Choosing Queen's new vice-chancellor, putting Northern Ireland on the map for Hollywood and being a mum to four... all in a day's work for Rotha Johnston
She's a university pro-chancellor, chair of NI Screen, and has held a host of business posts. So, how does Rotha Johnston manage to keep on top of such a fast-paced career, asks Adrian Rutherford.
When Rotha Johnston was tasked with helping to choose the next vice-chancellor of Queen's University, she probably didn't expect that the solution would be found virtually on her doorstep.
As pro-chancellor of Queen's, she was part of the appointment panel which embarked on a global hunt for the next head of the 168-year-old institution.
“Our search was global. We were looking for an academic leader with a profile and experience in international markets who could bring significant leadership,” she says.
“We wanted the best candidate — an academic of international standing and capability.”
In the end the answer came a lot closer to home than they might have predicted.
In October Professor Patrick Johnston, Dean of the School of Medicine, Dentistry and Biomedical Sciences at Queen's, was appointed as Queen’s 12th vice-chancellor, taking the role vacated by Sir Peter Gregson's departure.
Helping to pick the next vice-chancellor is just one of several roles which keep Rotha Johnston, a 54-year-old mother of four, busy.
A former member of the BBC Trust — the broadcaster's sovereign body — she was also chair of its audience council for Northern Ireland, representing the views of local licence fee payers to the trust.
Her business career has encompassed the textiles, economic development and food sectors. She was a shareholder and director of Variety Foods Ltd, a food service company supplying the Irish market, which was sold in 2005, and has various investment interests, primarily in the property sector.
Away from the demands of a successful and fast-paced business career, she is chairwoman of Northern Ireland Screen, a government-backed agency driving the local film, television and digital content industry.
But our interview, in an office to one side of the quadrangle which dominates the heart of Queen's, begins with her role as pro-chancellor. A voluntary position which is not remunerated, she is tasked with ensuring the university is governed properly with a clear, strategic direction.
It has brought her full circle from the eager teenager who walked through the front gates of Queen's in 1978 to study Italian and Business.
The university has continued to play a key role in her life. It was while walking through Queen's one day that she spotted an advert that led to her first job at Lamont Holdings.
“Not only did I enjoy my first degree at Queen's but my first job came as a result,” she says.
The association continues to this day. Rotha is chair of Senate, a member of the planning and finance committee, and chair of the remuneration committee.
Last year she was part of the team which selected Prof Johnston as the university's 12th vice-chancellor. The process |attracted around 50 applicants from across the world, a factor Rotha believes is fitting given Queen's place in the global environment.
“It was a very impressive field of international academics,” she adds. “Queen's is a global university and our students and people who walk through these grounds are operating in a global environment. We are producing global citizens for a global environment so we have to think outside of the confines of Northern Ireland.”
The appointment committee was chaired by Sir David Fell, who recently stepped down as pro-chancellor. According to Rotha they Interviewed “a significant number of people” — she didn't want to specify exactly how many — before appointing a candidate who, they believe, is the best person to lead Queen's to the next level.
“We wanted the best candidate, an academic of international standing and capability to lead the institution,” she adds.
That candidate, it emerged, was on their doorstep.
Prof Johnston is the first man from Northern Ireland to lead Queen's since Peter Froggatt's term as vice-chancellor between 1976 and 1986.
The solution may have been close to home, but it was no coincidence, according to Rotha.
“Paddy Johnston was tested against the best in the world in terms of the academics who came forward,” she says.
“We had no lack of candidates, but it was very clear — in terms of the vision Paddy Johnston outlined to the committee and the skills and expertise he brings to the role, and the passion he expressed in terms of his commitment to Northern Ireland and to develop the institution — that he was the best candidate.
She adds: “I think it's a wonderful message that we have someone from Northern Ireland who has developed in his career to such an extent that he is internationally recognised, and he's bringing the skills back here.”
Unsurprisingly, someone of Prof Johnston's stature does not come cheap.
But as the conversation swiftly moves to his £249,000 per annum pay packet — a £19,000 increase on Peter Gregson's salary — Rotha is clear it is the “right level of salary” for what she says is a world class candidate.
“I accept that a salary of £249,000 looks a large figure, it is a large figure, but benchmarked against similar institutions and against the other candidates that we saw in the field, it actually is a competitive salary,” she adds.
Leaving aside one vast institution, we turn to another and Rotha's time with the BBC.
She stepped down from her roles with the BBC Trust and Audience Council in October 2012 — just as the storms over Jimmy Savile and pay-offs to senior executives were breaking.
Rotha describes the Savile scandal as “difficult” for the corporation, but says it poses wider questions for society as to how the abuse of dozens, possibly hundreds, of people was allowed to continue for so long.
She also admits a failure in governance may have contributed to the pay-offs controversy, which was the subject of damning reports by both the National Audit Office and Westminster's Public Accounts Committee.
But she is firm in her belief that the BBC remains one of the world's great broadcasting institutions.
“The BBC is a wonderful institution. It provides great value, it continues to deliver against the Reithian values of inform, educate and entertain, but it's clear that there are some things that are wrong with the BBC,” she adds.
“That might be to do with the management or the management structure, some of it may be to do with governance, and all of those issues I have no doubt are being addressed as part of the Departure of Culture, Media and Sport review on the future of the BBC.
“My own view is the current structure has allowed some of the significant issues to fall between the stools of the governance arrangements, so you have the executive board on one side, chaired by the Director General, and then you have the Trust which doesn't have access to all of the same decision making.”
Rotha believes levels of trust remain high in the BBC — far higher than some other national institutions, she points out.
While her departure from her BBC roles may have come at the right time, the same could be said of her appointment as chairwoman of Northern Ireland Screen last June.
It comes at a golden time for the local film industry, following the success of the hit TV series Game of Thrones and the Bafta-nominated Good Vibrations.
“If you were driving around the streets of Belfast last summer the number of film productions that were happening was very evident,” she adds.
“Ten years ago the industry here was almost exclusively within the factual entertainment television sector. There was no large-scale production, no television drama.
“It is a very exciting time, and lying at the heart of that, we are just about to complete our four-year strategy which is called Driving Global Growth.”
The strategy is projected to deliver £121m to the local economy from an investment of just under £28m between 2010 and 2014.
The board of Northern Ireland Screen has also recently signed off on its strategy for the next four years.
Called Opening Doors, it focuses on further globalisation and internationalisation.
“There are a number of significant projects which I just can't go into at the moment, but the strategy we have going forward is very ambitious and I'm sure it can be delivered,” she adds.
In particular the animation sector is burgeoning and gaining commercial success.
Rotha believes Northern Ireland is competing as an international player in the film and screen industry.
She believes the region has enjoyed “unimaginable” success over the past decade.
“Who would have imagined we would have the most talked about television series, in terms of Game of Thrones, being filmed in Northern Ireland?” she adds.
“That has been very, very significant and I think it has made much of the international market sit up and take notice of what's happening in Northern Ireland.
“There is no reason why Northern Ireland shouldn't be leading the way going forward.
“Our ambition is greater going forward and we are looking at additional international projects.”
All of this doesn't leave much time for pursuing hobbies or other interests.
However, in what little spare time she has, Rotha says she enjoys reading, travelling and walking.
She and her husband Henry are aiming to complete the Camino de Santiago, an ancient pilgrimage route stretching from the south of France to north-west Spain. So far they have completed around half of the epic 790km trail.
While the conversation flips between subjects, time and again there is some connection or anecdote taking us back to Queen's.
She discusses spending time with her four children, one of whom, Maeve, has recently graduated from Queen's — the fourth generation from her family to pass through the university.
“Maeve came here, Henry — my husband — came here, so did Henry's father as a post-war undergraduate, and his mother studied here,” she adds.
By the time Rotha Johnston's term as pro-chancellor ends, her association with Queen's will have stretched to almost four decades. The university — much like Northern Ireland — is now a very different place.
“We need to take pride in what we have achieved in Northern Ireland, and I think since coming here almost 34 years ago, Northern Ireland and indeed this institution have transformed in terms of the opportunities they present,” she adds.
A WOMAN OF MANY TALENTS
* Along with her husband, Rotha Johnston built up and later sold her family’s food service business
* She has also put her entrepreneurial skills to use in the property investment market
* Among the business and public posts she has held are: non-executive director of the Allied Irish Bank (UK) plc and a member of the bank’s audit committee; non-executive board member of the NI Department of Justice member of the Women’s Enterprise Task Force; member of the UK City of Culture Advisory Panel; vice-chair of Invest NI; non-executive member of the NIO Board
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