Change and continuity
BY BILL KIRKMAN
Oxford and Cambridge have always depended on benefactors and that has not changed even today as their reach has become more international and inclusive.
Evolving with the times: Jordan’s King Abdullah II at Oxford recently.
At the end of the week I was in Oxford to attend a Gaudy (reunion dinner) at Oriel College, where I was an undergraduate. Those who were invited had entered the college in 1950, 1951, 1952 (my year) and 1953. Clearly, as we sat down to dinner, an obs
erver would not have needed to be particularly perceptive to see that we were not in the first flush of youth. The observer would have seen also that we were all men; in the early 1950s, none of the Oxford colleges was mixed.
As we chatted before going in to dinner, a number of lively current students, men and women, passed us, on their way to an end-of-term ball at another college. (The colleges are now mixed.)
Talking of old times
Much of our conversation, inevitably, consisted of reminiscence, as we met old friends, and recalled Oxford life in our day (limited facilities; much of the city, including the colleges, rather shabby after the Second World War; food rationing still in place).
The focus of the occasion, however, underlined in the welcoming speech from the Provost (the head of the college) was forward-looking. He spoke of the high quality of current students, the academic distinction of the college fellows, the great improvements to the college buildings, and plans for the future. The college was founded in 1326, and so the combination of our nostalgic conversation and the Provost’s speech served as a good reminder that continuity and change can go hand in hand.
A few days earlier, one of the youngest Cambridge colleges, New Hall, founded in 1954, announced an endowment of 30 million pounds given by a graduate of the college, Ros Smith, and her husband, Steve Edwards. The college was founded to bring more able women to Cambridge — at a time when there were few women students in the university. It is still an all-female institution. It had no endowment, and no benefactor whose name it could take, which is why it was called simply New Hall. Now, as a result of the generous gift, it is changing its name to Murray Edwards College, in recognition of the benefactors and the founding President, Dame Rosemary Murray, a remarkable and far-sighted leader.
In welcoming the benefaction Professor Alison Richard, Cambridge’s vice-chancellor (only the second woman to hold that office, Rosemary Murray being the first) commented that it was “a wonderful way to herald the University’s 800th Anniversary Year”.
That anniversary comes in 2009 and is being marked by a campaign to raise one billion pounds to increase the endowment of the university and its colleges. Back to Oxford, rather older than Cambridge, and you find similar efforts taking place to raise money. In Oxford’s case, the sum sought in a recently launched campaign is even greater: 1.25 billion pounds.
A long tradition
Since they came into existence in the 12th and 13th centuries, these two ancient universities, and their colleges — autonomous bodies but inextricably linked with the universities — have depended on generous benefactors. Sometimes they were monarchs. Always they were men, and, even in historically masculine eras, women, of power and influence.
The procedure for seeking charitable donations now is of course very different from what it was in medieval Britain. Professional fund raisers had not been invented. “Development officers” were a thing of the future. Some things, however, have not changed. Maintaining friendly contact with alumni has always been a feature, certainly of the ancient universities. The essence of the relationship with your college is that you are always a member of it — not a former member. It was as members of Oriel that my contemporaries and I were invited to last week’s dinner. Of course, the Provost assured us, this is not an occasion for asking for money, but behind that assurance, we all recognised, lay the hope that we would be inclined to offer some (albeit not on the scale of New Hall’s benefactors).
Should we be concerned about this?
The answer, in my view, is emphatically no. Distinguished academic institutions have always of necessity been competitive, seeking to attract and retain the most able students, scholars, and researchers. That competition is now international to a greater extent than ever before. It is agreeable to be reminded at a Gaudy of the stimulating years we spent in our college, but it is important to recognise the significance of the Provost’s message: no academic institution can afford to rest on its laurels, and it needs money to be able to afford not to.
Bill Kirkman is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College Cambridge, UK. Email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org