Professor Glynis Marie Breakwell

Doctor of Laws


Mr Vice-Chancellor,

It is a commonplace these days to talk about change.  We live in a world in which almost everyone is affected by the tentacles of global change - in which the lives of even the poorest are affected economically, politically and socially by decisions taken far away and as a result of developments that perhaps have their origins on the other side of the world.  In our own country, the pace and scale of change seems to be accelerating.  Not for this generation are the certainties of previous eras and the predictable patterns of family and work life. Today the only certain thing is change itself.

How do people cope with uncertainty?  What are the influences on their capacity to respond to it positively? Answers to these questions will determine to a great extent the ability of governments and international agencies, community groups, educators, health professionals and support services to direct their efforts in ways that will make a difference.  Understanding the impact of change on people’s lives will help sustain national security against the threat of global terrorism.  For the commercial world too, these issues are central, for businesses that are built on an increasingly sophisticated understanding of human nature are likely to be those that get their markets right. 

Mr. Vice-Chancellor, these are clearly broad and challenging questions; they are not for the faint-hearted or the intellectually limited.  Fortunately our honorary graduand today has neither of these characteristics, and it is to the search for answers to some of the most difficult social questions of our time that she has devoted her outstanding academic career.  Her contributions have embraced the world of adolescents and young adults in their responses to work and unemployment, to new technologies, drugs, smoking and sexual behaviour. She has studied populations experiencing the impact of migration and displacement; of changing political identities as in, for example, the growing significance of the European Union; she has explored the influences that impact on voting behaviour and political engagement.  Her work has also included studying why people choose particular modes of travel; the perceived safety of railway stations and mobile phones and even the significance of the way in which people use technology in museums. 

Linking these apparently disparate fields of study is a coherent theoretical and practical quest.  Professor Breakwell’s goal is to understand how people perceive risks and react to them.  How do soldiers, for example, react to the ever-present reality of threat? Professor Breakwell’s pioneering survey of 50,000 soldiers and civilians in Northern Ireland has begun to provide some of the answers, as have her studies of reactions to international terrorism. 

As a Social Psychologist, her work straddles the boundaries of Psychology and its interest in the individual and of Sociology and its concern with patterns of group behaviour. She seeks to understand the links between how we define our identity as individuals and how strains in the external environment are likely to affect this. The titles of some of Professor Breakwell’s many books are revealing in this respect, for example,‘Coping with Aggressive Behaviour, ‘Facing Physical Violence’Threatened Identities’ and ‘the Psychology of Risk’.  Equally the range of academic journals in which her output of over 250 refereed articles has appeared demonstrates the applicability of Professor Breakwell’s work to almost every aspect of human life. It is thus not surprising that in addition to her fundamental scientific research, Professor Breakwell’s practical help has been sought on many occasions by both policy-makers and practitioners. 

Perhaps part of the explanation for this enduring interest in how people respond to challenge can be traced back to some formative influences in her own early life.  The only child of a professional family in the Midlands, she was among the first intake of a brand-new comprehensive school.  She thus found herself, like the individuals she was later to study, in a community that needed to develop its collective culture and with teachers facing the challenge of change from selective grammar school to a mixed ability ethos.  She was outstandingly good at art, –and still is. But this was not deemed an appropriate career for one of the academic stars of the new school. She decided to read Psychology at university.  Again attempts were made to divert her into a ‘proper’ undergraduate subject.  For the young Glynis, the effect of these early scholarly frustrations was, in her own words, ‘to create a little revolutionary struggling to get out’, to feed an impatience to exchange the boredom and frustration of school for the challenges of real life and the capacity to make a difference.

This she has done to spectacular effect.  Undergraduate studies at the University of Leicester were followed by a Masters degree at Strathclyde University and then a Ph.D. here at Bristol University completed in a spectacular 18 months. During this time our honorary graduand also found time to earn money painting portraits in Clifton market! There followed a brief spell at Bradford University’s distinguished School of Social Analysis before a Prize Fellowship took her to the University of Oxford and the opportunity to work with two of the doyens of social research at the time, Professors John Goldthorpe and Keith Hope. Her sustained involvement in continuing education tutoring whilst at Oxford helped Glynis to develop those communication skills that were to stand her in such good stead in her later career as an academic leader and as a ‘public intellectual’ both in the media on programmes such as ‘Start the Week’ and on many national bodies.

A move to Surrey University in 1981 was the beginning of a steady upward spiral from Lecturer to Reader to Professor and Head of Department, culminating in 1994 in Professor Breakwell’s appointment as Pro Vice-Chancellor there. Not only did she successfully combine this role with that of the Headship of the School of Human Sciences, her academic activity continued undiminished, including the establishment of two new research centres.  Indeed it was at this time that she won the biggest ever Economic and Social Research Council grant for a five-year study of responses to Aids.

Mr Vice-Chancellor:  I have outlined an academic career of extraordinary breadth and impact.  A career that is sufficient in itself to merit the award we are conferring today.  But Professor Breakwell’s achievements go well beyond the academic. Testimony to this is her appointment in 2001 to the role of Vice-Chancellor - still a rare achievement for a woman – at the prestigious University of Bath. There she has already made a considerable impact.  Perhaps the most publicly visible of her achievements has been the rapid development of The University of Bath at Swindon, bringing to Wiltshire its first Higher Education institution.  Under her leadership too, the University of Bath has achieved the enormous distinction of being the first university football club to make it to the first round of the FA Cup for 122 years!

Professor Breakwell’s philosophy of life has been to keep many doors open in order to maximize her future options and flexibility.  It is a good strategy for such a multi-talented person as Glynis Breakwell since it has clearly worked. In this, she has been supported by a close family - including her father, who is here today and her partner and academic collaborator, Colin, whom she met when they were both undergraduate students.  In the few moments Glynis has free from official commitments, she still finds time for painting, tennis and squash, counting among her most significant achievements the distinction of having been part of a university staff side the only year that the staff beat the students at squash!

Mr Vice-Chancellor, I have described to you the achievements of a scholar of enormous distinction. As well as making a profound contribution to her chosen scientific field, she has also made a real difference to the world on a scale that is given to very few academics. It is to be welcomed that the University of Bath has seen fit to recognise these achievements and to harness Professor Breakwell’s capacity to inspire and lead others in appointing her Vice-Chancellor.  It is equally appropriate that the University of Bristol should honour our distinguished academic neighbour today through the award of an honorary degree. 

Mr Vice-Chancellor, I present to you Professor Glynis Marie Breakwell, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Bath, as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.

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