Below is a transcript of an address from the 273rd Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford, Professor Irene Tracey CBE, FMedSci., at her Admission Ceremony on Tuesday 10 January, 2023.
'Dear Chancellor, family, friends and colleagues,
I stand here today, as surprised as no doubt you are, that after a lengthy global search this University, my University, elected a local girl – in every sense of the phrase – to be your next Vice-Chancellor. To be entrusted with this role fills me with immeasurable pride.
I am privileged and honoured to serve my hometown university, which has nurtured me since my undergraduate days. To see so many dear friends here today, many of whom I’ve had the good fortune of working alongside, is deeply moving. My challenge is whether I can still call you dear friends after 7 years as your VC…
I must start by thanking the one individual without whose constancy, love and support, as well as his devotion as a father to our three fabulous children and all the while being a climate warrior, I would not be standing here today – my husband, Professor Myles Allen. And let me thank also our three children, Colette, John and Jim, for their love, patience and understanding over the years – just 7 more to go, kids…
I stand here ready to serve. I stand here willing and wanting to devote all my energy – which is vast, as those who know me will testify – and my experience to this great collegiate University. And I stand here confident in the knowledge that my predecessor, Professor Dame Louise Richardson, left me and all of us a fantastic foundation on which to build our collective ambitions. Let me here pay tribute to her herculean efforts in guiding us through the past 7 years with such skill, endurance and leadership. She remains a good friend to me and this University, and I will do my utmost to fulfil and further develop her legacy.
Let me also say thank you to those who have expended enormous efforts organising today, especially the Events team from Wellington Square, the ceremonial team, Merton College Choir and the Merton Girl Choristers, Ben Nicholas as musical director, Cheryl-Frances Hoad for composing a wonderful fanfare for this occasion that our trumpeters played so well – and, of course, to my dear colleagues at Merton College – the Fellows, students and staff, for letting me leave my Wardenship early and who have been so supportive during my tenure. I’d also like to thank the Chancellor for his kind and wise words. I very much look forward to working with you, Chris, and I thank you and Lady Patten, Lavender, for your 20 years of devoted and skilled service to this University. Finally, I’d like to thank the selection committee for the enormous amount of work you did in the process of selecting Oxford’s next Vice-Chancellor – I won’t let you down.
I look forward to working with my outstanding team of Pro-Vice-Chancellors and our dedicated and excellent professional and technical services, alongside my dear academic colleagues, members of Council, and this great city of Oxford and county of Oxfordshire as together we take Oxford forward in the next phase of its evolution. The Hebbian principle in neuroscience describes beneficial neuronal behaviour in the brain: if you fire together, you wire together. My goal is to fire and wire this great University more closely with our city, this nation and the globe, working generously with the other great British universities with whom we share our higher education ecosystem.
Yes, I am indeed the ‘ultimate insider’ – there is no denying I’ve been here a while, escaping the ring-road just once for a couple of much-enjoyed postdoctoral years at Harvard. I have an intimate knowledge plus an emotional sense of how this place ticks, and of how to get things done in such a complex and devolved organisation.
Take it as a given that I care deeply about Oxford: I am a passionate believer in what we and all our universities stand for. I will be an advocate for Oxford like no other, because I know – in detail – what great things we offer and have yet to offer this city, this country and the world, whether that’s via knowledge generation, through discovery research, or knowledge transfer, through our world-class teaching. I will be relentless in championing what we do and making sure the Oxford that I know, live and breathe is the one people hear about.
But as an insider, I also know where the bodies are buried. The risk for us all as insiders is complacency – not holding the mirror up often enough to challenge ourselves to think and act in new ways, to get outside our ‘bubble’ and to think creatively about how, as stewards of this great institution, we will nurture and develop this place, so that it’s fit not just for this generation but for generations to come. Oxford must and will weather the coming storms, and our goal must be to ensure that we remain a place for students and academics from around the world to come and study, research or teach, irrespective of what is happening nationally. To update the Chancellor’s quote from The Leopard – indeed, to stay the same one must evolve, but as Darwin noted, it’s more subtle than that: one evolves to be competitive for current circumstances. Evolving to remain the same might not cut it in today’s climes, and so evolve we will so that we remain competitive, as that is the only way our core mission can remain the same: to recruit and retain the very best of the best – you – to deliver our outstanding teaching and research.
Despite what people think, academics are very good at embracing change – we hate being instructed to change, but in reality, we’re all about change and evolution. Otherwise, Oxford would not have remained world-leading and competitive for over 800 years. This requires being entrepreneurial at heart – to a surprising degree, perhaps, for a place that is often wrongly perceived as shackled by tradition.
In my view, this natural entrepreneurial spirit has always come from the richness enabled by a devolved, collegiate structure. One of the reasons I have remained here as an academic is that I find Oxford a very free place to operate. If you have a great idea, you can take it forward and receive terrific support from across the collegiate University – drawing on all its depth, reach and convening power. Devolved and more local levels of leadership with genuine responsibility as well as ownership is core to what drives performance, what motivates individuals, and what makes for a rewarding job. This is what Oxford offers; it’s a core strength and it’s central to our success.
Having said that, I do think a bit of ‘cultural exchange’ between the various elements of this complex ecosystem is long overdue. I have had the privilege of working in and leading virtually every element of this ecosystem, but that is rare. A better understanding is needed of the different components, their local issues and how we can better work together, synergistically. I am keen to explore whether secondments might help to facilitate this cultural exchange, allowing us to determine more common frameworks for working together – driving creativity, innovation, efficiencies and consequently better governance.
Now, let me now give you a sense of who I am, and what kind of Vice-Chancellor you can expect, as well as my vision for Oxford.
I am ‘made in Oxford’, having grown up in Kidlington, attending St Thomas More Primary School and Gosford Hill Comprehensive School, where I had inspirational teachers. My parents were proud Liverpudlians. They were evacuated young and relied on lifelong learning to catch up – they valued a good education above everything. They moved to Oxford shortly before I was born. Sadly, my mother passed nearly 17 years ago and my father nearly 10 years ago. They became proud Oxfordians and were thrilled that the University was part of the city, though they had no expectations that any of us would study here – let alone that the youngest of their six children was to become its Vice-Chancellor. They were extraordinary people, and we were blessed to have them as parents. I am a woman of Faith, and this is an important part of my being and fibre. It is not something I talk much about, and I wear my faith lightly, but it has forged me. And I’m a proud mother of three fabulous children and sibling to a fantastically supportive, very large family.
Until last week, I was an active scientist and academic leader as Warden of Merton College, so I am close to the detail of your day job. Throughout my career I have been strongly committed to service and good academic citizenship, and so I have combined my research and teaching with many leadership roles within science and academia at Oxford, and at national and international levels. Being a woman from a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (or STEM) background is important to me, and I would hope this fact is important to you too in your Vice-Chancellor. As well as just getting on with the job, I learnt later on in my career how important it was that I was also a ‘visible’ woman in leadership roles.
Thanks to feedback from many women here today, I learnt it really does empower others to follow. So, whilst there are still too few schoolgirls and women going into and succeeding in science, I hope that in some small way my being a woman in STEM and leading one of the greatest universities in the world will inspire others – and perhaps some of the local schoolgirls who sang so beautifully here today.
As is the case for many a scientist, I have always been in awe of people trained in the humanities, appreciating in my personal life the rewards, joys and sense of purpose and understanding the humanities bring to our lives and world. Robert Wilson knew to reach out to the humanities in his famous line in defence of the Fermilab particle accelerator: ‘it has to do with: Are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? … In that sense, this new knowledge has … nothing to do directly with defending our country – or, I might add these days, our planet – except to make it worth defending.’ Likewise, as a neuroscientist who has also served on many an advisory committee, I fully appreciate the richness of the challenge of the collision between facts and human behaviour that is the stuff of social sciences. I will work tirelessly to support the ambitions we have set ourselves in all four of our great divisions: Mathematical, Physical and Life Sciences, Medical Sciences, Social Sciences and Humanities.
For what is the point of a university like Oxford if we don’t protect and support subject areas and disciplines that others might not be able to? What is the point of a university like Oxford if it doesn’t curate that which is most precious: understanding ourselves, the world and the Universe from multiple perspectives, and stretching and pushing our students to their intellectual limits – the next generation of thought-leaders who will have to grapple with our global challenges? What is the point of a university like Oxford if we don’t have the boldness, integrity and confidence to think differently, to think deeply, to speak truth to power, and to teach our students how to recognise truths and untruths in a world of increasing complexity, short attention spans and disinformation?
To be honest, being a VC was not a role I sought or envisioned for myself or my family. I was conscious that should I be appointed then my research and teaching life would largely cease, and I was loving my role as Warden at Merton College. However, I have trained, recruited and with fantastic colleagues helped to build a great community around pain research in Oxford. I know that this important work to help acute and chronic pain sufferers will go from strength to strength and I wish to acknowledge my former and current diverse and international research team – many members are here today – for their support, understanding and passion, as well as the intellectual joy we have shared over the past 25 years. I wish you every success; be assured I will be cheering you on from the sidelines. And it’s not unhelpful as a Vice-Chancellor that I’m a real expert in how to inflict pain – but also how to relieve it! I aim to continue to provide the lecture series on pain for undergraduate medical students, as part of my goal to bring the Vice-Chancellorship closer to the day-to-day operation of this University. A hallmark of my tenure will be to advocate for the importance of teaching within universities.
The journey to this moment, standing here under Sir Christopher Wren’s magnificent roof, has given me time to reflect on my University from a new and fresh perspective. What finally drew me to the role was the realisation that I would have an extraordinary platform upon which to champion the things I care most about, on a scale that is rare and privileged: our great British universities should be considered national treasures – akin to the NHS, our women’s European cup-winning football team, and, yes, Dame Judi Dench. Why wouldn’t I want the job, I asked myself.
Knowledge generation and knowledge transfer are at the core of any university’s mission. I firmly believe they are also core to a successful society and a stabler world – never more so than in today’s world of ‘fake news’, disinformation, distrust of experts, global political unrest with an unjust war in Ukraine, climate change, and all of this alongside other challenges, such as the governance of artificial intelligence, media deepfakes and defending free speech. The circuit-break of the recent pandemic gives us an opportunity to rethink how to engage with and deliver our core mission, and so let me now detail four key areas that will be central to my tenure as your Vice-Chancellor: (1) education and teaching; (2) discovery and translational research; (3) local and global engagement; and (4) people – you, our human capital.
Education and teaching
It is my belief that a good education is still the most powerful asset society has to produce transformative life changes, social mobility, greater awareness and understanding of others who are ‘not like us’, and a more peaceful world. Each year we unleash to the world extraordinary intellectual capital via our student body. Our goal is to teach students from any background so that they have knowledge in their chosen subject area, but just as importantly lifelong skills in how to learn, how to engage constructively with differing opinions, how to be unyielding in their search for truth, how to navigate a world of ‘fake news’ and disinformation, and how to remain curious. Their goal is to find their passion and hopefully shape a sustainable, more equal and truly inclusive society. As I often say to students: it’s not just what you learn, but how you learn and then what you do with what you learn. Put more into the world than you take out.
We need to talk more about our amazing and world-leading teaching; we need to make it as visible to the outside world as our world-leading research. We need to be more imaginative regarding how we reward our academic staff for their teaching, how we celebrate this aspect of the day job, and how we champion teaching from the very top of this organisation and throughout. The same could be said for our inspirational teachers in our schools. It’s a remarkable privilege to greet eager young minds each year and to be a small part of developing that raw potential. So whilst I want our younger academics to feel the buzz of teaching, and to know that in the round of one’s career it is the students you teach and imprint that may well be your greatest legacy, trust me: I also recognise that the job of being an internationally competitive teaching and research academic is really, really tough. We need to think creatively about ways to make the job tenable.
And what about our students? Well, I was interested to hear the Prime Minister’s announcement last week about teaching mathematics in schools until the age of 18. I would go further. In this country we deskill our schoolchildren too early with the great ‘divide’ at 16 between science and humanities; in an increasingly data-driven world, all our students need competence and above all confidence in dealing with data. But the same goes for scientists dropping humanities too early – while too many of our humanities students can be bewildered by a simple graph, too many of our scientists are bewildered by clever rhetoric, or simply unaware of the historical context of decisions. So, Mr Sunak: the next generation needs to understand maths, but it also needs to understand itself.
A university like Oxford, with our interdisciplinary collegiate structure, is well placed to offer ways to ‘maintain or up-skill’ – making our students yet more attractive to employers. As more students come to us from varied educational backgrounds, our uncompromising degree courses also require focused efforts to plug specific gaps. Work is underway, but I’m keen we do more. The Chancellor has spoken of the unevenness of the student experience – he is right, and the lumpiness in this devolved structure of not just our students’, but our academics’ experience, too, needs to be addressed. This will require more common frameworks to be agreed and set. I sense we are ready to meet that challenge.
The pandemic forced us to teach, learn, examine and do admissions in many new ways. Thanks to the amazing efforts of all of you and the extraordinary maturity, resilience and creativity of our students, we pulled it off. Let me here thank you and congratulate you for that effort. Some of these new ways of working brought surprising benefits, not least a truly global reach and sense of inclusivity for our seminars, talks, digital sources and content from our great libraries and museums. All this has opened our eyes to opportunities going forwards. Not only does this make us ‘pandemic-ready’, but it gives us new ways to disseminate knowledge to the world and to inculcate abilities to learn and interact intellectually, while staying true to the personalised, individual approach to education that is our unique selling point. We need to be Dreaming and Streaming Spires.
Like the Chancellor, I too am a huge fan of lifelong learning. We need to change our culture so that learning is seen as a lifelong process and one to enjoy. Jobs for life are a thing of the past. People will need to relearn and reskill. In that regard, I firmly believe that universities need to play a more active and local role in teaching people how to learn, so I too look to the enormous opportunity our Department for Continuing Education has to offer in that regard. Let’s create a global learning community.
There is a French expression (brace yourselves, I dropped French at 16) reculer pour mieux sauter – or, as a long-jumper knows, you should step back to jump further. It’s time to step back and examine this core aspect of our purpose. As well as looking at ourselves, we need active and collaborative intellectual leadership between universities to inspire what is possible through a shared vision that places real value on knowledge generation and transfer to all. If we get this right, I believe the repercussions will be profound for the entire global higher education sector.
Discovery and translational research
Discovery and translational research is the means by which we, as academics, experience the goosebump-inducing thrill of discovery – finding something that until that moment was unknown to the world. Revealing the mysteries of the globe itself and all that inhabits it: there is nothing quite like it. And through our ground-breaking discoveries we find our purpose, and create a healthier, more culturally enriched, sustainable, environmentally gentle and peaceful world.
The pandemic has taught society why discovery research matters; why well-trained experts matter; and hence, why world-leading research-intensive teaching universities matter. We must build on this awakening and set ourselves yet greater ambitions. As a sector, universities are fortunate in being freer than governments to tackle, together, the challenges but also the opportunities we face as a global society.
We still need to be pandemic-ready; we need innovative solutions to the energy crisis; and we need to get serious about climate change – and that means solutions, not guilt. Regarding climate, I want Oxford to lead in addressing what is now the most pressing issue of our times. This is an interdisciplinary problem, and we are very well placed to take a bold and innovative lead.
I believe in a geographically concentric view of Oxford as a British, European and global institution. In an increasingly carbon-constrained world, we will benefit disproportionately from a flourishing research and academic sector in our geographic neighbourhood: Europe. While we clearly need to continue to attract the best and brightest from all over the world, there is a balance to be struck: can a global university abstract itself from geography entirely, as some multi-national corporations have done, or is it an integral part of a place-based community? Francis Fukuyama wrote about the ‘end of history’, and was proved wrong. Some have seen globalisation as the ‘end of geography’, and I believe they too will be proved wrong. We need to reimagine, quite literally, Oxford’s place in the world.
We are fortunate in the UK to have a well-funded base for research. The government recognises that British universities are exceptionally good at research and that it is a key area to support if we’re going to have an economically strong, healthy, culturally rich and stable nation. As a woman from STEM, I’m of course delighted that the UK is striving to be a scientific powerhouse and our universities will be key in delivering on that goal. UKRI do a great job championing the case for research, but we must also accept that, with current headwinds and an ambition to tackle some of the world’s greatest challenges, we need to have new and additional sources of revenue to support our research.
I am particularly excited by the joint venture and partnership we have with Legal & General – and in particular the innovation district we will be creating. This will bring further opportunities to create spinouts, fuelling what I have witnessed, as a department and college head, as a real thirst for entrepreneurship in our students and faculty. I am optimistic about what this will deliver, not just for the region and local people, but in terms of inspiring and supporting further research and creating opportunities for employment, through ‘porous’ boundaries between academia and industry, creating more flexible career structures for our graduates and academics. I see our innovation arm as one route by which we might grow our endowment that supports our efforts – large as it is compared to other UK institutions, it is woefully small when compared to our competitors in the USA. Sustaining our excellence and global position as one of the world’s leading universities for generations to come will be challenging without growth and diversification of our funding streams. This doesn’t mean unbridled growth in activities or people – there are many ways to grow: in quality of life, in influence and impact, and in connectivity.
Oxford has richly benefited from the extraordinary generosity of donors who have many a time stepped into the breach and saved academic posts from going under, students from not being able to benefit from studying here, or a building from collapsing, or who have had the wisdom to support a new area of research, a new discipline, or an interdisciplinary research centre – giving us the opportunity to pursue our mission unshackled by financial challenges. So let me publicly thank our donors – alumni and non-alumni alike – for their generosity and wisdom in investing in our collective enterprise. And I look forward to engaging with both donors and alumni to identify further opportunities to take this great university forward together in our mission.
Local and global engagement
Local and global engagement is the route by which our presence is felt as a positive influence in the world – creating opportunities for all. I will focus today on local engagement, but that does not mean I will not be expanding and supporting our global presence.
The University has been integral to this unique city for over 800 years. Our spires and towers, libraries and laboratories, and museums and gardens shape the look and life of this town, but they could not exist without the wonderful city of Oxford and its people. I’ve been running the Town and Gown 10K for close to 30 years, albeit slower and slower each year; as a literal Town and Gownie, I know how interdependent we are.
The University’s impact is far greater than our contribution to the skyline or tourist coach parties in St Giles’. We support more than 28,000 jobs and pre-pandemic contributed £16 billion per year to the UK economy. Our partnership with the local NHS enables us to lead research into some of the most challenging health problems of our time, such as heart disease, dementia and cancer, not to mention the Oxford–AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine. The new Leverhulme Centre for Nature Recovery is using Oxfordshire itself as a case study landscape. University staff engage daily with city and county decisions; our students volunteer for local organisations and schools; and there are countless examples, from Low Carbon initiatives to the Playhouse, of the University, city and county working together.
However, I am also acutely conscious of the tensions. There is intense pressure on affordable housing in our city. That is why we do our best to house as high a proportion of our students as possible, more than any other large UK university. But we want to do more. We are working to establish subsidised staff housing and local services in our new Begbroke development, to further reduce strain on the city’s housing stock and public services.
But the city and community must also recognise the challenges we face as a world-leading university embedded not in a London, Boston or San Francisco, but in a relatively small and beautiful city on the edge of the Cotswolds. Oxford’s size cannot be a limiting factor in creating opportunities. Let us help each other and be ambitious and imaginative for what we can co-create here, alongside our local partner in Oxford Brookes University.
As Vice-Chancellor, I am absolutely committed to strengthening and deepening the relationships between the city, county and University. Let us think global and act local. Oxford firing and wiring together. I aim to create a new position so that we can take forward our collective ambitions around local and global engagement.
People – our human capital
People, people, people – our human capital. An institution is only as good as its people. A cliché perhaps, but spot on – and our need now is to focus on the lifeblood of any university, particularly if we are to remain the best university in the world and one of Britain’s great assets. My husband and I have been fortunate in having supportive departments and department heads at crucial points in our careers and family life. I also had a fabulous sister, Clare Calnan, who was instrumental in our ability to cope with developing careers whilst not short-changing our children on the loving childcare that she provided. Myles and I would not be here today without her contributions. We know others are not so lucky, so we understand first-hand the challenges that face young academics particularly.
Recruiting and retaining the very best staff and adapting to create flexible environments in which they can realise their potential throughout their academic careers is not easy. But we must find ways to shift the needle in your quality of life so that you can continue to deliver your best performance. I have heard the strength of feeling on pay and working conditions, and it is a priority for me to make sure the University is doing everything it can to support staff during these difficult financial times and to be an attractive place to work in the future. As such, I shall immediately commission an independent analysis of all aspects of pay and conditions for all our staff – academic and non-academic – that will report directly to me and Council and on which we can act.
Juxtaposed to human capital is physical capital. In the short term we will develop, implement and successfully deliver several of our major projects, including the Stephen A. Schwarzman Centre for the Humanities. With its 500-person concert hall and spaces for members of our great city to enjoy, it will be a truly stunning and transformational development for the University and the city. The Life and Mind Building is flying out of the ground, and work is progressing on the Legal & General Joint Venture Innovation District at Begbroke and the Saïd Business School development of the Osney Power Station, amongst others. These are not trivial projects to deliver in current climes, but deliver we will, and well.
But alongside these exciting new projects, other aspects of our estate need considerable TLC. The Iffley Road Sports Centre is looking more tired than Roger Bannister did after he finished the 4-minute mile. We need considerable financial investment in our sport offerings. We have a real opportunity here to present Oxford as a place that values sports for students and staff – both at an amateur level, for fun and wellbeing, and at an elite level. This will be another area that I will take an active interest in supporting and championing.
In conclusion, one of my sporting heroines and a great champion of equality, diversity and inclusion, Billie Jean King, famously said that ‘pressure is a privilege’. Oxford should feel the pressure, as we are privileged in our resources and talent. So let us play our part in shaping Britain, Europe and the world in this era of shifting globalisation; let us be generous with our incredible resources and the opportunity we provide for transformative life experiences; and let us become the very best we can be. Dear friends – thank you again for the opportunity to lead this University that we cherish and love. Now, let’s get to work. Thank you.'