The Master in conversation
In January 2021 Dag Yosief, JCR President, and Judy Sayers, WCR President, met with Baroness Amos to discuss her first term in office and her thoughts about the future.
How have you found your first term as Master of Univ?
It has of course been a bit odd and challenging at times – it’s certainly unusual starting a new job during a pandemic! Initially our focus was on preparing for Michaelmas within the constraints of government guidance. We wanted to welcome students back and to foster a continued sense of community. I knew how hard it was going to be for our freshers, returners and staff. Despite all that, I am pleased with what we were able to do. I feel that I settled in very quickly – there is something about facing a challenge that brings people together.
How has being Master of Univ compared to the previous leadership roles that you have held, most recently as Dean of SOAS?
Being a Master of a College is about convening and uniting people. We have Fellows who are trustees and a governing body that make final decisions, so the role is less directive than my role was at SOAS. I think, however, that there are experiences, most particularly from my time as Leader of the House of Lords, which I can bring to being Master at Univ.
Univ has a very quiet, progressive gene: it does not shout about its achievements. It has been able to make significant change in this way – for example, the Opportunity programme, now Opportunity Oxford, started at Univ. The fact that Univ is unafraid of change and is interested in trialling ideas, and sharing them really attracted me to the College. I would be interested to know if you both agree?
Judy: Very much so. I think that is one of Univ’s best characteristics – the College is not ostentatious, but is an ambitious and forward-looking community that stands strongly for what it believes in. Univ quietly gets things done to a very high level.
Dag: One thing that stood out for me over the past year, is that there is a real sense of shared organisational goals and a long-term view for the College. Opportunity Oxford is born out of a clear sense that it wants to be a fair and meritocratic place of learning. Our shared idea of what we want to be, makes Univ a very rewarding place to be.
Looking back over the past few months, do you feel that universities could have responded to the pandemic more effectively?
I would frame that by saying that there is something really special about being in a place where so much relevant work has been going on. I haven’t been involved in any way, so I cannot take any credit for what’s been achieved! But I feel incredibly proud when I hear reports of the vaccine effort, because it speaks to the power of research and the exchange of knowledge.
It has been difficult to communicate consistently, to provide the long term messages that would give students a sense of safety and security. This is partly because government guidance changes so quickly, creating a degree of uncertainty apart from the College or University response. I would be interested to hear your thoughts, though, on our pandemic response.
Dag: The distinct memory I have from March, was when within the space of a week, most of us went from not knowing what coronaviruses were, to having to deal quickly with the complete overhaul of our day-to-day lives. The same is true for College staff, who have been doing their best to try to accommodate many of the difficulties that have arisen.
Judy: One of the things that particularly struck me in March as WCR President was that up to that point, I had found the running of College to be a well-oiled machine. As a very old institution, a lot of systems run smoothly from year to year, with routine checks and balances in place. Then along came the pandemic and suddenly we were collectively pole-vaulted into the position of having to go back to the drawing board and to rethink the patterns of Higher Education. I think the College has done a very good job at working with students for students.
Valerie: It has been a testing period, but I think it has opened up opportunities that we’re going to benefit from going forward. In the longer term I think it will be positive for the College. It will shape our thinking, for example, on how we integrate the High Street and Univ North sites to create different kinds of college communities – which is potentially very exciting.
What benefits do you foresee moving forwards from this experience?
I think it will change the balance of lectures and tutorials delivered in an online, face-to-face or hybrid way long term. It will also affect the kind of spaces we need. In the context of the University of Oxford having both Departmental and Collegiate University settings, how we create spaces that facilitate greater working across groups of people and across generations is an area to be developed. We’ve had small groups reviewing Univ North recently, because we thought it really important to review what we have planned in the context of our pandemic response and the positive lessons from that. There are people who suggest that this period represents the end of Higher Education as we know it, and that future students will not want to go away to University, but I don’t agree. Instead, I think that what it does is it opens up opportunities to work in a different way, to connect globally and to incorporate technology fully into education.
Prior to your time as Director of SOAS you worked in senior capacities at the UN, in Government and as Leader of the House of Lords. What made you choose to jump across to Higher Education?
Education has always been a big part of my family. Both my parents were teachers at some point in their career, my maternal grandfather was a teacher, my sister started her career as a teacher, I have a nephew who’s a teacher. My family firmly believes that education opens up opportunities regardless of who you are, which I very much agree with.
In terms of making the shift, a few themes have really guided my career. In particular, I’ve focused on the question of how to create fairer societies. Moreover, questions centring around social justice and human rights are themes that have been at the heart of what I like to work on. When I moved to SOAS, I came from the UN, where I had seen some terrible situations across the world, and had worked for example with displaced people and refugees. It fostered a real belief that some of the solutions rested with our young people: with the way that they saw their futures; the way in which they engaged with issues globally; the kinds of problems that they wanted to work on. Although it seemed to some like an odd transition, it was a very natural transition to me. By connecting people from different parts of the world, and by working across different kinds of disciplines, I believe that you can find innovative solutions to some of those global challenges.
What do you hope to achieve during your time as Master?
What happens with Univ over the next few years is not just about me. When I was being interviewed for this role I was especially attracted by Univ’s ethos and where the College wants to go. I think that there is a collective agenda that we want to work on together, starting with the Opportunity Programme and the work done last summer through establishing a working party to look at issues around race as a result of the Black Lives Matter movement and the Rhodes Must Fall campaign. Pointing to particular areas of interest that I have, there are many issues around the environment and climate change, which are important both in terms of the work of several College Fellows, and also are central concerns of some of our students. We can do a lot more work, linked to our Fellows’ research and to the Univ North development, which speaks to the measured growth of the College.
Why did you feel that it was important to speak out in support of the Oxford Rhodes Must Fall campaign over the summer?
I have spent many years campaigning on issues of racial justice in the UK, and have sat on many committees addressing these issues. This has always been a part not just of my working life, but a real passion of mine.
Twelve years ago, my sister and I set up a small charity to look at how best to support young black men of talent to get to University and attain good jobs despite the discrimination they face. We now also take young women. In reviewing my work, I felt very strongly that whilst the UK had made some progress, and you can point to the progress that we have made, that progress had been slow. In the midst of this, discussions began regarding who as a society we revere, and who we put up on a plinth. I definitely do not think that we should pull down every single statue; I think public figures are full of light and shade and very few of them don’t have something in their history that we would query or question. I do feel, though, that there are a small number of figures for whom what they have done is so appalling that they have no right to be on a plinth. Whilst I think the work that the Rhodes Trust does in providing graduate scholarships is really positive, I think the figure of Rhodes himself, how he behaved and how he secured his fortune should not be on a pedestal.
Turning finally to a few light-hearted questions about what you do in your free time – it would be great to hear what you do outside of work to let your hair down.
Regarding my free time in the pre-COVID-19 era: I love music – jazz in particular – but I would listen to pretty much anything! I love going to concerts and I love dancing. I love spending time with close friends and family. I don’t cook very often but I do enjoy cooking, and I think going out to eat or having friends over is such a wonderful thing to be able to do! I enjoy reading, theatre and cinema – so really, lots of things that have become difficult because of the pandemic.
I am looking forward to welcoming students, staff and others to group discussions and dinner parties in the Lodgings when life returns to normal!
What have you watched during the lockdown period?
I’m currently watching Lupin on Netflix, and previously I watched The Crown in about two sittings! Like everybody else I’ve been watching Bridgerton, also in about two sittings. Admittedly, I’ve re-watched the famous Pride and Prejudice series for about the nine-hundredth time.
Any books that you’ve especially enjoyed?
I’m currently reading a book about the Haitian revolution called Black Spartacus; I have a real interest in Toussaint Louverture, and this is a very good recent book that’s come out about him.
Finally, if you had to choose a desert island disc, what would it be?
I would have to pick Marvin Gaye’s What’s going on?; it’s great, and it’s also a bit of a cheat because the album tracks run into each other without breaks, so I could probably get an entire album for one track! What’s going on? speaks to now as well as speaking to the past; I love it!
This feature was adapted from one first published in Issue 13 of The Martlet; read the full magazine here or explore our back catalogue of Martlets below:
Published: 15 June 2021