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26th July 2019 Rector Professor Sir Rick Trainor

Rector Trainor reflects on events of Trinity Term 2019

Rector Professor Sir Rick Trainor looks back on the past term at Exeter College.

Trinity Term at Exeter is a time for, among other things, competitions. The graduate students’ three-minute thesis contest was won by Lhuri Rahmartani (2018, Population Health), Razia Chowdhry (2017, Interdisciplinary Bioscience) and Ellen Brewster (2013, English); now in its second year, this demanding exercise has proven popular with graduate students and alumni alike. Meanwhile, undergraduate Albert Gifford (2016, Medicine) won the overall volunteering award from the Oxford Hub.

Three-Minute Thesis prize winners (l-r) Razia Chowdhry, Lhuri Rahmartani and Ellen Brewster

In sport, there was glory for the women’s rugby team – Exeter combined with the other Turl Street colleges – which won the first ever women’s rugby Cuppers. Exeter students were awarded Blues for sailing and, for the second year in a row, won sailing Cuppers. Meanwhile, in Eights, as a result of spirited efforts by all four College boats, there was more upward than downward movement; the Exeter rowing renaissance continues!

The term also featured significant student cultural achievement. Zerlina Vulliamy (2017, Music), scored a triumph directing the UK premiere of the opera ‘Marilyn Forever’, a performance Marguerite and I greatly enjoyed. A number of Exeter students had parts in the play ‘Allotment’. The choir launched a new CD. Also, as usual, the College Ball at the start of term proved a triumph of student organisation over hostile natural elements; fortunately, although it was, as usual, cold it wasn’t, this year, wet as well!

Trinity Term also saw further significant progress regarding the College’s determination to diversify further its undergraduate intake (the top priority in the new strategic plan approved by Governing Body in June). Stephanie Hale took up her post as the College’s first full-time outreach officer. In early July Exeter hosted a week-long residential programme for 12 school pupils aged 14 and 15 from East Lothian. Planning is at an advanced stage for Exeter’s pilot residential ‘bridging’ programme in September for incoming undergraduates; this is a trial run for the rolling out of the College’s ‘Exeter Plus’ initiative for entrants in autumn 2020.

A number of Exeter Fellows gained special recognition during Trinity Term. Professor Christina de Bellaigue (History) received an award from the Oxford Students Union recognising the outstanding level of academic support she gives her students. Professor Luciano Floridi (Philosophy and Ethics of Information) was appointed to Google’s advisory council and received an award for achievement in AI ethics. In May Oxford University Press published Professor Andrew Steane’s (Physics) major book, Science and Humanity: A Humane Philosophy of Science and Religion, which received a highly laudatory long review in The Times Literary Supplement. Oreet Ashery (Fine Art) launched (with Jo Spence), at London’s Wellcome Collection, an exhibition (‘Misbehaving Bodies’) which explores the representation of chronic illness. Meanwhile, an Exeter artist from the 19th century was the focus of attention in late March when the Royal Society of Arts staged an evening of talks in the Chapel, with much attention to the forthcoming restoration of Morris’s Oxfordshire house at Kelmscott.

Professor Christina de Bellaigue leads a seminar at Cohen Quad

The project to restore, inside and out, the College’s Library at Turl Street took a major step forward during Trinity Term with the selection, by Governing Body on the advice of a College panel, of Nex Architects, who have as heritage consultant Hannah Parham (2001, Modern History), who collaborated with Rector Cairncross, with particular reference to Exeter’s buildings, on the College’s anniversary book Exeter College: The First 700 Years. Nex has an excellent record with historic structures. The plan is to restore the exterior stonework and the internal fittings of this venerable and much-loved building, while modernising its services (providing our students with workplaces fit for the 21st century and improving access for people with disabilities), and to do so with as little disruption to the College community as possible. Discussions are under way which will result in a design that can be submitted for planning consent by the end of calendar year 2020.

This much-needed project is now the primary, though of course not the exclusive, focus of the College’s fundraising. We are seeking to match the very generous contribution of an Exonian who has provided the lead gift for the restoration. A key figure in this effort will be the College’s new permanent director of development and alumni relations, Yvonne Rainey (who has been interim director since the beginning of April). Formerly director of development at Hertford College and St Edmund Hall, Yvonne was selected against strong competition from within as well as beyond Oxford. She assumes her new role at the beginning of September.

Exeter’s fundraising is key to its steady state operation as well as to major projects such as Cohen Quad and the restoration of the Library. The College’s alumni, in turn, are central to this excellent record of giving. Since my last report there have been alumni events in Boston, Toronto, Washington DC and in London, where summer ‘City Drinks’ were held in early June on a private floor of the atmospheric Yorkshire Grey pub in Holborn. Toward the end of that month Exeter hosted a well-attended Gaudy for those who matriculated between 1990 and 1994; the highly effective guest speaker was Charlotte Morgan (1991, English), Senior Head of Communications for BBC News.

Catching up with old friends at the 1990-94 Gaudy in June

Two alumni featured in the 2019 Birthday Honours List. Catherine Page (2004, Modern Languages), until recently the Prime Minister’s private secretary for European issues (and one of the alumni who climbed Kilimanjaro for the College’s 700th anniversary in 2013), received the OBE for public service. Charlotte Watts (1981, Mathematics), Professor of Social and Mathematical Epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and an international expert in HIV research and in the damage done to health by violence, received the CMG for services to public health and international development. Likewise, Jon Rolfe (1995, Mathematics) received the Order of Australia for service to community health.

The UK’s new prime minister, Boris Johnson, is of course the product of another Oxford college. However, his father, the prize-winning environmentalist Stanley (1959, English) is an Exonian. Boris’s appointments have included Matt Hancock (1996, PPE), who remains in the post of Health and Social Care Secretary, Nick Hurd (1981, Literae Humaniores), who has been reappointed Minister for London and has been handed additional responsibility as Minster of State for Northern Ireland, and Dominic Cummings (1991, Ancient and Modern History), based in Downing Street, who has taken up a major coordinating role. I would also note that Tom Shah (2018, Late Antique and Byzantine Studies) has started his civil service career in Number 10 only weeks after migrating from Exeter’s Middle Common Room, of which he was vice president.

Among other recent important appointments secured by Exonians are: Andy Anson (1983, Mathematics), Chief Executive of the British Olympic Association; Sir Kenneth Parker (1964 Literae Humaniores, 1971 BCL, Fellow 1973-77), Judicial Commissioner with the Investigatory Powers Commissioner’s Office, with the role of vetting surveillance warrants issued by the national security services; and Lisa Siraganian (1995, English Language and Literature), appointed J. R. Herbert Boone Chair in the Humanities at the Department of Comparative Thought and Literature of Johns Hopkins University. I would also point out that Thomas Parker (2007, Modern Languages) has become the world’s youngest Master of Wine!

Thomas Parker celebrates being named Young Achiever of the Year in the Drinks Business Awards. Thomas became the world’s youngest Master of Wine earlier this year.

Back in Oxford, there was a bumper crop of seven rector’s seminars during Trinity Term. Sean Hagan (Visiting Fellow and formerly General Counsel, International Monetary Fund) provided incisive commentary on ‘The IMF and the Evolution of International Monetary and Financial Law’. Lord (Nick) Macpherson, chairman of Hoare’s Bank and permanent secretary to the Treasury 2005-16, gave some highly interesting ‘Reflections on Economic and Financial Crises 1914-2008’. Exeter Politics Tutor Dr Michael Hart presented one of his celebrated seminars on the UK political scene, ‘The Current Turbulent State of British Party Politics: Causes and Consequences’. Professor Dennis Ahlburg (former Visiting Fellow; Trinity University Texas) addressed an important local issue with a presentation – with commentary by Dr Rebecca Surrender, Pro Vice Chancellor with special responsibility for diversity issues – on ‘Can we Explain the Gender Gap in Examination Results at Oxford?’ Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter, did not disappoint with his annual presentation at Exeter, this time on ‘How Good Luck, Timing, and Ten Years of Trying Can Make You Look Like an Overnight Success’. Professor James Arthur (Visiting Fellow; Johns Hopkins University) gave a moving reading of his own prize-winning poetry. Last but not least was the annual seminar by one of Exeter’s most distinguished alumni, Harvard’s Professor Joseph Nye (1958, PPE), who riveted his audience with an analysis of ‘Presidents, Ethics, and Foreign Policy’. I also draw attention to the Marett Memorial Lecture in anthropology by Professor Richard Fardon (SOAS University of London) on ‘African Red – African Blue: Ethnography, History and Comparison’ and the presentation of Visiting Fellow Richard Cohen (Hebrew University of Jerusalem) on ‘The Clash of Civilizations – European Jews and Oriental Jews – Past and Present’.

At a special dinner in late June attended by Rector Cairncross the College said farewell to a variety of colleagues, including three Fellows. Dr Helen Spencer (English Language and Literature) has taught and researched at Exeter, with particular reference to the medieval period, since 1992. An accomplished artist as well as a distinguished academic, Helen staged an exhibition of her works, attended by many colleagues and students, on 28 May. William Jensen has been Bursar (more recently Finance and Estates Bursar) since 2007, playing a key role in projects such as Cohen Quad and the development of the College’s landholdings while exerting a marked positive influence on the College’s operations generally, including attention to the aesthetic dimension, notably in the rearrangement of the Fellows’ Garden and the restoration of the Senior Common Room. Also the long-serving president of the latter, he was the guest of honour at a lively party on 23 July in the Fellows’ Garden which was attended by many Fellows and staff (including retirees who had served during William’s time at Exeter) from all categories. Finally, we are saying goodbye to Eleanor Burnett, College Accountant for a decade; her presence will be missed not only in the College’s financial transactions and annual accounts but also in a wide range of other activities, for instance the highly successful summer school at Cohen Quad, which she has cheerfully and ingeniously facilitated.

During the term the College also had more than its share of more sombre farewells. Two highly distinguished Exonians died on the same day, 5th April. Professor Sydney Brenner CH FRS (1952, Biochemistry), who came from South Africa to do his DPhil at Exeter, won a Nobel Prize for work which helped lead to the mapping of the human genome. He was a major force in biomedical sciences worldwide. Dr Walter Eltis, who finished his career as adviser to the President of the Board of Trade and held high positions in the National Economic Development Organisation, was between 1963 and 1988 a much loved Fellow and Tutor in Economics at Exeter, as reflected in the teaching room named for him at Cohen Quad. (The College will hold a service in memory of Walter – who died aged 85 – on Saturday 21 September at 2 pm in the College Chapel, with tea to follow in Hall.) We also mourn Professor Sir Rex Richards FRS (Professorial Fellow, 1965-70), who died on 15 July; after holding the Dr Lee’s Professorship of Chemistry at Exeter and making major contributions to nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy, Sir Rex went on to become Warden of Merton, Vice Chancellor and Director of the Leverhulme Trust. All deaths in the Exeter Family bring much sadness. But the saddest of all these deaths was that of Exeter graduate student Dr Lindsay Baxter (2018, Medical Sciences) on 23 May, as evident in a special Evensong held the following day in Chapel. Fittingly, a delegation from Exeter attended Lindsay’s funeral in London; Exeter Chaplain Andrew Allen assisted with the service.

Walter Eltis and Sydney Brenner, who both died on 5 April 2019

On a much lighter note, the College will celebrate, during the forthcoming academic year, the 40th anniversary of the coming to Exeter of women as Fellows and students; a symposium on Saturday 9 November at Exeter will be a major focal point of this programme. The significance of this change in the College cannot be overstated, as the achievements of female academics, postgraduates and undergraduates at Exeter since 1979 more than amply demonstrate. Yet we should also recall those women who served Exeter in other capacities before the advent of co-residence, notably Lady (Joan) Wheare (1915-2013), wife of Rector Wheare. In addition to a very positive contribution to the social and pastoral life of the College, she played a pivotal role in the foundation of the University’s Newcomers Club, which celebrated its 60th anniversary with a festive party at the University Club on Mansfield Road on 16th June attended by Marguerite and myself.

Having outlasted Oxford’s hottest recorded July day ever, we’re headed – after today’s final graduations – to Maine for a couple of weeks cooling off. Here’s hoping that you all get breaks too, and that you enjoy them.

Rick Trainor



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