Opening Event Speech

Speech given by Helen King on the evening of the opening of the Tim Gardam Building

[Before I speak at any length, I would like to ask you to join with me in expressing our thanks to all the people, in the Development Office, Bursary, Kitchens, Events, Library in fact all our staff and our volunteer students and fellows, whose planning and hard work have made today such a very special and enjoyable occasion]. 

Today is a significant day for St Anne’s College. And St Anne’s is a place, an institution and most importantly a community that has a special significance for all of us; those of us who currently study, live or work here and those who have travelled from all around the country and the globe to be a part of today’s celebrations. 

So, as you recover following this evening’s magnificent food, drink and company, I want to take just a few minutes to encourage you to reflect on our proud history, inspiring present and exciting future.

And as we enjoy all that St Anne’s is today, we should never forget that all that we are and all that we achieve, is built on the foundations laid by those who came before us. We remind ourselves that today we stand on their shoulders: the shoulders of giants.

In just a few years it will be the centenary of women being admitted as full members to the University of Oxford and we remember with gratitude the formidable women and the powerful men who founded the Society of Home Students in 1879, enabling women - many of them international - to access an Oxford education on a flexible and affordable basis. Those women and men applied themselves thoughtfully and pragmatically over 4 decades to achieve the admission of women to the University, so that in October 1920, our Principal, Bertha Johnson, could be the first woman and the first of the five heads of the Women’s Colleges to receive her degree. A couple of years later the 1922 issue of The Ship, our alumnae magazine still produced today, featured the following comments in the ‘Oxford Letter’ section: “A few people still feel a trifle dubious about the admission of women to full membership of the University. To receive Degrees is no doubt just and inevitable they think, but to share in the government -! One of them said to me the other day, “I wonder if the day will ever come when we shall see a lady Vice-Chancellor in Oxford.” I said I thought it extremely improbable that such an awful fate would befall the University!” 

You may understand why I saved this quote for after our current Vice-Chancellor had to leave today…

One of the many privileges of being Principal is meeting alumnae and hearing their stories, which so often capture some of the continuing essence and character of St Anne’s. In 2017 it feels we are living in difficult and worrying times, but of course, the past helps us to keep a perspective on that.

I have met some of those who studied here during the second world war, when Eleanor Plumer, the daughter of a Field Marshal, was Principal. After Dunkirk, some of the exhausted and shell shocked soldiers were brought by train to Oxford and, at Miss Plumer's instruction, students from one of our hostels went to 25 dusty, blood-stained survivors taking pillows from their beds, towels, pitchers of water, any fruit or chocolate they had and, with their scouts, sponge washed the nearly comatose men. Following this many of our students were determined to abandon their studies to join the war effort full time but were eloquently dissuaded by Miss Plumer who reminded them how England would need educated teachers and leaders in a possibly disastrous future. 

Thus Miss Plumer echoed the words and attitude of Bertha Johnson, our first Principal, who in 1915 (102 years ago but still so relevant to today) said, “Perhaps we hardly realise yet to what extent the safety of our nation and people, the tone of our public life, our capacity as a nation for having a “right judgement [in all things”], may depend on the training of our young [girls and women] in clear thought, in knowledge of nations and men in the past, in the problems of social life, and the questions of State help and administration… Let us take courage in our work, even though it seem not to be directly concerned with the War.”

And that appeal “let us take courage in our work” which is “the training of our young in clear thought” is no less of a mission, of no less critical importance today as it was then. So of course we are proud of our history and the people who made it. 

St Anne’s is an inspiring place, never more so than today when we marked officially the opening of a magnificent new building, a building that has transformed the way we appear to anyone passing. We no longer are the College you drive past even when you’re looking for us. We now stand tall and unmissable, classically simple but modern, confident in our future, open and welcoming and with our past, our origins proudly on display. Our entrance now embraces those who arrive here, perhaps only feeling daunting to a new Principal, reminded daily of the impressive and wide reaching legacies of her predecessors, by on the one hand the Ruth Deech Building and on the other the Tim Gardam Building, which will now stand facing each other at our main entrance for many years to come.

And just as much as we proudly celebrate our new building, we also celebrate its purpose and all it represents. Our new students are heard excitedly boasting of our facilities and our library staff are the envy of Oxford. A library is the heart of an educational establishment and a place to learn; individually, from and with peers, in tutorials with world leading academics, in seminars and meetings and, in the finest traditions of Oxford, bringing together disciplines and expertise to generate something more than the sum of their parts. Our research centres, as you heard in our earlier lectures, are two fantastic examples of this.

So this is an inspiring day for a place that inspires.

Let me share with you, just a few of the occasions in my first few months as Principal, when I have been overwhelmed with pride at the effect this College and its people have.

I’ve met 6th formers selected from non traditionally Oxbridge backgrounds who came here for 24 hours for a study day. Their feedback included the comment “I didn’t know that that I loved philosophy until yesterday”

I’ve heard from freshers who originally weren’t going to apply to Oxford but already felt they fitted in after one day at St Anne’s. 

I saw our 2nd year students put really careful thought into how, as part of our ‘Be Well, Do Well’ initiative, they could share in a panel session their experiences of issues such as imposters’ syndrome, homesickness and anxiety with over 120 freshers in a way that would help and encourage rather than worry them.

I have directly witnessed the immense commitment and compassion shown by our academics and staff to accommodate and support our students from the widest range of backgrounds and nationalities,  and with different physical and mental health needs. We are determined that once students have been accepted to study here based on their academic ability and hard work, they will be provided with the support they require in order to succeed.

I’ve experienced the impressive intellects and the patient and generous spirits of our fellows, who explain with immense care and clarity their world leading research on regenerative medicine, stammers, nanomaterials, film aesthetics, computer science, translation or modern classical music composition, to the most lay of audiences, including their Principal.

I’ve read the feedback from the international student who after 3 days here wrote “The food is amazing, the student helpers are super useful, I loved that the tutors are nice and want us to learn. Everybody here is so helpful from the principal to the lodge people. I love everything [smiley face,  heart]” 

And I had the honour and joy of meeting more than 50 9 and 10 year old pupils and their teachers who visited us from the primary school most affected by the Grenfell Towers tragedy. Escaping the spectre of the tower for a day, after sessions on DNA, music and classics, and excellent G and D’s ice-cream, their faces and aspirations were burning brightly. One, who had been particularly anxious on the coach journey here, never having been so far from his family, reported on the way home that he now felt he could adventure the world.

So, with a proud history and an inspiring present, how could we be anything but excited about the future of St Anne’s College?

In order to build on our past and prepare ourselves for the future, we have already consulted with over 750 individuals as part of our St Anne’s 2025 Conversation. This will inform Governing Body decision making early in 2018 when we will set out our aspirations and ambitions for the College’s future in a Purpose on a Page.

In these St Anne’s 2025 conversations, I’ve heard alumnae express their sense of indebtedness, telling me variously that they were inspired during their time here by;

 “that a working class girl could be a respected part of something with a near thousand year     history”, “the challenge of intellectual encounter,” “the lack of pomposity and snobbishness,” and “the connection to a proud history of educating women and daring to be different from the rest of the University”.

We’ve also heard ideas of how the College can ensure it builds its reputation as an integral but distinctive part of the University: a place that is serious about all that it does but doesn’t take itself too seriously, that is not afraid of change, that is overtly accessible and visibly inclusive, connected and relevant to the world’s challenges, preparing future leaders in all fields to tackle those challenges, consistently committed to nurturing excellence, but always without ego.

So, today will always be an important date in the College’s history: it truly marks an opening, a beginning of the next phase of the development of St Anne’s. The world around us changes and we know, that to be true to our motto (consulto et audacter, purposefully and boldly), we have to prize the essence of what St Anne’s has always been whilst also being ambitious and innovative in pursuing our purpose of providing a world leading educational environment for this generation and the next: for our graduate and undergraduate students, for our academics and our staff, for those who otherwise will never even imagine that Oxford could be for them. And what could be more exciting than that?

So let me close tonight by expressing my gratitude;

•   to Baroness Ruth Deech and then, in turn, Tim Gardam, as former Principals, for their extraordinary leadership, legacies and ongoing friendship

•   to former and current fellows for the intellectual and organisational good health of St Anne’s College today

•   to our staff who take such pride in the work that they do

•   and, so importantly, to all of you, members of the College, supporters, friends and alumnae, who give to us in so many ways to enable the next generation of young students and researchers the life changing opportunity to immerse themselves in the intellectual, cultural and social life of St Anne’s College, so that they in turn can go on to use their intellect, talent and character to the benefit of the wider world.

 Thank you. I wish you a safe journey and all good things until we meet again.