A week in the life….

An Oxford Principal’s life can be quite varied. A week ago I was in London for the meeting of a project that forms part of the new Re-Imagine programme set up by the British Council in partnership with the India Institute at King’s College London and Counterpoint, to “reimagine” and to help reconfigure the cultural relationship between India and the UK in the 21st century. By coincidence, this week is busy with preparations for a week-long visit to India, starting on Saturday, that will involve a considerable party of us from the University, including the Vice Chancellor, in multiple talks and visits in Mumbai and Delhi. Somerville’s interest is in establishing a programme of studentships for Indians and support for India-focused research, together with a teaching and study centre. Our long connection with India goes back to the lawyer Cornelia Sorabji who studied here in Somerville’s founding decade and includes Indira Gandhi who came to the College in 1937, not to mention generations of students of either Indian origin or Indian nationality, and currently, two distinguished professorial fellows, Rajesh Thakker and Aditi Lahiri.

In the midst of all the activity relating to my Indian visit comes a miscellany of College and University business. The weekend saw the end of the teaching term (not the end of the term for committee meetings, alas) with a special lunch for parents who came to collect their student sons and daughters and car-loads of possessions. Family days are a great invention; we really ought to have done this sooner. A good lunch and talks by glamorous Somerville alumna Kate Willliams, a writer and TV presenter of British history, and by Alex Rogers, Professor of Conservation Biology talking about his exciting discoveries on the ocean bed in Antarctica and the Indian Ocean, were all rounded off by History Fellow Benjamin Thompson and Music lecturer Ben Skipp, singing and playing Somerville songs (partly old, partly new, all funny and definitely worth repeating). It was good to include parents in the Somerville community and we will definitely do it again.

Next day (Sunday) was the turn of modern languages alumni with a special programme of talks by Fellows and alumnae, and a special presentation to Foundation Fellow Dr Christina Roaf, our greatest benefactor, now in her nineties, who was for many years Fellow and Tutor in Italian. It was a special treat to hear from two distinguished Somervillians, Eleanor Fuller the UK permanent representative to (and pro tem president of) the Council of Europe, and the author Victoria Glendinning. From Eleanor we had an elegant discussion of why it is important to have a command of languages when conducting diplomacy, with a couple of anecdotes about the dangers of pretending to speak French. Victoria provided an entertaining account of studying modern languages in the era of Enid Starkie (the iconic eccentric who insisted on speaking French with a dreadful Irish accent…I had no idea) and described some of the perplexity of a women’s college in the 1950s when she insisted on getting married at the end of her second year.

College events like these always provide a stimulating window into other people’s lives and aspirations. I often wonder which of our current undergraduates in thirty or forty years’ time will find themselves drawing a crowd to hear their reflections on their Somerville education and how it did or did not provide the foundation for an illustrious career.

Back to university committees, and one that is new to me. I am now the chair of the supervisory committee for the Recognised Independent Centres: the Oxford Centres for Buddhist Studies, Energy Studies, Hindu Studies, Islamic Studies and Jewish and Hebrew Studies. They are a disparate group but they have in common an international perspective, an interdisciplinary approach to scholarship, and the awkwardness of being associated with but not quite of the University of Oxford. The challenge for the University and for each centre is to bring mutual intellectual and cultural enrichment in a collaborative framework. As if Oxford is not complex enough, this set of loosely attached relationships brings another layer into the picture. I am glad nobody expected me even to pretend to read Sanskrit or speak Hindi, Urdu, Arabic, or Hebrew. “Speaking in tongues” was the title of our diplomatic alumna’s talk on Sunday. In its own way, that will describe the work of this committee.


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