The past few weeks at Somerville, at least in the life of its Principal, have been hectic.  To start with the current week, the death of Margaret Thatcher has hit the media like a tornado. Although her early years form only a small part of the overall press coverage, Somerville’s part in her education and indeed, as she herself acknowledged, in her formation, has attracted plenty of attention.  Press interviews and statements take up a lot of time.  It is also a moment for reflection.  Somervillians cover the whole spectrum of political opinion: a fact that calls for respectful and careful thought on the part of anyone who claims to speak for the College.  There is quite enough on the College’s web site and Facebook page and on Twitter without my adding much to it here.

I resume this blog, though, in a spirit of thoughtfulness about Somerville’s founding traditions.  Three weeks ago I was in India, for the fourth time so far in my tenure as Principal, partly to participate in a conference about the future of Indian universities, and partly to continue negotiations for setting up  Somerville’s Indira Gandhi Centre for Sustainable Development.  A week ago I received news that the Indian Cabinet has signed off on their promised grant of 25 crore rupees, equivalent to about £3 million.  This fantastic generosity, matched by the University of Oxford and the College itself, will enable five Indian postgraduate students at any one time (totalling scores of them, over years) to work on research that is important to India and to the world.  We start with the theme of Food Security.  Together with the Department of Plant Sciences, we are interviewing candidates now for our Tutorial Fellowship and University Lectureship in this area.

Meeting Somervillians in India

Meeting Somervillians in India

It has been such a privilege to visit India and my many Indian friends and colleagues, in the course of developing this high-profile project; and now we are at a new stage, which will surely take me back for future visits. I have barely begun to know India, but I love it.  This enterprise is part of Somerville’s founding traditions in important ways.   The college’s earliest undergraduates included Indians, notably Cornelia Sorabji who was the first woman to study law at Oxford and the first to practice it in India: she returned to her home country to work with women in purdah, one of the most neglected groups in any society in her day.  This strand of public conscience is an enduring theme among our graduates, who continue to go out and use their education to do great good.  Indira Gandhi’s pioneering environmental policies were an unambiguously admirable part of her record as Prime Minister, and it is good for the College, hopefully good for India and the world, to pursue it now.

Among other moments for thinking about the foundations of Somerville’s ethos in service of the public good was a visit to Edinburgh to meet Somervillians north of the border, thanks to the hospitality of Margaret Elliot (1949) and her husband Sir Gerald, both well-known locally for their philanthropy.  We heard a great talk by Honorary Fellow Professor Carole Hiildenbrand, derived from her life’s work studying the history of  Muslims and Arabs in the Middle East.  Then Somerville’s Librarian Anne Manuel gave a fascinating insight into the world of Mary Somerville: the patron saint in many ways, of the College’s open, scholarly and fearlessly determined traditions.

Most telling for me, in a kaleidoscope of recent Somervillian events, was the symposium we held in February for Honorary Fellows.   I took it as the theme for the Principal’s annual Foundation Dinner speech for students and Fellows:

This dinner is a celebration of Somerville’s traditions and a time for music and good fellowship.  I sometimes wonder what sort of speech Principals past have given on these occasions, and looking back at two previous years of my own speeches, as I now can, I know that the appropriate form is to refer to the college’s founders – though happily not to the extent of reading out a long list of names to whom we are suitably grateful, as happens in some colleges.  Names on their own, and perhaps especially the names of founders long past, do not convey essential meaning.  What matters to the spirit of the place is the lives that lie behind those names, and the values they have bequeathed to us.

In other colleges, venerable founders gaze down impassively from the walls at today’s fellows and students, their illustrious careers providing inspiration – or sometimes rather less than illustrious cautionary tales — for the college head whose job it is to pass on the tradition.  We lack the robed archbishops and bewigged judges, and even our prime ministers have a place of honour elsewhere in the college. Somerville’s dining hall provides plenty of impassive gazes, one or two of them rather formidable and penetrating, and behind the portraits that surround us there lie a few inspiring personal histories.  The one thing that distinguishes us from other colleges is that all these portraits are of women.  That by itself is a reminder of the college’s pioneering history, and the struggle that so many of these people and so many other Somervillians had, to open up the world to their talents and to the huge contribution they could make.

Honorary Fellows Symposium

Alice Prochaska with Honorary Fellows Catherine Royle and Baroness Shirley Williams

Today, though, I don’t propose to catalogue the achievements of the people in the portraits; because last week I hosted an amazing group of people who personify Somerville today, and whose work and lives still touch us.  We held a symposium and dinner for Honorary Fellows.  More than twenty of the fifty Honorary Fellows of Somerville returned to find out more about Somerville today and to help us think about the College’s future.  It was an evening filled with energy, debate, and warmth.  The company included one of the several baronesses on our list, and people who have risen high in the teaching profession and universities including some very distinguished scientists; lawyers, financiers, senior civil servants and some highly successful business people.

Dame Mary Keegan read Physics at Somerville in the 1970s and became a consultant with Price Waterhouse Coopers, or PWC as the company now is.  As their first woman audit partner in the UK she dealt with clients in industries ranging from fashion to oil.  She rose to the top of the company, leaving in 2001 to become Chairman of the UK Accounting Standards Board. Three years later she was asked to join theTreasury, as its Finance Director and also as Head of the Government Finance Profession, with a remit to improve financial management in Whitehall.  Mary asked us ruefully not to judge her career by her success or otherwise in that latter, Sisyphean task. 

Catherine Royle (PPE, 1982) a former president of the Somerville JCR, is an ambassador with a career spanning Latin America (where she was ambassador to Venezuela) and Asia.  She now runs the primary organizational body mandated to coordinate, prioritize, and direct the international police reform efforts in Afghanistan. In the wider Rule of Law context, it provides support for the Afghan Ministry of the Interior in the development of policies, strategies, and plans in the areas of police reform and police-justice cooperation.  Catherine’s description of her job as “being sent to sort out the Afghan police” elicited at least as much of a gasp of disbelief as Mary’s task of sorting out Whitehall’s financial management.  But, in a speech on International Human Rights Day in 2010 she described some of the progress (perhaps not well enough known) that has been made in Afghanistan:

“Eighty-five per cent of people now live in a district with access to basic healthcare, compared with nine per cent in 2003. Infant mortality rates are down, with 96,000 more under-fives surviving each year…To date, together, we have placed over 100,000 teachers in schools, which have contributed to the increase of pupils in school from one million in 2001 to 6.6 million today. New laws on media freedom have been brought into effect.”

My third example, a household name, is Baroness Shirley Williams (1948, PPE).  Shirley is an authentic top level stateswoman, a former Labour cabinet member as Secretary of State for Education, founder of the Social Democratic Party and much later, leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords.  She has also been an academic, teaching politics at Harvard, and is an international champion of human rights.  The blurb on her memoir, “Climbing the Bookshelves”, does not exaggerate when it says “For forty-five years she has been one of the most important voices in British politics.”  That memoir includes some affectionate and also clear-sighted memories of Somerville.  She could never come to terms with Philosophy, but enjoyed Economics with her tutor, of whom she writes:  “Margaret Hall was elegant, brilliant, vibrant and occasionally frivolous.  She wore scarlet suits and very high heels, and had a mind like a razor….She exemplified what I wanted to be –an outstanding professional, an attractive woman, and a wife and mother.  When I was carpeted for failing to maintain the standards of work required of a scholar, it was she who interceded for me.  It was she too, who wrung from me a reluctant promise to spend more time on my weekly essays.”

Shirley Williams was one of three Somervillians in the 1940s who each became one of the first women to be president or chair of their student political associations: she of the Labour Club, Margaret Thatcher (then Roberts) a few years earlier of the Conservative Association, and Shirley’s great friend who later became a great campaigner for racial equality, Ann Dummett, chair of the Liberal Club.

I mention these people because they and all our other Honorary Fellows, and the uncounted numbers of others who have followed or accompanied them in their lives of achievement, represent something great about Somerville’s founding traditions.    Let’s celebrate them at our Foundation dinner this year, and also celebrate all of you who will carry on the values of skill, service and sheer bloody-minded determination to succeed, that characterise Somerville.


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