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07th April 2020 Rector Professor Sir Rick Trainor

Rector Trainor reflects on Hilary Term and recent events within the Exeter community

Rector Professor Sir Rick Trainor reflects on events since the start of 2020 both in College and among the wider Exeter community.

Against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic (my comments on which can be read here), other events seem to shrink. However, I think that it’s important to emphasise in this report how much dynamism the College showed during Hilary Term: that momentum will provide the basis for renewed vigorous activity once we are able to re-establish full-scale operations on site – and visits to Exonians both in the UK and abroad.

During the term there were a number of student athletic achievements. Alice Hopkinson-Wooley (2018, Modern Languages) represented the University in Varsity skiing. As reported elsewhere in this edition of E-news, five Exeter students participated in the University’s double victory against Cambridge in Rugby League. Exeter’s darts team, for the second term running, made it to the finals of their competition, and there was a sports day with our Cambridge sister college, Emmanuel. Alas, flood conditions meant that as in Michaelmas there was no rowing, though a great deal of training took place and there was remarkably high morale at the Torpids dinner. COVID-19 looks like meaning that an entire academic year will pass without competitive rowing, a cruel blow to a club with great promise and wonderful spirit.

Oxford Varsity skiing team members photographed in the Alps in January 2020

Alice Hopkinson-Woolley (second from right) and other members of Oxford’s Varsity skiing team

An ethos of academic adventure characterised the now annual January visit by several Exeter undergraduates to Williams College to participate in the latter’s Winter Study programme. English Fellow Dr Natasha Simonova accompanied the group. Academic expertise and curiosity, as usual, permeated the term’s two Subject Family Dinners. 10th February saw the annual celebration of Mathematical and Physical Sciences; four D.Phil. candidates gave pre-dinner presentations about their research in chemistry, computer science, astrophysics and engineering, respectively; after the meal Exeter Fellow Professor Dame Carol Robinson FRS, Dr Lee’s Professor of Chemistry, celebrated Exeter’s chemists through the ages in a talk entitled ‘Wings for Molecular Elephants’! Three weeks later it was the turn of the College’s medical and life scientists. A Lecturer, two D.Phil. candidates and two final year undergraduates gave presentations early in the evening, which was rounded off by Staines Medical Research Fellow Dr Katherine Bull delivering the important message that ‘Creativity is Just Connecting Things’. Both events were very well attended – by undergraduates, graduate students and Fellows and Lecturers.

Students from Exeter College and williams College go shopping together in Williamstown

Williams College students take their visitors from Exeter College on a cultural shopping trip

Hilary Term also saw Exeter students excelling in the arts. A new play by Exeter undergraduate Alice Wilson (2017, Literae Humaniores), ‘A Few Forms of Fury’, impressed audiences at the Burton Taylor Studio; recently retired JCR President Ned Robertson (2017, English) designed the set, and Rachel Tudor (2017, English) crafted the lighting. Exeter provided core leadership for the annual Turl Street Arts Festival; ten days of events spanned music, visual art, drama and literature. Meanwhile, Exeter’s choir put on a stirring performance of the Brahms ‘Ein Deutsches Requiem’ in the Chapel on 15 February.

Rehearsing the play, A Few Forms of Fury, by Alice Wilson

Rehearsals for Alice Wilson’s new play, ‘A Few Forms of Fury’

Seasonal dinners also thrived. Burns Night featured the usual eloquent and witty student toasts; afterward an unusually large number of participants tried Scottish country dancing. The fifth annual Chinese New Year celebration at Exeter was a success despite the understandable preoccupation of many diners with the virus then focused on East Asia. As usual for Hilary Term, there was also a well-subscribed ‘graduate high table’, a lively Parents’ Dinner and a day for those holding Exeter admissions offers and their families. Unusually, the ‘Great British Menu’ series filmed their final in a glitzed-up Hall on 9 February: because the programme will be broadcast in May the production team installed artificial blossom trees in the Fellows’ Garden for their outdoor shots!

Of more enduring value, students were key to the success of the annual Telethon in January. The team reached 368 alumni; two-thirds contributed, raising £129,077 in gifts and pledges over the next three years. I extend a very warm thank-you to all these donors and to all of you who contribute much-needed resources to Exeter.

Student telethon callers

The team of student Telethon callers

With regard to alumni achievements, I note that Matt Hancock (1996, PPE), Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, remained on the front lines of the UK’s battle against the pandemic despite suffering from the virus himself. In the New Year Honours Jeremy Pocklington (1992, Modern History) was appointed CB for public service; he is Director General for housing at the Department of Housing, Communities and Local Government. Hamza Farrukh (Williams, 2013) has received from the UK Prime Minister a Points of Light Award for his work providing safe drinking water to communities in Pakistan and South Sudan.

Alumni were well represented at the Classics dinner on 31 January and at the Fortescue Society (Law) dinner on 6 February. Exonians were also prominent in Hilary Term’s rector’s seminars. The celebrated correspondent and presenter Reeta Chakrabarti (1984, English & French) gave a sparkling talk on ‘Broadcast News – a personal perspective’. She was followed, later in the term, by another Honorary Fellow, the illustrious public servant Sir David Norgrove (1967, Modern History), Chair of the Statistics Commission. He presented a highly convincing account of the importance of his current organisation under the title ‘Damn lies, fake news, and statistics’. Still later came a seminar by Royal Literary Fund Fellow Tim Ecott, a journalist and author who is in his second year of assisting Exeter undergraduates and postgraduates with their academic writing. Tim gave a very wide-ranging account of ‘”Stranger-friends”: the cultural and historic ties between the British Isles and the Faroes’. This set the stage for the launch in the Rector’s Lodgings Drawing Room, as term ended, of Tim’s book The Land of Maybe: A Faroe Islands Year.

With regard to Fellows, the College has suffered notable serious losses, in addition to that of Sir John Laws (please see the accompanying article). Honorary Fellow Sir James Gowans FRS, who was Staines Research Fellow 1955-60, and who made key biomedical discoveries and went on to head the Medical Research Council, died aged 95 on 1 April. We are also mourning Aurora Morcillo (2018, Visiting Fellow), Professor of History at Florida International University, who won many friends here during and after her official affiliation to the College. She died suddenly in March. Much more happily, I note that current Visiting Fellow Professor Alexander Bird (King’s College London) has been appointed to the Bertrand Russell Chair of Philosophy at Cambridge. I’m also very pleased to report the election to an Exeter Honorary Fellowship of Sir Antonio Pappano, Music Director of the Royal Opera House; his election was celebrated in mid-December after a vibrant Oxford Philharmonic concert in the Sheldonian conducted by Sir Antonio himself. During Hilary Term there was further celebration when Sir David Butler, accompanied by a son and a grandchild, attended an Exeter dinner which followed the first Oxford-based lecture in an annual series honouring the memory of Rector Marilyn Butler.

In conclusion, I return to the sombre coronavirus theme with which I began. I wish you all safety and solace during this extraordinary period. Please do keep in close touch – with the College and with each other.

Rick Trainor

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