How does one prepare to be Principal of LMH? For me, the answer was simple: The Brown Book.
The internet may have helped destroy the high street secondhand bookshop market, but it does enable a would-be LMH Principal to order a dozen or so back numbers of a reasonably obscure publication in order to delve into the history, personality, atmosphere and ethos of the college he has set his eye on.
And so – before coming to my slightly terrifying interview with four dozen Fellows – I did my homework. I settled into a deep leather armchair, glass of claret in my hand, and read my way through my new collection of Brown Books. And, by the time I finished them, I felt I had a much better understanding of the wonderful character of LMH and the people who helped make it what it is today.
So – thank you, generations of alumni who have kept this publication going. As a former editor, I salute you. And it’s obviously a terrific honour to be appearing in its pages.
I’m now about half-way through my first year as Principal and Lindsay and I have both felt extremely welcomed as we’ve settled in and set about learning the ropes. The Brown Book is good, but even this august journal cannot fully prepare someone to step into Frances Lannon’s shoes.
What have I – an outsider both professionally and geographically – learned so far about LMH and Oxford? Here are a few things:
(1) That, in every part of College, there’s an unbelievable commitment to hard work. Students seem to study about four times more intensively than anyone I can recall from 40 years ago at Cambridge. Tutors are endlessly torn between faculty and college – between teaching and satisfying the never-ending demands of the quasi-governmental research monitors. Support staff have immensely impressive stamina and energy.
(2) That there’s not much money to go around. I know, there are some colleges as wealthy as small nations. But normal colleges like LMH operate on tight margins and there’s somehow never quite enough money to do all the things we would like to do.
(3) That our alumni are incredibly loyal, important and generous (see (2), above). I would say more, but I might come across as crawling, which would be undignified for a Principal.
(4) That small dogs are terrific ice-breakers. We have two – Hamish and Bonnie, both now proud members of the JCR. As they trot around the college virtually everyone drops to their knees to play with them (they are quite cute, if you like that sort of thing). And so we fall into conversation with a wide variety of students, tutors and staff who might otherwise walk past with a polite smile.
(5) That small dogs quickly become essential parts of the college welfare team – available to be patted, walked, borrowed, hugged and generally made a fuss of by any student feeling overwhelmed by an essay or life in general.
(6) That chafer grubs, once they have taken up residence in a college lawn, are unbelievably difficult to get rid off. And that crows, once they dig for the grubs, can turn any lawn into a mud bath. And that zoology tutors know an awful lot about how many nematode worms it takes to devour a chafer grub. And that proposals to sow college lawns with wildflowers in order to disrupt the chafer grubs cause the sort of divisions to which only C. P. Snow or Tom Sharpe could really do justice.
(7) That tutors initially react very badly if you stick a camera in front of them and interview them about their work (‘Oh I’ll be no good . . . I hate this sort of thing’). And that, without exception, they then speak fluently and fascinatingly about their subjects.
(8) The same is true of graduate students.
(9) That the range, importance and diversity of research going on at LMH is really quite extraordinary . . . and a bit humbling.
(10) That our then landlord, St John’s College, insisted on a simple corridor linking Old Old Hall and New Old Hall so that, when the experiment in women’s education failed, as it inevitably would, they could sell off both houses as separate properties.
(11) That, while LMH has five pianos, they are all – how can one put this politely? – of a venerable vintage. The college badly needs at least one modern instrument for the flourishing musical life humming away within its walls [see under generosity, (3), above?].
(12) That Albert Einstein came to play chamber music at LMH on several occasions – using the nineteenth century Bechstein now in the Simpkins Lee theatre. He had so much fun he was almost locked out of Christ Church, where he was staying.
Well there’s a fairly random list of a few things that have struck me since arriving. I have, I think, now met nearly 300 students, tutors and staff one on one – and many more in small groups. I have watched our rowers in action at the Christ Church Regatta and Torpids. I’ve seen our budding actors and theatrical producers in action and admired our musicians and singers. I’ve interviewed 25 graduates and tutors on film and watched, firmly rooted to the ground, as assorted LMH-ers abseiled down the Kathleen Lea Building for charity. I’ve even made my own musical debut playing a meaty set of Schubert variations with our wonderful retiring professor, Susan Wollenberg.
I have much still to learn, including the complex arrangements between colleges, faculties, departments and Wellington Square – a mystery which reveals itself slowly.
Finally there are some important departures and arrivals, including Susan, who has been teaching at LMH for 44 years and who first came to the college 50 years ago, and Roberta Staples, who has been Librarian since 1993.
Before I arrived two key college officers had made the decision to retire – Peter Watson, the hugely respected Development Director, and Richard Sommers, our Treasurer. Both have made an immense contribution to the college, as has Richard Buxton, who is stepping down from both the Advisory Council and the Investment Committee. Richard, who has been made CEO of Old Mutual Global Investors, has been a generous benefactor to the college as well as a source of tremendous wisdom on the handling of our endowment. We owe all of them a heartfelt debt of gratitude.
As our new Treasurer, we are extremely pleased to welcome Andrew MacDonald, the commercial director at Partnerships for Renewables, who has primarily worked in the energy sector after some time at PwC. And our new Development Director is Tim Pottle, currently Deputy Director of Development at Oriel College. We wish them well. And I hope to be back this time next year to report on progress.