Another Year, Another Speech

Writing and delivering uplifting speeches comes with the territory of being the head of an Oxbridge College. Although my interview for the position at Churchill did not require a dry run of this, to check that I was capable of exhorting the troops appropriately, perhaps it should have done. Over the five years I have been in post now, I have become more relaxed about the delivery, making it possible for me to sip a little wine without feeling I will fall over the words and start slurring my diction. In 2016 I wrote about the challenge of delivering a Graduation Dinner speech on the evening of the referendum result. That was a tough nut to crack to find the right balance. By comparison last week’s speech to our alumni Association Weekend was a piece of cake – other than having to speak after a brilliant speech by Christopher Frayling (alum and Extraordinary Fellow; yes that really is the title!), former Rector of the Royal College of Art and ex-Chair of the Arts Council. I was merely giving an update on the past year of the college, mundane but I hope also of interest.

Christopher spoke about where the two cultures stand 60 years after CP Snow’s famous Rede Lecture given here in Cambridge: Snow was a founding Fellow of Churchill College. Christopher and I agree that the divisions Snow saw are still lurking. For instance, we share a fury over how the word ‘creative’ has been hijacked, as in ‘creative industries’ meaning those of an ‘arty’ bent and excluding the techie stuff; the way some see creativity as the prerogative only of humanities’ studies and absolutely not to be found in STEM courses, an issue I have also highlighted before. I know Christopher’s views are equally strong on this point because I have discussed it with him at length, both last week and on previous occasions. Churchill College, home of Snow, will continue to work to ensure all our students appreciate the importance of not living in disciplinary silos and of becoming well-rounded citizens. Inclusion and inclusivity need to reach this strand of education as well as encompassing gender, race, religion, sexual orientation and the rest.

But, to return to the matriculation speech I need to give to the Freshers, the challenge for me now is not unlike that I faced before the 2016 graduation speech. Everything is so uncertain, the situation changes day by day. We seem to be in a world where untruths may be uttered on both sides of the Atlantic with comparative impunity; we see incitement to violence and despicable behaviour. But I want to encourage all who are just starting out on the adventure that is university and college life, to be positive not ram the distasteful stuff of UK politics down their throats. There will be those coming from unsettled regions of the world or chaotic family backgrounds, but many more who come from backgrounds whose futures might once have been thought to be secure. We, collectively, need to ensure they are able to thrive here whatever the state of the world outside, so that they can go on to forge a better future for everyone on issues from climate change to equity. The one thing I will certainly be doing is to encourage every fresher who is eligible to register to vote; the date of the next general election may still be unclear but it cannot be far away.

I definitely believe that my role is to oversee a college where academic striving is encouraged, if not to the exclusion of everything else. Perhaps I should be encouraging the girly swots in the audience (in which I would include students of any gender). Baroness Hale has definitely turned it from a political jibe from one prime minister to a predecessor into an appellation to be proud of. She of the Supreme Court, a woman who has more professional firsts to her name than most, whose school encouraged her to apply to Cambridge (she was a student at Girton about a decade before I was there) to read law because

 “my headmistress didn’t think I was clever enough to read history!”

she is also a woman showing that lack of clarity about a career path at 18 or 21 is no barrier to subsequent success. There is so much today’s students can learn from examining her career.

Stereotyping by gender is every bit as bad as stereotyping the humanities as ‘creative’ and STEM subjects as cut and dried and dead (to paraphrase William Blake), the idea that Christopher Frayling took exception to in his speech. Reading interviews with Baroness Hale it is clear that stereotyping has dogged her career, even if ultimately she has overturned many people’s expectations. As the interview in ChambersStudent explains

“Those making the decisions had never worked with women on an equal basis. They’d had them as typists or secretaries, but not as colleagues.” …so it was “harder for them to judge who was a good candidate or not – or who had potential or not.”

That will sound familiar to the women in STEM subjects (and probably the men in subjects such as those ‘allied to medicine’). How often are young women told ‘you don’t look like a physicist’ in tones of astonishment? Or selection panels overlooking the smart woman because, well, she’s a woman and so not a leader. However, one should take heart from Brenda Hale and just get on with the job. If one can. If one can defeat the feeling of ‘I don’t belong’ so many internalise.

In Churchill I hope everyone feels they belong. We worry about stereotypes, the different hostile –isms, the need for students to find their feet within their discipline and far beyond. I hope our Freshers will be able to shut out the uncertainties and appalling behaviour of some of our so-called leaders and just make the most of time here to work out who they are, what they want to do and where to put their best efforts. And to make sure they don’t end up disrespecting others’ choices or mentally put their peers into neatly-labelled but totally inaccurate boxes.

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