Sir Tim Hitchens' Foundation Speech 2019

Published on:

24 June 2019


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

College Visitor, Lords, Ladies, Wolfson colleagues,

A warm welcome to this year's Foundation Dinner; it's wonderful to see such a range of the Wolfson Community, some of whom I know have travelled a good way to be here including representatives from our sister college Darwin at Cambridge.  At last year's dinner I had to celebrate a year in the life of Wolfson without having been present for most of it; this year I can speak from experience!

I am also feeling much less a recently retired Ambassador, and much more part of the Wolfson family so my thanks to you all for that. The joke runs that you can tell the retired Ambassador because he or she gets into the back of the car and it doesn't drive off. I'm pleased to have my trusty bike which has served me very well to get to Broad Street for Conference of Colleges Meetings, to the Thames for the racing, or to the Warneford Site or the Old Road Campus if I need the exercise.

This academic year of course was the fiftieth anniversary of our first Graduate Students arriving at Wolfson College in October 1968. I had the pleasure of joining George Smith, one of those pioneers, in visiting our original premises on 60 Banbury Road, now part of Kellogg College where he showed me the room in which he had been interviewed for the position by Isaiah Berlin himself. It brought the past very firmly to the present.

Departures and arrivals
So let me start this evening with the sad business of recalling friends lost this year. I should pay tribute to Jyoti Raghu, studying for her DPhil in Theology, and one of the college's Welfare Officers, who died tragically last summer. Other deaths include Prof Michael Metcalf, Professorial GBF from 1982-98; Dr John Mulvey, GBF from 1965 to 84, and Maureen Marchant, College staff from 1977 to 2002 who some of you will remember became the House Manager.

We have said thank you and farewell to Bill Connor as our long-serving Development Director, ably replaced by Huw David. A number of Governing Body Fellows are leaving us: we say farewell to Gillies McKenna (do visit if you haven't his outstanding exhibition of Japanese art of the floating world upstairs), Jim Benson, Lucy Cluver and Feliciano Giustino, the first two retiring from their departments after decades of service, the other two moving on to exciting new academic projects either here in Oxford or overseas. We welcomed Matthew Rushworth and Linda Mulcahy. And we will be welcoming two new Governing Body Fellows next term: Loren Landau joins us from South Africa as a specialist in Migration, and we have chosen but are still not quite able to announce Jim Benson's successor in Sanskrit.

We have said farewell to some well-known staff, among them Karl Davies, Angela Jones, Margit Kail, John Kirby, Victor Martinez, Darren McMahon, Juliet Montgomery, and Jan Scriven. And we have welcomed several new faces I would particularly welcome Sebastian Stefanov, who has helped mastermind tonight's Foundation Dinner.

Achievements by Fellows, students and staff
May I pay tribute to the outstanding academic work of our fellows.

Matthew Rushworth became a Fellow of the Royal Society; Elleke Boehmer Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and recipient of a British Academy Senior Research Fellowship for 2020. Matt Costa was made an NIHR Senior Investigator. Frances Gardner won the Vice Chancellor's Innovation Award for “Parenting for Life Long Health”. Bettina Lange has benefitted from a UNISA award to travel to South Africa next spring to discuss her research on governing water scarcity; Jonathan Pila gave the Hermann Weyl Lecture at Princeton; Ruben Andersson was one of several Fellows to publish this year his book was “No Go World; how fear is redrawing our maps and infecting our politics.” Huw David, our Development Director, published his first book, “Trade, Politics and Revolution: South Carolina and Britain's Atlantic Commerce”, and we look to him to continue the flow of funds from the US towards this part of the world.  I could go on, but that gives you a flavour of the range of our Fellows' academic work.

It would be remiss if I didn't also mention the former Head Gardener and Chair of the Grounds Committee Walter Sawyer, who this year was awarded an Honorary MA by the University. And even more remiss if I didn't mention Jack the Therapy Dog, who most students seem to think is the best thing about the college!

There have this year been building works which have changed the face of the College. The most important is the new Buttery, which has created a remarkable spacious and light-filled environment. Do please visit it if you haven't yet. And we will also soon have a new Family Room for parents and children especially important for those who live off site and have families. This time last week we had our first, and very successful, formal dinner in this Hall including children.

Tony and his kitchen staff have continued to offer us remarkable gastronomic events this year, not least tonight. A round of applause please for Tony and all his team. I would mention in particular the Thai Guest night, in collaboration with former Graduate Student and Master Chef finalist Nawamin Pinpathomrat ; the Japanese Washoku dinner with chef Hayashi; and the Chinese New Year dinner, complete with fortune cookies.  I was also pleased to see that the College organised an iftar dinner a month ago, especially for those students fasting during Ramadan. And the Tibetan and Himalayan cluster had about 400 people attend their Tibetan New Year event in February.

Our students have as always been very impressive this year. As of last month we had 621 students here at Wolfson, born in 79 different countries, 41 of them on Wolfson scholarships, active across all the divisions of the University. So let me turn to the intellectual life of the College.

Intellectual life of college, including lectures, seminars, cluster work
It's often said in Oxford that the problem isn't finding the speakers, it's finding the audiences. Well we have done extremely well this year in finding both, at very different scales. On the more modest end, I would point to the President's Seminar we held earlier this term, where Matthew Rushworth spoke about how the brain takes decisions; JRF Naoya Iwata spoke about ideas of willpower in Plato and Socrates; and graduate student Alexis Toumi spoke about how laziness can create efficiency in machine learning. There have been too many conversations and lectures to list, but among those I enjoyed in particular were an examination, in the Brexit context, of who the British actually are; a talk about Populism and Brexit; and Anne Deighton dared to talk about “Can we Still bear to talk about Brexit?”.  We tried to bridge the humanities and scientific method divide with a seminar on how far diversity might be a central principle in both. We welcomed the author Philip Pullman and Quantum Physicist Michael Niemann to talk about fantasising in fiction and phyics (in fact, that took place in the week when Emeritus Fellow David Deutsch was both honoured by the Chinese Mencius prize for quantum computing, and his eponymous and sadly non-existent Deutsch proposition was cited during the blockbuster film “Avengers: The Endgame.” Wolfson gets everywhere.) We enjoyed several major speakers talk about diplomacy in its variety of forms. Our Creative Arts Fellow Carey Young gave a sparkling presentation on her back catalogue. And of our major named lectures I would pick out Sir Venki Ramakrishnan's, President of the Royal Society, on both how he mapped ribosomes and the quirks of success in science; Professor Kathleen Coleman's presentation on ‘Spectacular Diplomacy: Nero and the Reception of Tiridates of Armenia on the Bay of Naples'; and the talk by Paul Gilroy this term on racism and liberalism that last particularly significant because he has often not been invited to Oxford platforms.  There have of course been many more; but that gives you a sense of the academic life of our speakers.

And of course our clusters continue to thrive. There has been so much this year that it is impossible to do it all justice.  The Ancient World Cluster ran a special day here in October showcasing its work, including with the Professor of Medieval Chinese History at Fudan University in Shanghai. The Digital Research Cluster has been working with other clusters on a Lives in Medicine Project, and is planning a launch event in Michaelmas Term to mark the new relationship with the Voltaire Foundation, on the development of a new digital archive of Voltaire's works. The Oxford Trauma Cluster has held eight events at the College this year, most recently this month a session which drew together translational science researchers and clinicians who have an interest in modulating the ways that fractured bones heal. The Oxford Centre for Life-Writing organises events week by week; I remember in particular a set of sparkling performances in St Clement's Danes last term (which led in part to a significant gift to the Centre). The South Asia Research Cluster hosted nuclear physicist and public intellectual Professor Pervez Hoodbhoy to talk about the new Imran Khan government and its prospects. The Tibetan and Himalayan Studies Cluster has organised events ranging from Tibetan history and the worship of mountain deities to the role of magic rituals in Tibetan Buddhism. May I pay tribute to all those who give their time to make these clusters so vibrant in particular to those Emeritus Fellows who sometimes display a remarkable second burst of energy through the work of their cluster.

Alumni and funders
Of course the life of the College also depends on the quality of our alumni networks and financial supporters. About a quarter of the cost of what we offer to our students at College comes from philanthropy; without them we could not function at anywhere near the level we currently can. I have enjoyed meeting colleagues in Hong Kong, mainland China, India, Pakistan, and Japan, and following up leads they have offered. We enjoyed an excellent Alumni Event at Lancaster House in London in December I was able to show some of our students and alumni the rooms in which Malaysia and Zimbabwe had won independence. And this spring Tarje Nissen-Meyer gave the Wolfson London Lecture at Lincolns Inn courtesy of Tom Sharpe, here tonight - on seismology, elephants, and why the BBC keeps inaccurately describing him as a predictor of earthquakes when that's the one thing seismologists can't and don't do.

I should also mention our campaign to house an at-risk academic and his or her family at Wolfson for six years our first family arrive imminently, led by Professor Alev Ozkazanc from Turkey, who studies the rise in sexual violence in Turkey. We will also host the Global Young Science Leadership Programme for young academics at risk for a parallel six years, starting this summer. We raised more than £300,000 and encouraged many alumni to give to Wolfson for the first time.

May I also say how important the events we run at cost at College are to our reputation as well as our books. The annual E-Bikes Summit which happens here; the recording of the BBC “Kitchen Cabinet” programme; the annual Harry Potter Society weekend, broomsticks and all; as well as the weddings, conferences, and innumerable other special occasions.

Sport, Art and Music
I've also been keen that we keep the cultural life of the College vibrant. Many of you will have seen the contemporary African artwork, from Ghana, Benin and Ethiopia, generously shared with us by Chris and Florence Levitt. Our long-term partners AMREF, who work on health issues across Africa, have given us the two remarkable Dean Bradshaw photographs of Kenyan women you will have seen in our corridors and in the renovated Buttery. The Ashmolean have also agreed to lend us one of their outstanding Ganesha statues which is both a beautiful work of art and will also pay tribute to our internationalism here in Wolfson.

Our musical offering at the College remains strong, supported by a vigorous partnership with the Fournier Trio and the Oxford Lieder; a highlight of the musical year for me was the Anglo-German Friendship Concert performed by the visiting Berlin Youth Chamber Orchestra last month.

And I am delighted that we have a new tradition in the College: the May Day Concert on the morning of the first of May. My thanks to all those who took part this year, including some outstanding classical musicians in our midst; the pristine voices of our nursery children; the surprising expertise we have in Korean Taekwondo barehand slate smashing; and what I am confident is the first time the Haldane room has seen pole dancing.

My congratulations to those students who have won Sports Awards or Blues. And my particular congratulations to our Boat Club, who marked their fiftieth anniversary just three weeks ago; all our teams did well at the Summer Eights, but the crown must go to the Women's First Eight who for the first time in their history were head of the river. We have plenty of debates in college about when we should fly our College flag, but nobody can doubt that they deserved the honour, not just in getting to the top position on the second day of the Eights, but holding off the pressure from Pembroke for the following two days. Very well done.

A short review like this by definition misses out so many other stories which have together made up the life of Wolfson this year.  We are a home and a family, and our story is collective. My thanks to you all for the part you have played. As this term, and this academic year, draw to a close, I hope you will feel proud to be part of this remarkable College. And join me in drinking a toast to the Foundation of Wolfson College. Wolfson College!