Moving On to Pastures New

Every student, undergraduate or postgraduate, at the University of Cambridge has to be a member of one of the university’s 31 colleges.  To outsiders the college system may seem a little mysterious: how do they differ from Halls of Residence or ‘dorms’? But they do, they most certainly do. They are autonomous and governed by their own sets of Statutes and Ordinances, quite separate from those that control the actions of the University itself. Each has its own character and idiosyncrasies composed of a combination of the ideas of its founders, the traditions (and state of finances) built up over its life – whose duration can range from many centuries to mere decades – and its fellowship, past and present.  Much of the teaching within the Cambridge system is done in colleges through the supervision system, small group teaching with perhaps 3 students to each supervisor (numbers vary by college and subject) and each college will have many internal societies of its own, its own JCR and so on.

I now am set to embark on a new adventure with a new college, my third during my Cambridge life, having been pre-elected as the Master of Churchill College, a role I will take up in October 2014. This represents a tremendous honour and privilege as well as a daunting challenge. I have a year to contemplate this new role and to endeavour to learn as much as possible about my new community and the specific nature of the college which, as I will explain below, is unique within the Cambridge system.


Photo: Courtesy of Churchill College

When I first applied to Cambridge as an undergraduate, my choice of college was hugely constrained: there were only three I could apply to because colleges back then were all single sex. So, I could choose between Girton, Newnham and what was then known as New Hall (now Murray Edwards). Of these one couldn’t apply to both Girton and Newnham and, for reasons lost in the mists of time, I had always had Girton in my sights. Somehow I thought I knew back then something about the difference between New Hall and Girton: after all by the time I applied the latter was already a century old whereas New Hall had less than two decades under its belt. I recall this influenced my choice of clothes for the dreaded interviews. Although I don’t remember the details I think this had something to do with the length of my skirt and a slightly more hippy look for New Hall. Whether this had any effect on the outcome I don’t know; I was admitted to both colleges, but chose to stay with my original choice of Girton. As an undergraduate there I didn’t regret this for a moment, supported through my (frequent) moments of doubt and confusion by a wonderful Director of Studies, Christine McKie, whom I wrote about before.

Girton was a pioneer, the first college created for women (although it is now mixed). My second college, where I was offered a (non-stipendiary) Fellowship when I returned to Cambridge after 4 years in the USA, was Robinson College. Equally a pioneer, it is the only (undergraduate) college to have been founded as a mixed college, back in 1979 when I was away from Cambridge. Right from the outset the original Warden – chemist Jack (now Lord) Lewis  – sought to make sure its fellowship had a good gender mix too and worked hard to recruit women in the sciences. At one point I suspect it had the majority of female lecturers in the STEM subjects across the University: that meant about 4 of us (it could hardly be like that now!). It too has been a very happy home for me. Its history is brief, its alumni (and wine cellar) still relatively young. It lacks generations of rich alumni and the wealthy patrons from kings and queens down that the oldest colleges possess, not to mention no vast estates across the country which have equally created a rich endowment for some. Nevertheless it sits in beautiful mature gardens – the terms of its planning consent meant many well-established trees had to be preserved – and is conveniently located for me at the Cavendish, being on the west side of town. A further advantage of its location is that it is well off the tourist trail, so students are not interrupted by loud voices of visitors outside or suffer the indignities of being peered at through the windows by them.

I shall leave Robinson with regret next year. But the new challenge of Churchill beckons, albeit a year off. Churchill is unique amongst all the colleges because, by its statute, both its students and Fellowship are required to be 70% scientists and technologists. As a college it was founded in 1960 as the national and Commonwealth memorial to Sir Winston Churchill. Another statute requires that each new Master is appointed by the Sovereign, on the recommendation of the Prime Minister and so there has been much formality associated with the publication of the recent press release which had to await a letter from Downing Street.

Churchill is a large college with nearly 500 undergraduates and slightly more than half that number of graduate students (known, unusually, as advanced students within the college). The Churchill Archives Centre  is housed on the site, an amazingly rich collection of papers of many of the famous scientists of the 20th century including a generous sprinkling of Nobel Prize winners (such as Sir John Cockcroft, the first Master, one of whose daughters incidentally taught me Religious Knowledge at school); plus of course numerous politicians including Sir Winston himself and Maggie Thatcher. I am looking forward to an opportunity to delve into these archives, both to inform myself and to find apposite quotes for the plethora of speeches I suspect I may be called upon to make during my tenure.

Despite the majority of the college being on the science side, it appears clear that there is no sense of ‘them’ and ‘us’ between the disciplines. Included as part of the Further Particulars for the job, there was an explicit statement of the college mission which included the phrase ‘to build bridges between the three estates of Science and Technology, the Arts and Humanities and the world of Commerce and Industry‘. To do this will be both exciting and non-trivial, but it is certainly a wonderful goal.

Finally, I should perhaps point out one of the other quirks of the Cambridge system, hidden in the text that I have written. As Master, my role is as a ‘Head of House’. Other colleges (‘houses’ ) use different terms to describe their heads. Girton has a Mistress, Newnham a Principal, Robinson (as I said previously) a Warden, Kings a Provost and Wolfson a President. Master is probably the commonest title and I see no reason to change it just because I’m a woman (and I am certainly not the first female to hold the title of Master within Collegiate Cambridge; I suspect Sandra Dawson as head of Sidney Sussex may have had that honour and there are currently several in post). It is a role with an ancient title rather than that the title itself saying anything overtly sexist. I’m not sure there has been a male Mistress at any college so far, but Girton has certainly had a male Vice Mistress (try not to snigger).

So, my centre of gravity will shift in the months ahead. How that will affect my blogging remains to be seen, but members of the college are well aware of this writing propensity of mine and seem content.

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9 Responses to Moving On to Pastures New

  1. cromercrox says:

    Many congratulations. I’m confused by the photo, though. I recognise you, of course, but who is the woman standing in front?

  2. chall says:

    Congratulations! Wonderful news to hear. I wish you all the best with this new position, Master of the house.

    I have to admit that the archives you mention sound very exciting to look through and the idea to look for quotes is excellent. They are such inspiration, the ones who came before us and who knows who are in there, guessing it might be some surprises too?! Again, congrats!!

  3. GMP says:

    Congratulations! What an exciting opportunity!

  4. Ursula Martin says:

    Many congratulations Athene!

  5. Emma Woodfield says:

    Congratulations! I hope you will enjoy being Master of Churchill as much as I enjoyed being an undergrad there (although I’m guessing you won’t be clambering over the gate at the end of the field to get to the Cavendish quite as much!)

  6. Richard Marsden says:

    Congratulations! And an excellent choice!

    Emma: Or stumbling in the dark through the woods to the Institute of Astronomy!

  7. And congratulations from me, too. I hope that you will have some time to tell us more about Churchill – in particular, there must be some interesting history around the 70% figure in the statute, which I’d love to hear.

  8. Thanks for the good wishes. They’re much appreciated all round!

  9. Congratulations! We’ve got our first ever female President at St John’s, Oxford, and to me at least, it certainly makes a difference having a woman at the top.

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