Balliol College Annual Record 2005

The Master’s Letter

Other articles published in the print version of the Balliol College Annual Record 2005.

Visitor, Master, Fellows and Lecturers, Preachers in Chapel
The Master’s Letter  
Graham Richards The College-University Divide
Stephen Bergman Balliol in Wartime: Letters of F E Simon
Judith Brown Balliol’s Indian Dimensions
Beth Shapiro How humans killed the giant beasts
Rita Ricketts Balliol and Blackwell’s
Obituaries: Edward Heath
Oliver Lyne
Christopher Longuet-Higgins
Peter Benenson
Donald Macdougall
In Memoriam : Ian Kogan and Mike Woodin
Michael Campbell-Lamerton
Kenneth Winterschladen
Book Reviews: Roy Jenkins: A Retrospective reviewed by Chris Patten
Crossing the Carpathians reviewed by Leonard Epp
The SIAM 100-Digit Challenge reviewed by Gilbert Strang
Poetry: Thomas Braun
Carmen Bugan
Balliol About: Rory Stewart with the Marsh Arabs
Gazette: First Year Graduates and Undergraduates
The Coolidge Atlantic Crossing Trust
Firsts and Distinctions
University and College Prizes
College Scholarships
Doctorates of Philosophy
The Library
The College Archives
The College Staff
College Societies
College Sport
Members News:

Honours and New Honorary Fellows
Births, Marriages and Deaths
News and Notes

 

The Master’s Letter

I have a confession to make. I had planned to write this letter in the calm of a few days’ holiday in southern Italy, but a storm at sea generated four days of stupendous surf. Having grown up on the north coast of Cornwall, I cannot resist it. Totally exhilarating and utterly exhausting. So, if the thoughts that follow lack fluency, console yourself: at least the Master is a little fitter than he might have been.

Distance lends perspective, however, and, seen from afar, the most striking feature of Oxford is its success. Despite reductions in funding, it is ranked fifth in the world; departments such as Philosophy and Classics are the best anywhere; applications keep growing; Oxford generates more spin-out companies than any other UK university; and, in the vast new markets of India and China, Oxford’s name is second to none. If this were the British car or computer industry, the country would be singing its praises.

Why, then, are Old Members asking me whether all is well? One factor – a significant one in my view – is that Oxford has been singularly poor at explaining itself. This has been going on a long time and cannot be put right in a single letter, but recent events illustrate the point.

In January the University published a Green Paper on academic strategy. At its core was the case for expanding the number of graduates relative to undergraduates. This was an academic priority: research funding, research ratings and high quality graduates are what, today, attract the most talented academics. However, because the international mix of our graduate body is higher than that of the undergraduate body, an inevitable by-product of this decision is that Oxford will, proportionately, take more foreign students. What did The Times report and what, a few days later, did I find two of the country’s most senior civil servants asserting to me? That Oxford was choosing foreign students over home students in order to boost its income. Not so. We take students on ability, not on ability to pay. The civil servant from the Treasury, and trained as an economist, even thought we ought to be maximising income. Clearly we must explain more forcibly, especially at the highest levels of government, that the primary goal of universities is teaching and research, and that income is a constraint, and not the value to be maximised.

Then there is the issue of Oxford’s governance. We need good financial management, tight budgeting and transparent decision making. However, in the world of ideas, de-centralisation of power is also a great asset. No university should, therefore, be run just like a corporation.

In Oxford there is an additional factor. Its unique characteristic is the collegiate structure. Oxford is federal. Seen from the outside, this looks like a weakness. Indeed, if we speak in too many voices about policy to government or if we appeal for money in ways that make it seem the right hand does not know what the left is doing, it is a weakness. This federalism is, however, also a great strength. Here are five reasons:

  1. Colleges compete. If one college experiments, and it works, others soon follow. Oxford has, in effect, the structure of a “learning organization” and this form of organic competition raises the standards of the system as a whole.
  2. In Oxford, uniquely, part of the power of academic appointments lies with the constituent colleges. This, together with their self-governance, makes them far more than halls of residence – they are academic communities. This generates the commitment and involvement of Fellows which is what creates the incentive for the college as an institution to compete and thrive.
  3. Colleges, being communities in themselves, enable a University of some 17,000 students to operate on a human scale. As a result, not only do students from different countries and social backgrounds mix together intensely - far more so than in halls of residence - but also the tutors and the administrators know them personally.
  4. Oxford has the advantage of the tutorial system. Very small group teaching by top rank academics could, of course, occur without colleges. What makes Oxford special is that the college has selected the Fellows, the Fellows have selected the students and the students have often selected the college. The result is an unusually strong sense of identity plus an intensified desire on everyone’s part to do well. To complete the picture, college heads are in close contact with students, keeping tutors on their toes.
  5. The college structure cross-cuts and complements the Faculties. The resulting multi-disciplinary environment is unique, academically exciting and beneficial, especially to Fellows and to graduate students. Indeed, some colleges with substantial numbers of graduates are almost mini versions of the Princeton Institute of Advanced Studies. Colleges, particularly those with large numbers of graduates, are thus not only an important part of the research infrastructure of the University, but are also capable of taking initiatives (e.g. the creation of the Oxford Internet Institute, based in Balliol) that might otherwise fall between the disciplines.

The point I am seeking to make is not just that the collegiate structure of Oxford is an important reason for its success, but also that, when it comes to governance, Oxford is complex. When the press report Oxford as “ungovernable” and as if dinosaur-like academics were resisting a modernising VC; or, conversely, as if a mistakenly managerialist VC is being defeated in Congregation by democratic dons, they are missing the point. What is taking place in Oxford is a healthy, but necessarily complicated, debate about how to combine greater coherence of voice with federalism. Some of this debate is in response to demands that Old Members have themselves made (e.g. for greater clarity and coordination on fundraising). These are difficult issues, but considerable progress has already been made. For example, the new University-wide bursary scheme, announced last December, clearly needed to be done centrally - all students need to have knowledge of this at the time of making their applications and before they know for certain which college may accept them. But, such a central and automatic scheme, can be - and will be - usefully complemented by college- based financial aid derived from more detailed knowledge of the needs of specific individuals.

In the last decade or so, fundraising and alumni relations in Oxford have been changed beyond recognition, but, here too, there is still room for substantial improvement. Indeed, with this in mind, the Vice-Chancellor, I and the heads of two other colleges have just been to the USA to see what more we can learn. At Princeton, where, on average, more than 60 percent of alumni give each year, we learnt how important it is to start early – in explaining to students how the university’s finances are organised and how much they owe to previous generations and in involving them in giving campaigns. At the University of Pennsylvania, particularly relevant to Oxford as they have strong “schools” (e.g. the Wharton School) thus making their fundraising complex in ways that have analogies in Oxford, we were greatly encouraged to find that some new principles and protocols we have been drawing up to guide fundraising in Oxford seem to be on the right lines.

In Balliol we have the reputation both for producing independent-minded people and, to a degree, in steering our own course. We should continue to do so. In particular, we should always aim to be innovative and pioneering. However, no matter how large Balliol’s reputation, it is not larger than that of the University. And, if this is true of us, it must apply a fortiori to all other colleges. In short, all colleges need the University to prosper. Moreover, precisely because Oxford is federal, the central part of the University is less well funded than would otherwise be the case. Working out the right balance between the needs of the University and the autonomy of the colleges is one of the major challenges facing all of us in Oxford over the next few years.

Balliol News

With so much of significance taking place at the level of the University, what stands out about Balliol in 2004/5? In Finals we obtained 41 Firsts – a new record for us. The sciences, especially, did better than normal; and History had brilliant results. Out of sixteen students, ten obtained Firsts and these included the top Firsts in Modern History, Ancient and Modern History, and History and Economics. They did even better in Prelims with 11 out of 18 obtaining distinctions, including the two top marks in both Modern History and Modern History and Politics. Students, this year, won an unusually wide spread of prizes: Fabian Curto-Millet, for example, was ranked 1st in more than 1000 students competing for the International Students Committee Wings of Excellence Award, Rowenna Davis (PPE) won the Oxford Leadership Prize (open to anyone aged under 30 connected to the University) and Paul Williams was awarded the Royal Astronomical Society’s Blackwell Prize for the best doctoral thesis in atmospheric physics in the UK.

Amongst Fellows, Professor Frances Kirwan became President of the London Mathematical Society and Professor Nick Trefethen was made an FRS. Old Members also achieved the highest honours. Chris Patten became a Peer; Anthony Leggett, who won the Nobel Prize last year, was knighted and given an Honorary Degree by Oxford; the Visitor was made a Knight of the Garter (I am told the first time such an honour has been given to anyone in the legal profession); the former Master, Barry Blumberg, was named as the next President of the American Philosophical Society; and Emeritus Fellow Jane Stapleton was elected to the Council of the American Law Institute, the first non-US person ever to achieve this.

The College has also done well at sport. Later pages of this Record provide a fuller picture, but we won football Cuppers for the first time since 1931 and, in Eights, the women’s first crew bumped four times. Incidentally, we are hoping for further success on the river as, of his own initiative, Neville Mullany (1950) has been raising money for a training fund. Meanwhile, we continued to dominate University bridge (the only teams in the quarter-finals being Balliol A, B, C and D!).

We held the first “Master’s Lunch” on 19th April (for our older Old Members and partners); the first Master’s Seminar to occur in New York, with special thanks to Mary Sharp Cronson and Caroline Cronson for support and to Richard Dawkins for his double performance – a lecture at the Guggenheim Museum on 24th April followed by a seminar at the Carlyle Hotel on the 25th; and the first “Parents Day” on the Saturday of Eights week (with the Master under suspicion for having rigged the cricket when the JCR beat the MCR by one run on the last ball!).

Marten van der Veen, Bursar (and then Senior Bursar) since 1998, has retired. In addition to managing the College’s budget imaginatively and efficiently, Marten oversaw the completion of the new Jowett Walk Building and the substantial rebuilding of 1 St. Giles (to house the Oxford Internet Institute). Both were on time and on budget. Also retiring this year is Bill Newton-Smith. He was elected a Fellow in Philosophy in 1970, was Senior Tutor 1978-81, Senior Proctor 1984-85, Praefectus 1989- 96 and a member of Hebdomadal Council for many years. In addition, Bill played a major role in Balliol’s success in the new Joint Schools of Philosophy with Physics and with Maths and, outside Oxford, he has made major contributions to the re-building of universities in Eastern Europe post the fall of the Soviet Union.

Three Honorary Fellows have died. Irwin Miller, a most generous benefactor, Peter Benenson, the founder of Amnesty International, and, most recently, Sir Edward Heath. The tributes in the press tell part of Ted Heath’s story, but I have more personal memories. I recall him, only last year, remarking on how “at home” he felt at Balliol and how he regarded Balliol as, for him, a ladder of opportunity. That night, at the Balliol Society dinner, he spoke off-the-cuff, with wit and passion and, above all, with that special sense of history that emanates only from a true statesman.

On the same day as the first Master’s Lunch we heard of the death of the former Domestic Bursar, Mike Campbell- Lamerton and of the sudden collapse of Oliver Lyne, Fellow in Classical Literature, while shovelling snow clear from his house in Italy. Oliver was a totally dedicated tutor and he will be remembered with deep affection by his many students. A further death was that of David Daiches, the first holder of the Andrew Bradley Junior Research Fellowship in 1936.

As I try to close this letter on my return from Philadelphia and a terrific centenary of the Rhodes Scholars of the Americas (with Balliol by far the largest contingent), I have two points especially in mind. One is encapsulated in the final sentence of a letter an Old Member sent following the Master’s Lunch. He wrote, “Living into one’s 80s acts on the memory as a kind of gold-panning process – it’s the really valuable things that survive: Balliol was, and remains, a nugget.” It is extremely encouraging that Old Members have such warm images of Balliol. However, my other thought goes almost directly in the opposite direction. There is an inevitable temptation in writing letters of this kind to look back over the past year and to dwell far more on success than failure. If there has been plenty of success – and there has – that is fair enough, but this must not lead to complacency. Balliol’s reputation stands high, but it was not achieved by standing still.

Amongst several challenges ahead, the one that stands out most sharply is how to generate sufficient funds. We need them to secure the existing Fellowships (so that the tutorial system continues), to underpin new initiatives (so that we continue to build the most exciting multidisciplinary environment for graduates), to guarantee needs-blind admissions (so that we remain open to all) and to invest in the infrastructure (so that we can compete internationally). We have been giving much thought to this internally and we have presented initial plans to a joint meeting of the Trustees (that group of Old Members chaired by the Visitor which oversees approximately one third of our endowment) and Balliol’s Campaign Board (chaired by Jon Moynihan, 1967). More will be said about this in the course of the next year. In the meantime, let me end by thanking all of you who have already helped us either with your time, your money or both. It is needed and it is greatly appreciated.

Andrew Graham

July 2005