As the outgoing Vice-Chancellor, Professor Robert Allison, walks into the Billiard Room in Hazlerigg, he shows the same warmth and excitement at seeing students as he always has.
Bumping elbows with everyone, he readily takes directions from LSU Media crew.
But this interview would be different from others – the VC will be leaving in July after nine years of stellar success.
Ahead of his departure he bears all to LSU Media, reviewing a life-changing chapter in his life and career.
“I saw tremendous potential here,” says Bob, who joined Loughborough in 2012 after six years at the University of Sussex.
“I left the final interview … and I remember sitting on the train home thinking, ‘If you don’t get this job, you’re going to be hugely disappointed.’
“As I was leaving Leicester [on the train home], I turned my phone on, and I thought there was something wrong with it, because it was buzzing.
“I picked it up, and in the 12-minute journey and the time it took me to get to the station, they had made their decision and offered me the job.
“It wasn’t just about being the Vice-Chancellor, although of course that was and has been a huge privilege.
“But I wanted it to be Loughborough.”
The 60-year-old was scarcely a nobody before coming to Loughborough, and had achieved notable success in his career.
After gaining an undergraduate degree in geography at the University of Hull in 1982, he completed his PhD at King’s College London four years later.
A successful academic in his own right, he has been a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society for over 30 years and was Honorary Secretary from 1997-2000.
But despite success at Sussex, where was Deputy Vice-Chancellor, and previously at Durham, Loughborough presented a new and exciting challenge.
That was made all the clearer by his predecessor, Dame Shirley Pearce, who Bob claims was a “delight” to work with and learn from.
He says: “What I learned from Shirley more than anything else was that Loughborough is a really strong community, and it’s a university that’s comfortable in its own skin.
“I have worked at universities where that wasn’t the case.
“The other thing that [Shirley] said, which has absolutely proved to be true, is Loughborough University is one of those places that has a can-do attitude.
“The last year has shown, that we’ll deal with it.
“It’s ‘Let’s get on with life, sort this out and make the best of the situation’.”
The outgoing Vice-Chancellor’s tenure has been one of the most successful periods of growth in Loughborough’s history.
[pullquote]”Loughborough is a really strong community, and it’s a university that’s comfortable in its own skin. I have worked at universities where that wasn’t the case”[/pullquote]
When Professor Allison joined, Loughborough sat in the top 30 of the country’s league tables.
Now it sits in the top 10, with an average position inside the top five.
The BUCS Championship has returned to Loughborough every year, the university has achieved a Silver Medal in the Athena Swan gender equality programme and in 2017 it launched its Excellence100 framework, seeking to recruit 100 of the world’s top academics.
The can-do attitude felt across campus has been a driving force behind the several highs of recent years.
… and Tragedies
But as successful as Bob’s tenure has been, it has not been short of tragedy.
When asked for his lowest moment, his response was immediate.
On 17 July 2014, 20-year-old Loughborough student Ben Pocock boarded a flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur as part of a journey to Perth, to begin a placement at the University of Western Australia.
His flight – Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 – was later shot down over the Ukraine.
“I can remember being totally stunned,” says Bob, who was midway through a graduation ceremony when he received a call from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
“At that point, they couldn’t contact his parents.
“It was a very, very difficult moment. And the reason that will always be the hardest moment [of his tenure] was having to deal with that on a day of celebration.
“I know Ben’s mum and dad very well now, and they come back to campus on Remembrance Day every year as we have a small service in the Walled Garden.
“I can remember about three or four years after Ben lost his life, I said to his parents that it was very good of them to come here every year.
“They said, this is how we remember him.
“There is no grave.
“The university meant everything to him.
“I think it’s a huge honour and a privilege for every member of the university community to know, that the thing that is uppermost in his mum and dad’s minds was his time at Loughborough, and how much he enjoyed it.”
Watching Bob speak about such tragic circumstances with such clarity is impressive, given the emotional attachment he has for his workplace and those within it.
He feels a strong duty of care over every Loughborough student, as he knows they – along with his colleagues – are the driving force behind what makes the university so special to him, and countless others across the world.
And the man who has been the face of the university for almost a decade is under no illusion that the energy that the students and staff provide has been key to his personal and professional triumphs.
“It’s one of things that really motivates you,” he says.
“Hearing that you have won BUCS again, playing MIT at lacrosse and beating them, playing the University of Queensland at rugby and beating them, in one year 12 engineering students, eight of which were women – a stunning achievement – won 12 of something like the 22 awards the Royal College of Engineering have on offer to final year students.
[pullquote]”I believe my role is to create an environment on our two campuses where our students can excel and our staff can excel”[/pullquote]
“Look at Rag – every year, notwithstanding the last 12 months, raising a million pounds for charity.
“Action, the only students’ union to win a Queen’s Prize for volunteering. Those are really proud moments, and I’m also really proud when my colleagues win prestigious prizes for the research.
“Those sort of things are great moments.
“[As Vice-Chancellor] You need to work out what you believe your role is. I believe my role is to create an environment on our two campuses where our students can excel and our staff can excel, and the way in which you do that is you meet your students, you get involved, you listen to them, and do the same with colleagues.
“If I can be a catalyst that means students can get the very best out of their time and staff can do their best in teaching or research, then I’ve achieved my principle role.
“Other vice-chancellors may have a different view, but as a consequence of that I like to meet and listen to people as it helps me understand what I’ve got to do in my role.”
An Undecided Future
At the time of this interview, Bob’s successor had not been appointed. He did not know who the candidates were.
Since then, Nick Jennings CB, FREng has been appointed to lead the university from the autumn.
Also an immensely successful academic in his own right, the UK Government’s first Chief Scientific Advisor for National Security will have to forge his own path on a campus where many have only known Bob’s brand of leadership.
For Bob himself, the future remains undecided. Covid even made him consider staying another year so he could bow out properly, before he decided that that was unfair.
But for a man who lives and breathes this university, he is the first to acknowledge how difficult it will be to step away.
July 16 will be Bob’s final day, followed by two intense weeks of graduation ceremonies. Come July 30, it will all be over.
[pullquote]”What I’m not going to do is go and work as a Vice-Chancellor in another university”[/pullquote]
“I’m going to become a KinchBus driver,” he says with a smile.
“I’ve been saying to one or two people that at long last, I’ve got to leave university and go find a job.
“But I’ve had some very good advice, firstly to just take some time out to wind down. So, I’ll do that.
“And secondly, don’t jump at the first opportunity that comes along and bide your time, and wait for the right thing, don’t be worried that something won’t come along.
“The only thing I’ve decided, is what I’m not going to do is go and work as a Vice-Chancellor in another university.
“To begin with, I will find it very hard, because the university’s been so much a part of my life and I’ve enjoyed so much, the opportunities that have been given to me, but I must beyond any shadow of doubt give my successor space.
“But the point is, I will always be proud to be able to say that I am part of the Loughborough community.”
The term Loughborough Legend is banded about too much in the modern day.
But in the case of someone who has changed the university’s trajectory for years, if not decades, beyond his departure, it is the only possible choice of how to describe VC Bob.