Sir Tim Hitchens' Foundation Speech

Published on:

Friday 15 June

Read this year's Foundation Speech, held by Sir Tim Hitchens, President of Wolfson College. 

"It’s my great honour to give this year’s Foundation Dinner speech, and my first. May I start with personal thanks, from Sara and me, to all of you for your welcome and your friendship. We have felt very much at home, very fast. The first of May, when I was inaugurated standing there, through an oath administered by our Visitor Lord Mance down a Skype line from the Supreme Court sitting in Belfast… all that seems a long time ago now.

I have been reading the collected letters of Isaiah Berlin, particularly those from 1960-1975 which Henry Hardy and Mark Pottle have titled “Building”.  In private he really is very indiscreet. One letter complains that “dons are impractical, retiring civil servants are heavy and pompous”, which seems to rule just about all of us out!  My early impressions are of a college whose academics are pragmatic and practical, and I certainly intend to be anything but heavy and pompous.

The First Foundation Dinner happened almost exactly 50 years ago, on 2nd May 1968, in the presence of The Queen. Arnold Goodman wrote about Berlin’s speech at the Foundation ceremony itself earlier in the day. As you will all know Isaiah was not a man to use one word when ten would do. Goodman writes of Berlin: “He was asked to address the company in less than 100 words, to speak slowly, and to use the microphone with the utmost care. He complied, with results which were admirable and somewhat startling. A bemused friend asked me, on leaving, “was that really Isaiah speaking?”

I will try to be brief, though I fear a little more than Isaiah’s 100 words.

This evening’s remarks are a retrospective on the whole year, and a snapshot of the best of Wolfson. For me the standout star of the year has been Philomen Probert, who for two of the terms was Acting President – and as such organised a wonderful series of lectures on the importance of evidence. For the current term she has as Vicegerent been Chief Support, Adviser, and subtle corrector of mistakes to the President. We all owe her a debt of gratitude.

First, some Departures and arrivals. Let me start with some of the sobering moments of the past year. Tsering Gonkatsang's death in a car crash on his way to work was a major (and horribly sad) event, particularly for the Tibetan Studies cluster. Others whose death we learned of include: Dr Roger Booker – Governing Body Fellow since 1975, Vicegerent from 1987 to 1989; Dr Anthony Harvey – Governing Body Fellow from 1976 to 1982; Revd Professor Michael Screech, FBA, FRSL, - an Extraordinary Fellow from 1993 to 2003 and Honorary Fellow from 2003 to 2018; and Professor Douglas G Altman – Supernumerary Fellow from 2005 to 2015. We will miss them all.

In other news of fellows, my thanks go to Marcus Banks who acted as vicegerent this year; to Jacob Dahl for his work as Secretary to the Governing Body; and congratulations to Jeremy Johns who has been elected as the new Vicegerent and Jan Fellerer the new Secretary. We say farewell to Janet Delaine from the Governing Body; and we will say farewell to Bill Conner as Development Director next April. Both will of course be welcomed as Emeritus Fellows. Andrew Wells migrated this year to Oriel. And we welcome two new Governing Body Fellows, Dominik Mascheck (Associate Professor Roman Archaeology and Art) and Linda Mulcahy (Professor of Socio Legal Studies).

Our fellows continue to do us proud. Professor Ulrike Roesler was announced as Chair of Faculty Board for Oriental Studies last week. Paul Aveyard was made an NIHR senior investigator. Samson Abramsky is to receive the LICS Test-of-Time Award for a paper that he wrote in 1998 entitled ‘A fully abstract game: semantics for general references’.  Elleke Boehmer’s  TORCH programme 'Humanities and Identities'  received a 'Highly Commended' for Community and Public Engagement in the recent Vice Chancellor Diversity Awards.   Our Supernumerary Fellow Neil Brockdorff has just been elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society. Jacob Dahl has been awarded a full professorship in Assyriology. Wolfgang de Melo won the OUSU Award for Outstanding Pastoral Support, and finished a two-volume work on Varro’s 'On the Latin language' which is scheduled to appear in March next year. Our Supernumerary Fellow James Crabbe gave this year's Stanley Gray Lecture. 'What hope for corals in this International Year of the Reef?"

Our students continue to excel. As one example, Akash Trivedi, Chair of General Meeting, competed successfully to make a research trip to the Mars Desert Research Station (and shared his experiences with the Wolfson community afterwards at an excellent event he convened).

I could go on, and I apologise to those who have not made it onto this list through my oversight or their excessive modesty.

Could I also offer my special thanks to Mike Pearson, our Head Gardener, who this year celebrated his 30th work anniversary.

Our clusters work has continued apace. To select some of the achievements:

The Ancient World Research Cluster now numbers around 100, representing every group in College - and with expertise across a wide range of disciplines, geography and periods from pre-history to around 1000AD, and include Syriac studies, Assyriology, Indo-Iranian Philology, Sanskrit, linguistics, archaeological science, Classical Greek and Roman art and archaeology, to name just a few. Among its many events I would pick out the Indo-Iranian Philology study day, attended by over 100 people

Following our staging of the Putney Debates 2017 to over 500 people at St Mary’s Church (the home of the original Putney Debates in 1647), in September, our team working on Law Justice and Society published a volume of essays by the panellists, featuring AC Grayling, Timothy Garton Ash, Vernon Bogdanor, and David Runciman. The book, entitled Constitutions in Crisis: The New Putney Debates, assesses the constitutional implications of Brexit, and was sent to every MP and senior judge in the land.

The Oxford Cluster for Life Writing has a new director Elleke Boehmer and is building strong ties with other Faculties and potential donors; has put on well attended events in every week of term across the year; has hosted visiting fellows from universities across the UK, Europe and beyond in the period, and there are several publications in progress from the core team and from visitors. I was delighted to take part last week in a workshop in this room on the life of Rupert Brookes and his less well-documented peer group – featuring opera, contemporary dance, and acting by Alex Jennings, who played Peter Bessels the Liberal MP in the recent Jeremy Thorpe TV series.

Our colleagues working on Quantum have continued with regular and profound meetings over beer and pizza, with many DPhil students across departments/colleges participating; a quantum cluster dedicated DPhil student has been appointed; and we also had a conference called the “Wolfson Quantum Foundations bash”, which will be a bi-annual event.

The South Asia Cluster has held a whole series of events:

As in previous years, the Tibetan and Himalayan Studies cluster hosted a mix of academic and cultural events to which all members of the College were invited:

  • In Michaelmas Term we held the third of the Annual Aris Lectures, this time delivered by Prof. Per Kvaerne. It featured voices of young Tibetans in the diaspora, including poems by the contemporary Tibetan poet Kesang.
  • Another annual highlight was the Tibetan "Losar" (New Year) Party in February with Tibetan live music, dancing, and traditional food and drink.
  • And this month we look forward to hosting a conference on the Tibetan military at Wolfson, convened by colleagues from the College de France.

Our Trauma cluster undertook work looking particularly at a large pragmatic randomised trial which compared a ‘K-wire fixation’ with ‘Locking-plate fixation’ for the treatment of a broken wrist. The trial recruited 461 patients operated on by over 200 different surgeons at 18 trauma centres in England. K-wire Fixation is cheap and quick to perform – the analysis showed that K-wire fixation was as effective as locking plate fixation, and was cost saving in all patient groups. After the publication of the trial, the proportion of patients having K-wire fixation rose to 42% with a concurrent fall in the proportion having fixation with plates to 48%.

Looking to our Research Fellows and Junior Research Fellows, Professor Anne Deighton retired as the Research Fellows Liaison Officer at the end of September. Anne did a fantastic job of engaging with this group of bright young academics and increasing their profile within Wolfson. Welcome to Christina Redfield to replace her. In October we welcomed 16 new Research and Junior Research Fellows in the Humanities and Social Sciences to Wolfson and in January we welcomed 13 new Research and Junior Research Fellows in the Sciences. In Trinity term we started a new lecture series of short talks by RF/JRFs. In our kick-off session earlier this month we heard about topics ranging from the importance of cell edges in plant morphology, a smartphone app to detect dangerous species of mosquitos, and how online advertising on websites works in ways we may not have understood.

Similar thanks to Dan Isaacson as the Visiting Scholars Liaison Officer: a colloquium he organised looked at topics from climate change to Nero’s use of Roman concrete, to the sociology of scandal, from Third World Cinema to Ottoman Crete, from Pseudo-Dionysius to the role of literature—specifically Hamlet—in civic and political life.

We continue to engage our alumni.

A farewell Gaudy and Syme Society Lunch for Hermione Lee and alumni took place after Trinity Term 2017 ended. The Acting President hosted a number of successful alumni events including the annual Christmas party at the Savile Club, the London Lecture at the House of Lords and reunions events in Rome and San Francisco. A memo of understanding addressing future collaborations with the Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzen was signed in July and I am about to travel to China and hold a follow up meeting. Former Bursar Geoffrey Garton left the College an endowment of over £1 million,  the income from which is being used to support the gardens, the newly-named Garton Creative Artist Fellowship, and funds for music and art in the College.  This endowment has made the partnership with the Oxford Lieder Festival possible and the extension of the Fournier Trio residency. And the College received the promise from an anonymous donor of significant funding to support Oxford’s partnership with the Council for At Risk Academics.  Over the summer, the scheme will be implemented and is expected to last several years.

What of our many sports and other high profile achievements? We have several members of college who have received blues, from karate to rowing to kendo; those of you glued to TV’s Masterchef will know that one of the finalists was our very own Nawamin Pinpathomrat, including a course inspired by the Wolfson Harbour. A new award, The Annual Sports Trophy was won jointly by two students in recognition of their positive impact within the Wolfson sporting community.  The winners are Tom Carruthers who heads up the Wolfson running club and Elysia Traynor for her High Intensity Interval Training classes.

It is invidious to choose other sporting highlights, but I would mention the Wolfson/St Cross Men’s football -  with over 50 people taking part across the year and the first team winning promotion back to the top division after winning every league game this season, scoring 34 goals and only conceding 6. The Graduate Women’s Football team made it all the way to the Cuppers final. Wolfson Tennis won all but one match in the league and expect to be 1st or 2nd in the division.

Wolfson-Darwin Day – this annual competition between Wolfson and Darwin College, Cambridge took place here this year.  The beast from the East struck again and the contest took place on a snowy and extremely wintry day in March!  Rowing was unfortunately cancelled due to flooding but all the other sports took place.  We even had time for a historical walking tour and historical pub tour, where we managed to convince our guests that Oxford isn’t as bad as they may have heard!  It would be impolite, with the Master of Downing present, to note that we comfortably won! And 2017-2018 has been one of Wolfson College Boat Club’s most successful years to date. We have had a strong showing at regattas in Oxford, and around the country, firmly cementing our reputation as one of the fastest college boat clubs. Racing for Torpids was restricted to two days because of more poor weather. However this did not stop our crews from displaying a strong performance – both the men’s and women’s 1st crews, after suffering separate catastrophic events last Torpids that resulted in them dropping multiple places in one day, exacted their revenge by bumping at every opportunity. Both W1 and M1 entered the qualifying time trial to race at the collegiate race at the Henley Boat Races. After a set of fantastic performances, both crews came away with the joint fastest times on the river.

Summer eights brought another strong performance from WCBC and an exceptional year for the women. W3 and W4 both won blades, resulting in WCBC having the highest placed 2nd, 3rd and 4th boats on the river. W1 rose to 3rd on the river – this is the joint highest the women have ever placed.

Last but by no means least, we continue a full musical and arts programme. The Fournier termly concerts have continued and we are delighted that they have agreed to continue their association with the College for a further five years. This term has also seen the start of a new collaboration with Oxford Lieder. And a full programme of exhibitions has taken place throughout the year culminating in an exhibition of watercolours – on show upstairs for several more weeks - inspired by the two meetings between Anna Akhmatova and Isaiah Berlin.

That is quite a report card!

In concluding, may I thank you all for your contribution to college life this year. I have come to understand that the college community is far wider than those who currently live and work in this college. It includes all of you here tonight, who have come from far and wide. It includes those with Common Room rights. It includes all alumni. It includes members of our local community, and it includes our special links with Darwin College Cambridge. It includes some who have died, but whose memory we still salute and whose names live on in the culture of this extraordinary place.  I learned a fortnight ago that the first Home Bursar at Wolfson, Cecilia Dick, mother to the current Metropolitan Police Chief Cressida Dick, had her ashes scattered around the tree I look out on every day from my office, and below which students pretend to study on sunny days.

When I was invited by the Governing Body formally to sign in at my first meeting, I looked up the page. Hermione Lee. Gareth Roberts. David Smith. Raymond Hoffenberg. Henry Fisher. Isaiah Berlin. Quite a list – quite an intimidating list - to sign up to. But the college today, enriched by all of you, and alive and kicking as my brief summary I hope indicates, is doing well, and will do even better in the years to come. Sir Isaiah, in his own Foundation Dinner in Oriel College on 2nd May 1968 could scarcely have hoped for better."