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Transitions – 6th September 2010

The academic calendar is a law to itself.  I was elected Principal of Somerville in the summer of 2009, a wonderful honour and a transition that I have been anticipating keenly.  But the move itself (in my case, from Yale University) has followed the rhythm of the university year, the pieces falling into place with a stately momentum.  I arrived finally in my new and beautiful office on 1 September 2010. The move may have been momentous for me personally, and slow in coming, but two images, one from my own former life and one from the College, remind me of a constant factor in the life of any academic organisation: the excitement of creating new spaces for students to work and live in. 

 One of the great projects completed when I was the head of Yale University Library was the creation of the underground core library for student study, the Bass Library.  My colleagues invited me to attend the closing day for the old library on the site, a 1970s brutalist space of peeling white formica, orange plastic seating and bright fluorescent lights – and hijacked me into donning a hard hat and wielding a sledgehammer to deliver the first blow of demolition.  There was a keen sense of déjà vu when I saw the pictures of Dame Fiona Caldicott, the outgoing Principal and my distinguished predecessor, breaking ground for Somerville’s new building. 

I’ll never forget how, some eighteen months after my symbolic act of demolition, we opened the new and totally transformed Bass library, two storeys under the central lawn of the campus, on one October midnight.  What I had expected to be a small and demure affair with hot chocolate and popcorn for a few hundred students, turned into the party of the year.  An army of students chanting “Books, Books, Books” poured on to the lawn at midnight exactly and swarmed down through the new entrance pavilion.  Some came dressed as characters from literature (Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda, Ernest Hemingway…) and some came not dressed at all.  To the accompaniment of flourishes from a brass trio, some 2,000 students crowded into a space designed for fewer than 700, standing on the new marble topped tables, oak book cases and leather furniture to watch the first books being placed on the shelves.  From that day, this library and its cafe became one of Yale’s best loved and best used spaces.  I suppose one could say that the way its intended clientele adopted it and made it their own was an affirmation of the excitement and fun that people can bring to the serious activity of studying. It is right at the heart it its parent university.

Somerville’s new building is now going up on land added at the edge of its existing site, in the Radcliffe Observatory Quarter.  It will precede and then live alongside Oxford’s new Humanities Centre, Mathematical Institute and University administrative offices.  The building project also adorns the Somerville landscape by opening up a vista from the college to the graceful 18th century Observatory.  Somerville College was founded with courage and against the odds to bring women to Oxford at a time when only a tiny band of women in Britain or anywhere in the world had access to higher education.  Now here it is, a little more than 130 years later, bringing men and women to Oxford from all backgrounds and from all over the world, and continuing to celebrate its great traditions of openness and opportunity.  Its new building and with it the College as whole, is not on the margins but right at the heart of the modern University.  It will greatly enhance the student experience by allowing us to offer accommodation in college for virtually all Somerville undergraduates; and it will act as a magnet for conference visitors.  And how, I wonder, will our students celebrate with suitable audacity this extraordinary landmark in the college’s life?

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