New leader’s mission to help young university grow

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Julie Mennell the new Vice Chancellor of The University of Cumbria
Julie Mennell the new Vice Chancellor of The University of Cumbria

It is a busy time for Julie Mennell. This week she is getting to grips with her new job, one of the biggest in the county, becoming the vice-chancellor of the University of Cumbria.

After settling into her new role and office at its Fusehill Street headquarters in Carlisle, the tables will be turning in her personal life.

Professor Mennell, who lives at Troutbeck near Penrith, will be experiencing the life-changing effects of university for the first time as a parent.

For she and her husband of 24 years John will be waving off not one, but two, of their three teenage children as they embark on student life.

Their 19-year-old son is heading to the University of Leeds – where Prof Mennell went to read maths and physics more than 25 years ago – to do geological science.

Meanwhile, their 18-year-old daughter is London-bound and is due to start a fashion promotion course at Ravensbourne in the autumn.

The couple also have a 15-year-old son.

Professor Mennell said: “I have mixed emotions. I’m very proud of who they are and what they’ve achieved to date.

“I’m very excited for them, especially in terms of the opportunities they’ll have to learn and experience new things, to meet new people and to develop further their skills, confidence and qualifications, but alongside all of this I’m their mum so it goes without saying that I’m going to miss them enormously and I’m very hopeful they’ll come home – occasionally.”

It will no doubt bring back memories for Prof Mennall.

The Middlesbrough-born academic was the first in her family to go to university, but only after injury had forced her to give up on her dream of becoming an athlete.

Prof Mennell quit studying after sixth form to focus on breaking into the national athletics scene.

A 400-metre specialist, she was the Northern and North East champion and was third in the English Schools competition.

In 1986, her time of 56.9 seconds for the one-lap distance was the fastest recorded in the UK for an athlete under the age of 18.

From there she worked in an accountancy office full time before heading to Leeds to do a degree in maths and physics.

She completed her degree three years later and life changed quickly.

“I finished in the July, got married in the August and then joined Lancashire police and was based in Lancaster,” she said.

“It was a great introduction into the world of work for me. It was something that interested and intrigued me.”

She served a year on the force before leaving to go back to university, this time to do a PhD in applied physics engineering.

She has since gone on to carve herself out a career as a forensic science expert with a national and international reputation.

Prior to her recent appointment as the first female vice-chancellor of the University of Cumbria, Prof Mennell spent six years at the University of Sunderland.

Latterly she had been its deputy vice-chancellor, covering development.

She also spent four years at the University of Northumbria in Newcastle, where she was dean of the school of applied sciences.

With her Middlesbrough heritage, it is perhaps fitting that Prof Mennell chose to spend the early part of her career working at and developing courses and provision at Teeside University.

By the time she left Teeside, she was director of the university’s centre for forensic investigation.

Now Prof Mennell is taking charge of Cumbria’s young university and leading it through its next stage of development.

In charge at the start of the university’s 10th year, Prof Mennell is excited about its future.

She said: “It has always been a university, for a number of different reasons, where I would want to be VC (vice-chancellor).

“There are three main reasons, the first being its mission. When you look at the other universities I’ve worked at it has been similar. Teeside was in the heart of Middlesbrough and that had its own challenges.

“Northumbria and Sunderland were anchor institutions too, providing opportunities for individuals to come into higher education and have that experience where it is not just about the qualification, it is about the benefits it provides in all sorts of other ways too and where university is really life-changing for them.

“It is also about the work of the university in terms of the economic, social and regional and the important role it plays in terms of that.”

She added: “The University of Cumbria is also a young university.

“It has a good platform and foundation to build on further in terms of its offering, reputation and standing – not just here but elsewhere.”

The university has campuses and links across Cumbria as well as sites in Lancaster and London.

It is expanding its courses and provision in science, technology, engineering and maths and spending millions of pounds on revamps of its main sites in Carlisle and Lancaster.

The new vice-chancellor also says she is excited to be leading a workforce she described this week as “passionate and enthusiastic”.

Prof Mennell and her family have had a home in Troutbeck, near Penrith, for about 10 years. They also have a home in North Yorkshire.

Prof Mennell and her husband John enjoy fellwalking and cycling.

Last year they completed the C2C Cycle Route from Whitehaven to the North East. They are also fans of Middlesbrough FC and are former season ticket holders.

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