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Departures & Reunions

July 6, 2012

The past month in Oxford began with exams and all the associated stress. Students straggled in to the Examination Schools on the High Street clad in sub fusc and often clutching notebooks full of revision notes as they walked, the ubiquitous pink carnations barely lightening their worried aspect; then finally streamed out of their last exams to be greeted by champagne and anointings of various sorts, returning to College looking just as bedraggled, but considerably happier. Reunion season overlapped with the last of the exams, and alumni from earlier decades succeeded the parade of examinees, wheeling their suitcases into college and looking anxiously for friends whom they might or might not recognise from undergraduate days. Both groups were unlucky in the torrential rain that made it difficult to celebrate, except indoors.

One of June’s rare sunny days greeted Encaenia (the day for conferring honorary degrees) and it was my turn, with fellow heads of house, university officials and honorands, to swelter in sub fusc, doctoral gown and cap, processing into the Sheldonian Theatre for the great ritual of Oxford’s big annual celebration. Encaenia is never routine, since by definition our honorary graduates are exceptional international citizens; but this year was in a special category of its own. We were honouring the Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, surely one of Oxford’s most illustrious living graduates. The University had waited nineteen years to confer the honorary degree it awarded her in 1993. Aung San Suu Kyi’s speech was simple, lacking in any rhetorical flourish, free from sentimentality, and deeply moving. She spoke for twenty minutes or so without notes, and gave us an understanding of what her Oxford background and her friends from her happy life here had meant to her in the long years of incarceration. The University had “taught her the best in human civilisation”, and this belief in the best sustained her. It was a special moment in Oxford’s history.

The arrival of alumnae celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of starting their undergraduate careers at Somerville was affirming and instructive in many ways. I was struck by the bleakness of the experience some remembered. All seemed delighted to return to Somerville and see old friends; many had happy memories of their tutors and had kept in touch. But some recalled boring and unhelpful tutorials, inattentive tutors (now long since passed on) and a stern sense that they could never do well enough. Hearing about experiences at school before they arrived at Somerville and remembering some of my own, it occurred to me that women’s education in the generations up to and including my own was a very serious endeavour. So many of the people who taught us, all those years ago, knew from their own experience that women had to achieve more and strive harder than men if they were to stand a chance of succeeding in what was definitely still a man’s world. I think of today’s Somerville College as a sunny-natured place where our men and women students take equality for granted. Tutors, when they insist on ever harder work, are pushing their students to do justice to themselves, not to prove any general societal point. It would be idle to deny that inequalities persist, and some still believe that women need to build their confidence by being educated separately. My own view is the opposite: the normality of Oxford’s environment in the twenty-first century is infinitely preferable to a world where women feel impelled to over-achieve. More than one member of the group who had experienced the sternness of Somerville’s expectations fifty years ago, wrote after the reunion, with great generosity, to say how pleased they were to know the College as it is now, rejoicing in the high esteem of our students.

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