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Dr Susan Rice and Pete Buttigieg

Oxford graduates are filling senior leadership roles in the new US government. 

It is inspiring to see alumni who once took their places in Oxford’s seminar rooms and sports teams called into public leadership

Dr Edward Brooks

Oxford university’s role in educating leaders, who put their academic training to work serving societies around the world, has been underlined as the names of a dozen Oxford graduates are among President Biden’s new administration.

Dr Edward Brooks, who heads the Oxford Character Project, a major research initiative focusing on responsible leadership, argues that universities are important sites of leadership development. 

Three of the 25 members of the new US Cabinet, Gina Raimondo, Pete Buttigieg, and Eric Lander are Oxford alumni - as are an array of other senior and junior appointees.

Dr Gina Raimondo (New College, 1993) was the first woman to be Governor of Rhode Island and has been praised for her firm response to the COVID-19 pandemic. She is moving to Washington, having been confirmed as Secretary of Commerce. Dr Raimondo completed an MA and then a DPhil in Sociology, focusing her thesis on single motherhood in the US, evidence of a social concern that has characterised her career.

Pete Buttigieg (Pembroke, 2005) came to public prominence in his bid for the Democrat’s Presidential nomination. Formerly a mayor in Indiana, he is the new Secretary of Transportation. Like many political leaders in the UK, Mr Buttigieg studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics, enjoying a distinguished Oxford career. He was awarded a First, following exam revision on a cargo ship moving freight across the Atlantic. The boat, it seems, afforded a prime environment for distraction-free study.

Professor Eric Lander (Wolfson, 1978), will be leading the newly-created US Office of Science and Technology Policy. A Professor of Biology at MIT, and of Systems Biology at Harvard Medical School, Professor Lander’s student days were spent at Wolfson, where he wrote a DPhil on algebraic coding theory. He has gone on to make landmark contributions to the sequencing of the human genome. As a senior science advisor to President Obama, he made an important public contribution, ensuring the proper use of scientific evidence in criminal justice.

Dr Brooks says, ‘It is inspiring to see alumni who once took their places in Oxford’s seminar rooms and sports teams called into public leadership. And it points to the importance of Oxford’s work to develop responsible leaders who are equipped to lead well in all sectors of society.’

Key to the success of Oxford’s alumni were the Rhodes and Marshall scholarships, from which all of the alumni above benefited

Beyond the US Cabinet, other Oxford graduates have been appointed to senior positions:

Dr William J. Burns (St John’s, 1981) is the incoming Director of the CIA.

Dr Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall (Balliol, 1981) is the new Homeland Security Advisor.

Jake Sullivan (Magdalen, 1998) is the National Security Advisor.

Jonathan Finer (Balliol, 1999) is the Deputy National Security Advisor.

Dr Susan Rice (New College, 1996), the former National Security Advisor, will lead the Domestic Policy Council.  

Dr Kurt M. Campbell (Brasenose, 1981) will be Coordinator of Indo-Pacific affairs.

Bruce Reed (Lincoln, 1982) will serve as White House Deputy Chief of Staff.

In President Biden’s wider team are:

Megan Ceronsky (Hertford, 2001), the climate change advisor for the Obama administration, will take up a role in the Office of White House Counsel.

Machmud Makhmudov (Magdalen, 2016), who completed an MPhil in Political Theory in 2018, is serving as a Policy Advisor for the Office of COVID Response. He previously supported the Biden campaign as a Policy Analyst.

At a more fundamental level, it is bound up with the intellectual virtues the university has long sought to instil in its students: the capacity to think deeply and critically, to entertain alternative perspectives, and to undertake creative and generative research

Roger Revell

Key to the success of Oxford’s alumni were the Rhodes and Marshall scholarships, from which all of the alumni named above benefited. Yet Oxford’s contribution to the formation of leaders is not limited to these prestigious initiatives.

At a more fundamental level, says research fellow, Roger Revell, it is bound up with the intellectual virtues the university has long sought to instil in its students: the capacity to think deeply and critically, to entertain alternative perspectives, and to undertake creative and generative research.

It is connected to the array of co-curricular activities, ranging from the debates at the Oxford Union to participation in college and university sport. When it comes to this cadre of Americans, the contribution of sport to leadership development is evident. Rowing, tennis, basketball, baseball, rugby and running all feature.

While writing a prize-winning thesis on Zimbabwean politics, Susan Rice not only rowed for New College but also led the Oxford women’s Blues basketball team to victory over Cambridge. Talking of her development as a leader, she commented, ‘I think my experience as an athlete has shaped who I am in more ways than I can describe. It’s made me strong. It’s made me not fear competition or bruising here and there. But it’s also made me willing to take risks, willing to see the whole court.’

While writing a prize-winning thesis on Zimbabwean politics, Dr Susan Rice not only rowed for New College but also led the Oxford women’s Blues basketball team to victory over Cambridge

More recently, Oxford’s role in equipping future leaders from around the world has found expression in cross-university programmes including the Global Leadership Initiative (GLI) and Global Leadership Challenge.

Machmud Makhmudov participated in the 2018 GLI cohort, joining a diverse group of postgraduate students from around the world in a six-month leadership learning journey. This unique programme aims to help students develop the qualities of character needed to lead in a way that is not merely effective but also responsible - oriented towards the flourishing of all people, the broader thriving of our societies, and the vitality of our planet.

The Oxford Global Leadership and Global Leadership Challenge are initiatives of the Oxford Character Project, an interdisciplinary initiative at the University, funded by the John Templeton Foundation, which focuses on the study and practice of responsible leadership.

Around the world, there has been ‘a rising trend in violence towards environmental activists....Specifically, the killing of activists connected to natural resource activity’

Oxford study shows deaths of environmental activists affect companies' share prices.

More environmental activists have been killed since 2002 than UK soldiers in war zones. But, the truth is, murder is very bad for business, according to new research from an international team including Oxford economics professor Nathaniel Lane, which shows financiers steer clear of firms linked to deaths.

More environmental activists have been killed since 2002 than UK soldiers in war zones. But, the truth is, murder is very bad for business, according to new research from Oxford, which shows financiers steer clear of firms linked to deaths

Having studied the impact of more than 350 assassinations over a 20-year period, linked to mining and minerals sector, the researchers have found the murder of activists has had a significantly detrimental effect on the share price and business of multi-nationals which have been ‘named and shamed’, causing multi-million-pound losses.  

In the pre-print study, The Value of Names – Civil Society, Information and Governing Multinationals on the Global Periphery, the team argues, ‘The natural resource industry is a stark example of the tension between society and multinational power. Home to some of the largest global firms, the sector is a flashpoint across the developing world.’

According to Professor Lane, 'Indeed, the point is that we see that human rights reporting and reporting around these events is impactful. In a realm where there is little formal accountability, the work of journalists and civil society can truly impact a firm’s bottom line.'

In a realm where there is little formal accountability, the work of journalists and civil society can truly impact a firm’s bottom line

Around the world, there has been ‘a rising trend in violence towards environmental activists....Specifically, the killing of activists connected to natural resource activity’. The report focuses on such assassinations in the global mining sector, since it is ‘one of the most deadly for activists’. But it also a sector which involves substantial investment, with many firms traded on international stock markets.

According to the report, ‘First, we consider killings that are publicly reported in media or human rights campaigns. Second, we consider events where reporting connects a victim (or victims) to local mining and mineral extraction activity. Third, we then code the location where the death occurred. Fourth, we code the mining companies or projects named (if any) in relation to the event.’

The team says, ‘Our study estimates how publicity surrounding activist assassinations impacts the stock prices of multinationals. Specifically, the mining companies—and their operations—named in international media coverage of these events....

‘Doing so allows us to explore how markets respond to news of violent events surrounding their operations.’

The researchers look at the share prices of companies ‘named’ in human rights’ reporting and international news coverage, without any judgement on the accusations. The examine how firms performed relative to their normal market performance, and also looked at how such corporations fare compared with companies which have not been connected in adverse publicity.

The report reveals, ‘On days leading up to assassinations, we find no evidence of abnormal returns for these companies. Importantly, after the event, we see significant, negative abnormal returns for “named” firms. Significant negative effects appear the day after a killing, and grow steadily for up to ten days after.’

On days leading up to assassinations, we find no evidence of abnormal returns for these companies. Importantly, after the event, we see significant, negative abnormal returns for “named” firms. Significant negative effects appear the day after a killing, and grow steadily for up to ten days after

The involvement of the media and their role in publicising events is key to the public scrutiny of firms and negative publicity once acquired can have a long lasting impact, ‘Companies named in news of assassinations have significant, negative abnormal returns directly following the assassination date–effects which accumulate through time.’

In busy news periods, the researchers found, the impact was not as great. But investors clearly take a close interest in events, ‘Our work suggests that the tools of civil society may help diminish returns to corporate misbehaviour in the developing world.’

The report shows that companies connected to events through publicity were estimated to see their market capitalisation fall by as much as $100 million

The report shows that companies connected to events through publicity were estimated to see their market capitalisation fall by as much as $100 million. The report states, ‘The informational strategies of international civil society impacts the bottom line of multinationals connected to the killing of activists.’

The researchers compared the impact on companies operating in the same vicinity and those which have been explicitly ‘named and shamed’, ‘We find that firms and operations in the vicinity event—though not named in media—are not penalised, relative to those whose operations are specifically named in publicity.’

Research has already been published, showing that ‘markets’ react negatively to bad publicity surrounding businesses. Fraud, insider dealing, environmental, social and governance issues have all been shown to be bad for business.

The researchers believe this is the first time that assassination has been directly linked with negative financial impacts

But the researchers believe this is the first time that assassination has been directly linked with negative financial impacts, ‘To the best of our knowledge, this is the first empirical study that shows that international stock markets react—dare we say penalise—companies operating in association with high profile human rights abuses. In our case, mining companies operating proximate to assassinations of civil society activists...

‘Though preliminary, our findings hint that the publicity strategies of human rights groups, which organise around and place a spotlight on such high-profile episodes, may have some bite. Specifically, by revealing information to international markets. Even where formal justice is rare, these strategies may nevertheless have impact.’

The report concludes, ‘Our findings show that informational campaigns by civil society have in fact an impact on multinational corporations and being linked to human rights abuses can significantly influence an associated companies’ stock market value.’

Whether stormed by President Trump supporters on 6 January, or as the ‘hallowed ground’ that formed the backdrop to President Biden’s inauguration two weeks later, the gleaming perfection of its neoclassical architecture is an unquestioned part of its ico

Dr Tessa Roynon

The US Capitol in Washington DC has been much in the public eye in recent weeks. Whether stormed by President Trump supporters on 6 January, or as the ‘hallowed ground’ that formed the backdrop to President Biden’s inauguration two weeks later, the gleaming perfection of its neoclassical architecture is an unquestioned part of its iconic status.

By contrast, in The Classical Tradition in Modern American Fiction, I take a more quizzical and, at times, sceptical approach to the American love affair with ancient Greece and Rome - and a long, hard look at American novelists’ predilection for classical allusion. 

The Classical Tradition in Modern American FictionIt asks what is at stake when seven key fiction writers of the 20th/21st centuries: Willa Cather, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, Philip Roth, and Marilynne Robinson, refer to the work of Aeschylus, or Homer, or Virgil, or Ovid, in their explorations of modern identity and experience.

We tend to be far too reverential when faced with allusions to Greek and Roman literature...We tend to assume that such references bestow an immediate and universal authority...We are unthinkingly impressed

The project grew out of my perception, as a reader and a teacher, that we tend to be far too reverential when faced with allusions to Greek and Roman literature, myth, history or visual art. We tend to assume that such references bestow an immediate and universal authority on a text. We are unthinkingly impressed.

My own conviction is that we need to pay close attention when modern writers invoke the ancient past, because they often reach for distant heroes and stories in order to discuss some of the most pressing ideological issues of their (and our) times.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, for example, is obsessed in his fiction with a decadent and ultimately fallen ancient Rome, and he uses this motif to bolster a nativist and anti-immigrant conception of Americanness.

Willa Cather, in Sapphira and the Slave Girl, added many of her classical allusions and framing devices in a very late re-drafting stage - almost as an afterthought, she distorts the realities of slavery and racial injustice through deploying ‘Old Southern’ nostalgic and heroic tradition.  

And Philip Roth disguises a visceral misogyny as ‘masculinity’, in his much-feted novel The Human Stain, through the repeated association between his protagonist, Coleman Silk, and Zeus.  In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which Roth frequently invokes, Zeus is a voracious rapist, but Roth attempts to use him to shore up the sense of Coleman as virile hero.

Why do we tend to be such un-alert or acquiescent readers when it comes to antiquity?...we do not study Latin, Greek, or classical civilization at school

Why do we tend to be such un-alert or acquiescent readers when it comes to antiquity? One reason is that nearly all of us are hazy on the details, because we do not study Latin, Greek, or classical civilization at school. A working knowledge of the classical tradition appears now, for the most part, the preserve of an elite minority. If we are not exactly sure who Trimalchio, Hector or Leda is, when these canonical American writers call them up, we are most likely to nod our heads nervously and move quickly on.

The Classical Tradition in Modern American Fiction sets out to counter this process by insisting that the classical past is accessible to all. Complete with its own glossary of every classical name and concept discussed, as well as a guide to the best among the numerous online-resources, it is underpinned by my sincere conviction that all we need to do, when faced with an unfamiliar Greek or Roman term, is the blindingly-obvious: ‘look it up’.

My conviction is deeply-held for two reasons. First, in teaching these authors to my students over the years, I realised nearly all of them felt excluded from the entirety of classical culture. They needed encouragement to look things up but their confidence grew when they did. Second, I was inspired by my research into these each of these writers’ intellectual formation.

All we need to do, when faced with an unfamiliar Greek or Roman term, is the blindingly-obvious: ‘look it up’

In order to understand how they encountered the ancient world, I consulted archives and prior scholarship to understand how and where each studied, how they accessed the classical tradition, what they had read and what they thought about the reading that they had done.

Their contrasting backgrounds and experiences are striking. In the 1890s, Willa Cather studied Latin and Greek to a high level at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. Philip Roth was highly-educated, including undertaking graduate studies at Chicago, but he never studied the classical languages. Marilynne Robinson has a PhD in English, but studied Latin at high school. Toni Morrison was a Classics minor at Howard. Meanwhile, neither Fitzgerald, Faulkner nor Ellison even completed their undergraduate degrees.

The time period which my chosen authors span, Cather was born in 1873, and Robinson (the only one still living) was born in 1943, encompasses a series of different eras in which classical traditions were variously significant: fin-de-siecle decadence, modernism, liberal humanism, the Great Books tradition and the culture wars of the 1980s. Yet, despite these novelists’ widely diverging contexts, and their widely diverging levels of formal education, they have in common an unqualified passion for reading, and a voracious auto-didacticism.

'A page from Ralph Ellison's high school Latin book'

For me, encountering first-hand the annotations Ralph Ellison made, very often about African American life - in the margins of his translations of Aeschylus, was an unforgettable thrill. Ellison, born in 1913 in Oklahoma City, was so impoverished when he began his undergraduate degree at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama that he rode ‘hobo’ on trains through the 1930s’ Deep South, to get there. His commitment to his own education, the extraordinary number of books he read, in numerous fields and his stalwart belief in the significance of the classical tradition to his own and to black American life, is a humbling and inspiring example I shall never forget.

Dr Roynon is a Senior Research Fellow at Oxford's Rothermere American Institute.

The RAI is hosting a webinar book launch on 11 February to which all are welcome. 

Register in advance at this link: https://zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_1wCpXBqbRa-w7NkDdwSgvA

Greger Larson stands next to a white board on which Angela Perri and David Meltzer mapped archaeological sites and populations of dogs and people. The two day effort resulted in new insights into the close relationships and joint histories of the two spec

Twenty three thousand years ago, canines travelled to the New World with the First Americans

When President Biden took up residence last week in the White House, Major and Champ became the latest dogs in a long history, to follow their people on an American journey. Research published this week reveals that the relationship between not just the first Americans’ but everyone’s best friend was deeper than previously thought – 23,000 years’ deep, in fact.

According to the new research, from an international team of archaeologists and geneticists including Oxford’s Professor Greger Larson, dogs travelled alongside the first people who made the journey across the Bering straits to the Americas.

The research reveals dogs spread throughout the Americas, along with people, and developed completely separately to their European cousins

The research reveals dogs then spread throughout the Americas, along with people, and developed completely separately to their European cousins. When the first European settlers arrived across the Atlantic, bringing their dogs of course, the indigenous American dogs were genetically distinct. And, as with many indigenous peoples – the indigenous American dogs all-but died out, when confronted with European people and dogs.

Today, there is little trace left of the animals who braved the long journey during the last Ice Age, to accompany their fellow human travellers into a new land.

As with many indigenous peoples – the indigenous American dogs all-but died out, when confronted with European people and dogs

According to the study, ‘The first people to enter the Americas likely did so with their dogs. The subsequent geographic dispersal and genetic divergences within each population suggest that where people went, dogs went too.’

Professor Larson says, ‘We found a very strong correlation between the pattern of ancient dogs’ genetic diversification and the genetic signatures of early Americans. The similarities between the two species is striking and suggests the shared pattern is not a coincidence.’

He adds, ‘We knew dogs were the oldest domesticated species, and these findings now suggest that the initial process of domestication began around 23,000 years ago in north-east Siberia. From there, people and dogs moved together east into the Americas, south towards east Asia, and west towards Europe and Africa.'

We knew dogs were the oldest domesticated species, and these findings now suggest that the initial process of domestication began around 23,000 years ago in north-east Siberia

Professor Greger Larson

According to this week’s report, ‘The convergence of the early genetic histories of people and dogs in Siberia and Beringia suggests that this may be the region where humans and wolves first entered into a domestic relationship...this process likely began between 26,000 and 19,000 years ago, which precedes evidence for the first unequivocal dogs in the archaeological record by as much as 11,000.’

This is important research, not only for what it says about dogs’ arrival in the Americas, but also for what it reveals about people. And the report states, ‘Since their emergence from wolves, dogs have played a wide variety of roles within human societies, many of which are specifically tied to the lifeways of cultures worldwide. Future archaeological research combined with numerous scientific techniques, will no doubt reveal how the emerging mutual relationship between people and dogs led to their successful dispersal across the globe.’

This is not the first time Professor Larson has produced research about ancient dogs (and Dire Wolves). Does this new study reveal a preference for canines?

Imagine what society would be like if we had not formed mutually interdependent relationships with so many other domestic plants and animals. And it all started with dogs

Professor Larson

‘I grew up with dogs, and I always interact with them when they walk by’ he says. ‘Dogs were the first species to enter into a mutualistic relationship with us. It was a key shift in the evolution of our species...It is amazing how much everything began to change after that.

'For the vast majority of our species’ history we travelled alone and made a tiny impression on the earth’s ecology. Now there are eight billion of us and we depend on a range of domestic plants and animals for the maintenance of our huge global population. Imagine what society would be like if we had not formed mutually interdependent relationships with so many other domestic plants and animals. And it all started with dogs.’

The article in PNAS is available here: https://www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.2010083118

The latest Big Tent event is the launch this week of the ambitious TIDE Salon – a collaboration between the university’s researchers on Travel, Transculturality, and Identity in England, 1550 – 1700 (TIDE project), the novelist Preti Taneja and six intern

Anything can – and very often does - happen in Oxford’s ‘Big Tent’, where academics emerge from research and teaching to engage with the public, work with creative artists and discuss major issues of today.

The Big Tent was supposed to be a...er big tent with live events and activities happening throughout the year. Organisers were actually poised to sign for a massive marquee, on the site of what will be the new Humanities Centre, when the pandemic struck. And, as with everything else, the Big Tent had to transfer online. This had obvious problems for a series of live events, but the pandemic led to the instant availability of people who might not have been available, had it actually had been under canvas.

Backed by the Humanities Cultural Programme, since last April, the Big Tent has seen almost 30 events, involving conversations with internationally well-known performers (such as Ben Whishaw) and special musical performances (for instance, of a recently discovered piece by Delius) – and some very big issues and ideas being debated (it is a university, after all). And, because it was online, it is still available, no tickets required.

We make it possible for research to benefit a wider audience....both knowledge and understanding can be exchanged in all sorts of unexpected ways

Professor Wes Williams

The academic impresario, who was ready to put the final touches to the in-real-life Big Tent, is Dr Victoria McGuinness, head of cultural programming and partnerships at TORCH (the Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities). She says, ‘We sent out a call for ideas, expecting a few, and 30 quality projects came forward...but when we saw what was happening in Italy [in terms of COVID], we knew we would not have the literal big tent.’

It was a huge shame after everyone’s work, but, says Dr McGuinness, ‘We tried to find the opportunity. Everyone is at home. We were able to get world-leading performers and creative people and we also maintained the live element with our ‘Live From’ events.’

But why is Oxford, the world’s leading research-based university, putting on shows?

According to Professor Wes Williams, TORCH Director, it is an obvious move.

‘It is an essential part of being Oxford,’ he says.

‘At TORCH we make it possible for research to benefit a wider audience. Some things obviously lend themselves better to public engagement than others,’ he maintains. ‘But both knowledge and understanding can be exchanged in all sorts of unexpected ways.’

The latest Big Tent event is the launch this week of the ambitious TIDE Salon – a collaboration between the university’s researchers on Travel, Transculturality, and Identity in England, 1550 – 1700 (TIDE project), the novelist Preti Taneja and six internationally-acclaimed musicians and spoken word artists.

It is ambitious, it is imaginative and it has brought deeply-academic research into a new open space, giving access to creative artists and members of the public. Intended to evoke the creative atmosphere of an early European or Mughal salon, the project was inspired by Professor Nandini Das, whose research focuses on travellers’ accounts from the 16th and 17th centuries.

‘It was utterly terrifying,’ says Professor Das. ‘It is not often you get to talk about early 16th century political theory with contemporary artists and musicians... and find that your throwaway reference to the Tudor ‘Register of Aliens’, which recorded immigrant presence in the country during the times of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, was picked up by the artists and has inspired some surprising and amazing work.’

Even in these difficult times, the Big Tent has been an amazing example of what people can do when they all come together. Originally, it was going to be a one-off thing, but it is fundamental that we will continue to welcome everyone into our Big Tent

Dr Victoria McGuinness

As part of her research, Professor Das and the ERC-TIDE team has put together a list of 40 key words, found in the sources of the time, which show how contested issues of identity and belonging were in this early period of British imperial ambition. The artists, working in pairs, were invited to choose three and create works for the Salon. But the academics worked closely with the artists in the early stages. The six, working in pairs, chose the words: Alien, Traveller and Savage.

‘It was entirely up to them how they used those words’, says Professor Das, ‘they had carte blanche.’

As Professor Das explains, the artists working on the word ‘alien,’ for instance, reflected on TIDE’s research into the term (which meant foreigner in the 16th century), with their own memories, of growing up as a person of colour in late-twentieth century Britain and taking refuge in the diverse world of sci-fi literature.’

The result of these conversations was the creation of three musical pieces, in collaboration with curator and creative producer Sweety Kapoor, and critically-acclaimed filmmaker Ben Crowe (ERA Films). Preti Taneja produced an entirely new piece of writing to frame the work, presenting each collaboration as fragments of archival records puzzled over by a traveller/researcher of the future, trying to make sense of history.

‘This is one of the most radically experimental things we have done throughout the project,’ says Professor Das. ‘The installation reflects the process of collaboration but also the views of the artists...they chose their own adventures and the Salon visitor is invited to take their own journey, creating their own narrative ‘.

Dr McGuinness reflected, ‘Even in these difficult times, the Big Tent has been an amazing example of what people can do when they all come together. Originally, it was going to be a one-off thing, but it is fundamental that we will continue to welcome everyone into our Big Tent.’