School of Science here at Birkbeck. Hazel entered the institution at a time of great change. Nick Keep, the long-serving Dean, had just stepped down, and the College was heading towards a major institutional restructure. Nothing daunted, Hazel took on the task of leading one of Birkbeck’s five Schools through a period of challenging change. At the time, I was one of four other Deans going through the same experience along with our equivalents in the Schools of Law, Social Science, History and Philosophy and Business. Prior to Hazel’s joining ‘team Dean’ and indeed prior to my own initiation into this club, the Deans had taken to holding a weekly meeting on a Friday to catch up, share information, offer advice and support. As Hazel and I shared with the existing Deans the experience of leading through a period of institutional transformation, this forum, our deanly huddle, became increasingly important as a source of mutual support and, on occasion, a place to let off steam. Hazel was invaluable to us all as a member of this group. She had vastly more experience than many of us of a world beyond Birkbeck that she was able to share, providing us with a context into which to set our more localized experiences. She was fond of pointing out – quite rightly – that Birkbeck is a small institution – indeed smaller in size than the Faculty she led at her previous university – but that it nevertheless manages to create structures and processes of great complexity. Indeed, her most uttered phrase in relation to Birkbeck’s procedures was ‘you couldn’t make it up’. Hazel, though, was brilliant at cutting through such complexity, of bringing clarity to sometimes arcane discussion, of envisioning a bright future for the School of Science and for Birkbeck as a whole and for securing a pathway to ambitious plans for change.

As she had done throughout her career, while at Birkbeck she juggled multiple roles in including that of mother and indeed now grandmother to five grandchildren between the ages of three and 22. Quite how wholeheartedly she throws herself into family life became clear to us all when she returned literally and uncharacteristically voiceless after participating in her daughter’s hen night. I can personally testify to Hazel’s sociability and her collegiality and, when I asked colleagues for their sense of her contribution to Birkbeck, there was unequivocal support for the idea that she had significantly raised the sartorial standards of the senior management team. The yellow coat worn to graduation was given a worthy mention.

On a more serious note, the consensus view of Hazel is of a colleague who faced difficulties with equanimity, who brought good humour to challenging situations and who acted with goodwill and integrity in the successful service of the institution. She has now moved on to a new role at the University of the Arts where I have no doubt she is bringing her multiple talents to bear with all the energy and skill she demonstrated when she was with us. We are therefore grateful and proud that she has agreed to become a Fellow of Birkbeck, University of London.