A summer post

©Niall McLaughlin Architects

©Niall McLaughlin Architects

The summer term at Somerville passed in a swirl of activity.  If I hoped to raise Somerville’s profile, that came about in welcome and less welcome ways.  One great event came in May when we signed our agreement with the Government of India for a grant of £3 million, matched by the University and the College, to endow scholarships as part of the programme establishing our Indira Gandhi Centre for Sustainable Development.  In future, five Indira Gandhi Scholars from India will be pursuing postgraduate study here in fields related to sustainability, broadly construed; and the first three are arriving in October.  Plans and fund-raising efforts are developing to erect a new building on the college’s north-west corner, adjacent to the new Blavatnik School of Government where construction has now begun.  Niall McLaughlin, the architect of our Architects two newest buildings on the Radcliffe Observatory site, accompanied the Treasurer and myself on Tuesday to pick up an award for sustainable building from the Oxford City Council; adding to the three already bestowed on these most garlanded of all Somerville’s buildings to date – one from the Royal Institute of British Architects, one from the American Institute of Architects, and one for the quality of the timber work.  This bodes well for the new India building, for which Niall has produced exciting outline plans including a theatre, exhibition and teaching space, and a new archway entrance to the college.

Angelika Benz - Ball photoThe triennial Somerville/Jesus ball came early in the term, with tickets quickly selling out. Unfortunately it achieved fame for all the wrong reasons, getting into the papers because of the student committee’s intention to exhibit a live shark in a tank. After a clear ‘no’ to these plans from me – a college ball is always going to be a delicate balance between expectations and reality – the press attention cooled. The student committee worked like crazy to make the night a success. There were disappointments but also a huge amount of enjoyment and some triumphs, like the spectacular firework display and at midnight an apocalyptic son-et-lumiere. All photos courtesy of Angelika Benz.

Trinity Term at Oxford is dominated most of all by exams; the stress within the familial environment of a college becomes palpable.  The Oxford system, in certain subjects in particular, places a huge premium on the ability to pass exams in one gruelling week or ten days.  Stellar performances during the terms that have gone before count for relatively little.  Inevitably some people crack under the strain (I can remember nearly doing so myself).  Tutors and the senior tutor have to be constantly ready to help out, deal with cases of serious illness, and handle a stream of other anxieties.  For many tutors, the joyous end of exams for their students is the start of their own most intense hard work as examiners or, even more taxing, as chairs of the exam boards in each subject.  We can pause however, to note that some of our students performed spectacularly well, with one winning the prize for the top degree in Biology.  Now, in the midst of a heat wave, exam results all in and with students on summer courses replacing the college’s own cohorts, Somerville feels like a different place.

My catching-up blog for the summer would be incomplete if I omitted the discussions surrounding that most controversial of Somervillians, the late Baroness Thatcher.  About sixty members of staff, students and alumni gathered in college for a live screening of her funeral and over fifty alumni wrote to react, most of them positively, to the tribute published on our web site.  A compendium of those comments was circulated to the authors and to the college’s governing body.  The JCR held a discussion of Margaret Thatcher’s legacy.  History Fellow Joanna Innes organised a lunch-time symposium with the two editors of Making Thatcher’s Britain, Ben Jackson and Robert Saunders, who exposed some myths and provided a robust historical perspective.  Yet to come is a literary lunch for Somerville alumni and students, to be addressed by the Thatcher biographer Charles Moore.  Mr Moore has agreed to give some time also to an informal session with students.  Amidst all the words that have been written, one tribute from the Women of the Year Foundation caught my eye.

Meanwhile the college is setting up a Margaret Thatcher Scholarship Trust with the aim of funding outstanding students from all over the world.  It seems to me a worthy aspiration for future good, that the college should build on world-wide admiration and respect for its two prime ministerial alumnae, to educate new generations who will do exceptional work in all fields, regardless of their political, cultural, national or social backgrounds: continuing a tradition that has served Somervillians well, in their many extraordinary careers.   Watch this space.

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