It was that famous alumnus of the University and former Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, who remarked that a week is a long time in politics. I found myself wondering the other day what he made of eight weeks in Oxford. As a newcomer, I must say my first term has been quite an experience! Older Oxford hands will, I am sure, have long since ceased to be amazed by just how much can be packed into so short a period, but to me it has been an eye-opener. So at the end of it all, with the Christmas and New Year holidays now approaching invitingly, I find myself feeling, yes, a little weary but exhilarated too. I came to Oxford expecting to be impressed and I have not been disappointed. The intensity and vibrancy of the place, the sheer amount that is going on all the time in so many different places, takes the breath away. As, mind you, does racing around a dispersed University on foot, from meeting to meeting, and event to event. So, to bicycle or not to bicycle? That is the question. I’m not sure of the answer yet, but I certainly stand in awe of those brave souls, vivid in their fluorescent yellow jackets, pedalling doggedly into a howling gale...
In the meantime, highlights of my first term? Well, that is bound to be invidious to some degree, but…the new Ashmolean Museum has won many plaudits and admirers — and it is certainly a very tangible expression of both the rich history and modern dynamism of Oxford. It is also pleasing to see that all of our museums and collections have been recognised jointly in the recent award of the prestigious Queen’s Anniversary Prize. Oxford has now been successful in seven of the eight awarding rounds, a record unsurpassed by any other university. Other memorable moments include the “topping-out” of the new Earth Sciences building, and listening to early-career humanities researchers describe their riveting work to some of Oxford’s most generous friends at the Chancellor’s Court of Benefactors. But some of what’s special about Oxford, to this new arrival at least, is measured less formally than in public prizes and awards, welcome though they are. I’m thinking of the countless conversations and encounters with so many talented, committed, Oxford people: students, teachers, lecturers, researchers, and administrators. Day in day out, this is something that never fails to impress.
Not everything has been perfect. In the glorious Indian summer before the start of term, I started to doubt whether it ever rained in the UK. Since then, it has sometimes been tempting to wonder whether it ever stops. I would also have liked to spend a bit more time in the chemistry lab than has been the case so far. Like most researchers, I tend to get withdrawal symptoms when separated from my academic wellsprings for too long… Of course, after the best part of two decades overseas, there are bound to be things that take some getting used to (and I don’t just mean the weather). But the kindness and attentiveness of the University and the wider community have certainly made Jennie and me feel very welcome and increasingly at home.
Things don’t stop because term ends and it is clear that the world beyond the University is going to remain a challenging place, especially in economic terms. But the continuing achievements of the Oxford Thinking campaign surely represent a remarkable vote of confidence in the University, its aspirations and its achievements. We know that the future won’t be straightforward, but that doesn’t make it un-navigable. So, I do hope you will have a very good Christmas and New Year holiday and will return with batteries re-charged for all that lies ahead in 2010!