Rector Trainor provides an update from Exeter College during the COVID-19 pandemic
This is not a routine Rector’s report: a letter to Exonians written at the beginning of April 2020 cannot be. Exeter, like all of Oxford and the whole of the UK and many other countries, is in de facto lockdown.
These are difficult times, and we have all been affected in some way by the COVID-19 situation. Many of us have not been able to spend time with family or friends, or now have additional challenges balancing childcare and work commitments as a result of school and nursery closures. A number of us have been required to self-isolate for a period of time. Some of us have tragically lost a loved one as a result of the virus. Indeed, the College has lost one of its most distinguished and enthusiastic alumni, Honorary Fellow Sir John Laws (1963, Literae Humaniores), a retired Lord Justice of Appeal, to this insidious disease.
Yet, as Exeter is famously the friendliest of Oxford’s colleges, our legendary warmth should be able to rise to the challenges even of this pandemic, the first of this magnitude in just over a hundred years. Happily the College is proving equal to this test, in terms both of the operations of Exeter and of the ties that link Exonians the world over to their college. I have been proud to witness the way in which we have all pulled together, and I have been greatly encouraged by the adaptability, flexibility and positivity that colleagues, students, staff and alumni have all displayed.
At present, about seventy Exeter students remain in College housing, mainly postgraduates at the Exeter House complex on Iffley Road, but with about ten undergraduates still in residence at Turl Street who were unable to return home. Exeter has dramatically reduced the number of staff reporting for work at each of our locations. Catering has stopped altogether with the exception of outside suppliers who provide lunch for the few staff and students who need it. Despite scaling back operations on site to a bare minimum, the College is doing everything it can to sustain jobs and pay for its employees.
I have been impressed by the cooperative spirit that has permeated the reaction of undergraduates, postgraduates, Fellows and other employees to the suddenly imposed ‘new normal’. A great deal of work is being done remotely, with meetings now occurring through suddenly familiar devices such as ‘Teams’ and ‘Zoom’. Aided by the new Exeter Coronavirus Coordination Group, the College is finding solutions to the host of problems, large and small, thrown up by the pandemic. For example, welfare services are being conducted online, and the College Library is gearing up to posting books and articles to Exeter students. A similarly positive spirit has characterised relations among individual colleges and between the latter as a whole, on the one hand, and the central University, on the other.
Cheerfulness should not of course be confused with naïveté: there are significant difficulties. For example, as Trinity Term’s teaching and examinations will have to be online, Fellows and students alike are having to navigate uncharted academic waters. Undergraduate finalists and those completing postgraduate degrees, in particular, are understandably anxious about how electronically mediated instruction and assessment will work, especially given the differing home situations faced by the College’s nearly six hundred students. Thanks to the generosity of our alumni, Exeter benefits from significant hardship funds and we are making good use of these funds to support our students as needed.
Further guidance from the Government, the University, and the Conference of Colleges will help to steer the College, and its members, through this maze of uncertainty. But there has already been significant disappointment. Our Williams College students had to rush back to the States when President Trump abruptly curtailed the access to American airports of flights from the UK; the Williams students’ tutorials next term will have to be online, as for our matriculated students. Within the latter category, those completing degrees this year are having to face the prospect that they may well not return to Exeter physically before summer graduations which (as has already been decided by the University with respect to May graduations) look like being entirely in absentia. Before long, the College will need to consider holding special events at Exeter, once normality is restored, for those dislocated in this way. Such celebrations might well include the now well-established College rituals, in the Chapel and marquees, of graduation day.
As many of you are already well aware, the pandemic has also significantly disrupted Exeter’s programme of alumni activities. The Gaudy scheduled for 21 March – designed especially for those who matriculated before 1970 but were unable to secure places at the Gaudy last September – has had to be postponed. The same fate has befallen the trips which Yvonne Rainey (Director of Development and Alumni Relations) and I were to make, during the current Easter vacation, to Hong Kong (where I met a number of Exonians in January), Singapore, New York, and Washington. Similar decisions may well have to be made when, as seems likely, the current lockdown is extended into at least the early summer. Likewise, trips to Oxford, which many individual alumni had planned for the spring and summer, have had to be postponed. This is a huge disappointment to all concerned but we look forward to a renewed enthusiasm for attending College events when we return to normality! In the meantime, I’m delighted to ‘meet’ with alumni via video conferencing in order to stay connected, which is so important during this period of enforced isolation.
Yet, just as academic life is very much carrying on at Exeter, so the College is doing everything it can to maintain the momentum of our alumni activities. The name of the new game is – wherever possible – postponement rather than cancellation. The Development and Alumni Relations Department is working hard, albeit from home, on planning activities for the academic year 2020/21. We remain truly grateful to those alumni who continue to support us financially and in other ways.
Collaboration will be key to the success of the fight against coronavirus. It is truly inspiring to see teams and departments across Oxford working together with each other and with other universities. Exeter’s Monsanto Senior Research Fellow, Professor Catherine Green, is playing a key role in an Oxford team which is attempting rapidly to develop an effective COVID-19 vaccine. Clinical trials are about to start in Oxford with 500 volunteers. I know that I speak for the entire Exeter community in wishing her and the team every success. You can read more about this project in an interview with Professor Green here.
Lastly, as part of our wish to support our local community, we – in conjunction with other Oxford colleges – are actively exploring how we might be able to provide accommodation to NHS staff and other key workers like the police as they continue to work on the front line of fighting COVID-19. I am very proud that a number of our clinical medical students have volunteered to help at the John Radcliffe Hospital here in Oxford. We will support them financially to be able to do this. I have no doubt that we have many medics and other health professionals amongst our alumni who are also working at the front line: we applaud their heroic contribution.
I wish all of you the very best from all of us at Exeter. Stay safe and well until we meet again.