A new start

January 9th, 2014

The greetings cards are all cleared away, the remains of Christmas food and drink and gifts dealt with, and a busy break with family now just a memory.  This is no longer even New Year….and I haven’t blogged since October!  One resolution for 2014 is to do better.

So much happened in the autumn, with a series of special events jostling for time and energy.  One highlight was the visit in November of the Global Ocean Commission (whose secretariat is based at Somerville) for their third in a series of four meetings, designing proposals for the governance of the high seas.  The Commissioners (co-chairs: David Miliband from the UK, Trevor Manuel from S. Africa and Jose Maria Figueres from Costa Rica) formed a panel for a special public session hosted by Prospect Magazine, together with fellow commissioner Cristina Narbona from Spain, and Somerville’s Professor of Conservation Biology Alex Rogers.   I have heard Alex make several brilliant presentations on the dire plight of the oceans;  hearing it addressed from different perspectives by high-ranking international politicians heightened the sense of urgency.  From the College point of view, it has been especially gratifying to see our students getting involved with the Commission’s work as interns: researching legal issues and the “red list” of endangered species; translating Russian, Chinese and Spanish documentation and delving into sources on differing national policies that are often difficult to find; writing up a “Brief History of the Oceans”, for the Prospect session, putting together proposals for lobbying and liaison with faith communities around the world, investigating a musical commission to publicise the Commission’s work, and much more:  the engagement of our students has been rewarding for them and a real source of strength to the Commission.  In common with the funding bodies (led by the Pew Environment Group) everyone here is hoping for a huge impact when the Commission presents its recommendations in the summer of this year.

An event that brought  great pleasure to the Somerville community was the visit by Baroness Shirley Williams at the end of November to unveil our newly acquired portrait and name our new room in honour of herself and her mother, Vera Brittain.  Several of Shirley’s Somervillian contemporaries joined a crowd of all generations to hear her speak, movingly, about her mother’s life; with the additional treat of an exhibition prepared by the Library, to which Shirley herself added boxes of memorabilia.  Over dinner she displayed that warmth and stamina for which she’s well known, surrounded by students picking her brains about politics, women’s issues, the universe and everything.   For me it’s the best of all the privileges that come with being Principal, to have the chance to know someone of her stature and extraordinary achievements, and to welcome her as such a true friend of her own old college.  Energising and fun, too, as the countless fans of Shirley Williams will attest.

A few days later I was flying to India for my fifth visit in three years, to Delhi and Mumbai again, connecting with new and old friends, and exploring the potential for working partnerships for our fledgling Indira Gandhi Centre for Sustainable Development.   We signed up to one such partnership, with OP Jindal Global University, at a high-powered seminar on Sustainability, and on successive days I participated in a meeting of the UK India Round Table and (with C. Raj Kumar the Vice Chancellor of Jindal University and the Minister for Higher Education, Shashi Tharour) the Brookings Institute in India.  Three Indira Gandhi Scholars funded jointly by the University of Oxford and Government of India, are now here on master’s courses, our two IG Research Fellows have set up a seminar series on sustainability, and the Research Director, Alfred Gathorne-Hardy, takes up his post next week.  There is much left to do, especially fund-raising.  The task is made all the more enjoyable and effective, though, with a supportive Advisory Committee and the addition of our Director of Development Sara Kalim, who is herself half Indian with family in Bihar.  Sara and I returned home in time for our own Christmas preparations exhausted and with an even longer list of pressing tasks; but both of us, I think, feeling even more committed to building up the college’s contribution to Oxford’s relationship with India.

Our colleagues in Somerville were working flat out meanwhile, interviewing candidates and putting together next year’s group of new undergraduates.  This is always a gruelling time for students, tutors and admissions staff alike; but one of the rewards is the enthusiastic support that our current students give.  This year’s group were no exception.  They decked the reception area with festive decorations, provided an endless supply of biscuits and comforting occupations like board games, and strode off in the December drizzle to escort candidates to other interviews.  Somerville’s reputation as the friendliest college was well maintained.

What lies ahead in 2014?   More foreign travel for one thing.  By mid April I will have been back to India and on to Hong Kong (for the Oxford Asian alumni reunion) and to the United States a couple of times, including for the Oxford North America reunion in New York.  Commemorative events coming up will include plans to mark the fifty-year anniversary of Professor Dorothy Hodgkin’s Nobel Prize; and we will play our part in commemorating the outbreak of World War I a hundred years ago.   Somerville’s building plans take a break from any major disruption for a few months, with the opening of our new social hub the Terrace bar in October being the latest innovation.  There will be work to do in support of our students and enhancing support for Fellows’ research careers.  Watch this space, and I will endeavour to fill it rather more regularly this year.   Meanwhile, to anyone who has read this far, my very best wishes for a wonderful year in 2014.

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