Meet Green Templeton’s New Principal: Sir Michael Dixon

Sir Michael Dixon in front of Radcliffe Observatory

Sir Michael Dixon started as Principal of Green Templeton College, University of Oxford on 1 September 2020. We took the opportunity to find out more about Michael including his early thoughts on joining college, his previous role at the Natural History Museum, and his hobbies outside work.

Welcome to Green Templeton College! Let’s start at the beginning, can you tell us about your childhood and growing up?

My early life was spent in southwest England, being born in Plymouth and living in Exeter until the age of 14. I enjoyed being outdoors, particularly nature and playing sport, and remain an avid and perennially disappointed supporter of Exeter City! I then moved to London and finished school with a focus on Botany, Chemistry and Zoology.

A fascinating combination of subjects. What did you then study at university?

I completed a BSc in Zoology from Imperial College, London, specialising in parasitology in the final year. I went on to do my DPhil at the University of York. I used macro and cine- photography to record the behaviour of free-swimming larval parasites and computer simulation modelling to test whether different movement strategies enhanced the chances of contacting a new host. I lived close to the university campus and developed a strong interest in photography.

We’ll look forward to your input for Green Templeton’s next Photography Competition… How did your career begin?

After my studies I became Commissioning Editor for Bioscience, and later Maths as well, at Pitman Publishing Limited. I stayed for three years and then spent thirteen years at John Wiley and Sons Ltd – initially as Publishing Editor and finally Publishing Director for Science Technology and Medicine and College Programmes. Wiley was based in Chichester so I relocated to West Sussex, south of London and I have lived in the area for much of the time since. From 1996-99 I worked for the Thomson Corporation, initially as Managing Director of Thomson Science, Europe and, after this business was sold, in the business and professional group.

And then you switched back to working with science and scientists?

As Director General of the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) from 2000 I was responsible for London and Whipsnade Zoos, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE)-funded Institute of Zoology and field conservation programmes in a number of overseas locations. ZSL had recovered from a financial crisis in the 1990s but the task was essentially a turn-around. Over four years I effected a rebranding of ZSL, increased commercial income and took a break-even organisation to significant surplus and the ability to reinvest in capital improvements.

You’re joining Green Templeton College from the Natural History Museum. Can you tell us about your role there?

Over the past sixteen years as Director of the Natural History Museum (NHM) I have delivered a large number of capital projects including the £80m Darwin Centre which opened in 2009 and in March this year succeeded in persuading the Treasury to fund (£180m) the six-year project to build a new NHM Science and Digitisation on the Harwell Science and Innovation Campus, reflecting the raised profile of the NHM’s science. Visitor numbers have risen from 3m to 5.4m per annum at their pre-COVID-19 peak and a new strategy launched earlier this year received widespread acclaim. This declared a planetary emergency and a vision of the future where people and the planet thrive. The Museum now describes its mission as ‘to create advocates for the planet’.

What other appointments and interests do you have?

I am about to retire as a Council member of the Corporation of the Hall of Arts and Sciences (the Royal Albert Hall) and through this I have been able to indulge my passion for contemporary music. I am also two years into a four-year term as non-executive Director of the British Geological Survey, a UKRI body currently part of the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). Building networks of contacts through external commitments is something I have done over many years and I have been a trustee of WWF-UK, co-chair of the Exhibition Road Cultural Group, chair of the National Museum Directors’ Council, inaugural chair of the Science Advisory Council of the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and chair of the Imperial College Research Ethics Committee. I love cinema, contemporary music, travel and art. I also have a lifelong passion for motor racing, especially Formula One and have been to Grand Prix here in the UK (at Silverstone and Brands Hatch) and in Singapore.

You’ll be moving into the Principal’s Lodgings next to college. Will your family be relocating to Oxford with you?

I will be moving with my wife, Deborah, and for both of us this is an exciting time. By the end of this month we will be fully established in Observatory Street. Our youngest son, Noah, 21 this month will be with us outside of term time but is about to start his third year at Cardiff University reading Biomedical Sciences. Deborah and I also have children from previous marriages. I have a daughter, Isabel, who studied at the University of York and is now 30 and a dramaturg (I had to look it up!) and a son, Samuel, 28 who has a bachelor’s degree in Ancient History and a Masters in Creative Writing and Publishing. Deborah has a son from her first marriage, Gabriel, 26, who has an economics degree and a Master’s in business and management and works in management consultancy.

Sir Michael Dixon in college groundsWe look forward to welcoming you all. What attracted you to Green Templeton College?

From my earliest visit to Green Templeton during the recruitment process the warmth of reception I have received have been tangible and strong. Although not perhaps immediately obvious, there are very strong parallels between running a large national museum and an Oxford college such as Green Templeton. Both are long-term institutions which require long- term planning. Both have complex multiple stakeholders including staff, students and those charged with governance, and both are passionately committed to academic excellence and public benefit.

Finally, what are your initial priorities as Principal?

I am looking forward to meeting all the fellows, staff, students and alumni of the college as well other key friends of the college across Oxford and beyond. I am very conscious that with COVID-19 we are living in a period of great uncertainty, but the college needs to plot a course to a ‘new normal’ way of working and establish a long-range plan that will help it define its academic offer, build on its special sense of community and create an estate masterplan. It is a task that there seems a strong appetite to tackle and it excites me to be involved.

Read Sir Michael Dixon’s short biography
Read the announcement of Sir Michael Dixon’s election as Principal

Created: 3 September 2020

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