Sir Tim Hitchens
Sir Tim Hitchens' Foundation Speech

Published on:

19 June 2020

This year's Foundation Speech by Sir Tim Hitchens (President of Wolfson College) is slightly different from what you are used to due to COVID-19. Click here to watch a shortened version on YouTube, or read the full speech below. 

At the end of the Academic year I normally put on a gown and give a speech to the two hundred or so Fellows and students at Wolfson, setting out what has happened in the course of the year just closing. It’s probably the most formal occasion in the College calendar.

For obvious reasons, it won’t be happening this year. We have all been stranded for the last few months on our own private islands, aware that we are part of a larger whole, but sometimes feeling a bit isolated. Some of our islands have been large and comfortable, others smaller and sometimes claustrophobic. Those living here at College – some 200 people throughout the crisis – have had something of both, studying in your rooms, but able also to get out and eat socially distanced takeaway lunches on the Harbour Lawn, or getting to know the walks in the meadows across the river much better than you ever thought you would!

The College is returning to life; people are starting to come back in; but we have all been through a collective shock. Today, I wanted to recall a year which a football commentator would call “a game of two halves”: the first half, under normal rules, and the second half, when the rules went out the window.

It is sometimes hard to remember that there was life at Wolfson BC, before Coronavirus. Perhaps that is simply evidence that we are still too immersed in its consequences to see things clearly. But I wanted to note some of what we were doing here before the virus hit.

In Michaelmas and Hilary Terms the College was exceptionally busy, with a packed programme. Ambassador Nick Burns, Joe Biden’s Foreign Policy Adviser and former US NATO Ambassador, spoke to us in November about how we get back to international relations based on international law. Lord Reed, College Visitor and now President of the Supreme Court, talked about the relationship between Britain, Europe, and its Courts. Professor Linda Mulcahy, one of our Governing Body Fellows, continued the legal theme in March with a lecture on Courts in a Virtual Age – how to conduct justice without necessarily using a physical courthouse. A prescient theme, given how virtual our lives became in the weeks afterwards.

I’ve been grateful to all those who have taken part in President’s Seminars this year: in October we considered “Copying”, from cell-reproduction to copyright: in February we looked at “Order”, from Dante’s Divine Comedy to the structures of medieval religious thought. Both really original evenings which enlightened and entertained.

We were delighted to welcome Pakistan’s first Oscar-winning Director, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, our annual Sarfraz lecturer, who talked about the role of women in contemporary society and film. Continuing on the theme of film, we were so pleased that Curtis Winter, our DPhil candidate and film maker, won best film at the 70th Berlin International Film Festival, for an extended treatment of the last days of an elderly Japanese lady.  We continued to look east with our celebrations both of Chinese New Year – the Hall bedecked with red – and then later Tibetan New Year, with musical and dance performances from our Tibetan friends from Oxford, and around the world.  We also hosted the first Annual Oxford Korean Forum in November, attended by the Korean Ambassador.

If the Asian world was one of our consistent themes, the Ancient World continued to be another. This year’s Syme lecture was given by Professor Alan Bowman and examined the role of Alexandria in the Roman Empire.  The Ancient World Research Cluster also hosted a wonderful presentation by Professor Paul Cartledge on the 2500th anniversary of the Battle of Salamis, which to some extent determined the balance of power between Greece and Persia. And the College was delighted to receive a generous and anonymous gift which allows us to endow in perpetuity a Junior Research Fellowship and a research fund in Assyriology.

At the other end of the scale, in the realm of computing and mathematics, I was pleased to attend what would have been the one hundredth birthday celebrations of Robin Gandy held at the College in February, attracting a stellar list of speakers. Robin was as many will know a great friend of Alan Turing, the founder of modern computing science, and a Governing Body fellow at the College for many years – as well as gifting us the Robin Gandy accommodation block.

And finally, I should pay tribute to our University Challenge Team who did so well in this year’s tournament, reaching the last eight, only to be pipped at the post by Durham University, and for keeping us, again and again, on the edge of our seats until the very last question.

So that’s what we were doing as a community. We also took some important collective decisions, with longer term ramifications. Our work on climate change really picked up pace, with us able to announce at last we were fully divested from integrated oil, coal and gas companies, and from those which derive revenue from the exploration, ownership or extraction of fossil fuels. Oxford research showed that one of the biggest individual changes to reduce emissions we could make was to reduce personal meat consumption, so the College moved towards less meat-intensive catering, nudging people towards non-meat options, setting up non-meat meals, increasing the variety of vegan and vegetarian options.

We also spent much of the first half of the year working on a College Masterplan, setting out our collective ambitions for the next ten, twenty, thirty years. Many of you will have seen the final plan which was agreed in March. Again, the virus has unintentionally shown us the future: one with less air travel, with students more likely to live in College through the year, with less demand for internal combustion engines, and more space needed for more families. The Masterplan sets out how we will get there.

Then, just as we had managed to raise our line of sight towards the horizon, an immediate health crisis hit.

Group psychologists talk about the first two phases of any major crisis: self-preservation then group preservation. We start by stocking up on pasta and tinned tomatoes until the shelves are empty. But then we start to look to our neighbours and our community - and it is here that I think the Wolfson community has been so extraordinary.

I have to pay so many tributes.  To our own frontline staff, who have kept the College running: those who keep the door handles and corridors clean, who man the Lodge 24 hours a day, who keep cooking hot meals for students to take away, who keep the fire alarms working and the electrics and IT running.  The army of staff who worked from home, on the helpline, supporting students, keeping the pay packets and finances working. The students and fellows who kept life going at College, in the Bar, the Welfare Officers who worked hand in hand with the Chocolate Easter Bunny to produce smiles under lockdown. It brought out the best in us.

Let me quote from one of our graduate students, Brian Wong, who wrote in the Times Higher Education Supplement: “This epidemic is a natural disaster – but the woes of students worldwide are no less [important]…. I am personally fortunate to attend a college (Wolfson, Oxford) that has been incredibly supportive during these trying times.”

The values of the College which came out in those decisions we took in the first half of the year also emerged in the second, in the blast furnace of the pandemic.

First, that we are a place which embodies the value of expertise. Donald Trump and Michael Gove can scorn experts as much as they wish, but it was people like Anthony Fauci and Chris Whitty – medical advisers - who emerged as the real heroes of the crisis. And it is no coincidence that Chris Whitty is an alumnus of Wolfson, and indeed a former Chair of General Meeting.

Second, that we are a place which puts the welfare of our students first. We quickly established a Wolfson Coronavirus Hardship Fund, and generosity in large sums and small packets came in. I can now confirm that we have a fund worth over a quarter of a million pounds which will let us support students and early career researchers this year, next year, and in the years to come who face acute hardship as a result of the coronavirus crisis. My warm thanks to our friends around the world who have made this possible.

Third, that we are a place which cares for our staff. We have kept all our staff on full pay throughout this experience, and we are determined to avoid redundancies if at all possible in the financially difficult year ahead. The quality of the student experience in college depends above all on the quality of our staff.

And fourth, the College’s sheer inventiveness. For the College’s May Day concert, online this year, poets, musicians, other performers took to the virtual stage and gave us a breath-taking example of the quality of artistry at the College. The College Bar, unable to open conventionally, started deliveries of fine ales to front doors. The Catering Team delivering meals to those self-isolating, and setting up a deal to provide groceries direct to students. Old Wolves lecturing on ancient Rome down 2020 Zoom. A digital scavenger hunt. A lockdown photography competition. A new online community of gardeners.

Necessity is the mother of invention, and there are many creative solutions which already are part of the new normal. There will be no going back.

Let me end with this thought. The Wolfson community is large and diverse. There are some of us on the medical front line, working in hospitals or on vaccines. There are others acting as test pilots in vaccine trials. There are a number, in the UK  around the world, who have encountered the virus and lived through it. We all know people who have been victims. There are older members of our community who remain at particular risk, and who are very much in our thoughts.

For all of us, 2020 will remain in our memories inseparable from the coronavirus.

But I hope that for all of us, 2020 will also be inseparable from the community spirit – including the Wolfson community spirit – which has been so defining. Expertise, generous solidarity, and collective inventiveness is who we are. It is who you are. And it’s who we will remain.

Enjoy your summer break!