Professor Tim Soutphommasane
Professor Tim Soutphommasane

Meet Oxford's new Chief Diversity Officer

Earlier this month, Professor Tim Soutphommasane joined Oxford as the University's first Chief Diversity Officer, coordinating the delivery of Oxford's Race Equality Strategy. In this Q&A, Tim speaks about his experiences so far and outlines his hopes for equality, diversity and inclusion at the University. 

Can you tell us a little bit about your experience to date?

I’m a political theorist and human rights advocate by background. My research has been concerned with questions of patriotism and multiculturalism. I’ve been especially interested in how national identities evolve to include diversity generated by immigration. More recently I’ve been doing work on anti-racism, and on the impact of COVID on freedoms and political culture.

I’ve joined Oxford from the University of Sydney, where for the past three years I directed the University’s Culture Strategy. For part of last year I also directed the Sydney Policy Lab, the University’s policy institute. Prior to Sydney, I served a five-year term as Race Discrimination Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission, the Australian equivalent of the UK Equality and Human Rights Commission. I’ve also worked as a speechwriter and media adviser in Australian politics. I’ve been an opinion columnist with several newspapers in Australia, too.

You studied at Oxford. How do you feel about returning?

I’m excited about being back. I did my MPhil and DPhil in politics here, and was a student at Balliol. I have great affection for Oxford. The University buzzes with intellectual energy and excellence – something I’ve missed. This is indeed a special place. I feel privileged to be part of the Oxford community again, and to have the opportunity to work with colleagues and students on issues that are close to my heart.

What do you think some of the biggest opportunities will be in your new role?

Oxford feels and looks like a more diverse place compared with when I studied here. And there has been great work done in recent years on equality, diversity and inclusion. So there’s a solid foundation thanks to all those who have been advocates and champions of diversity across the University.

There is, of course, more that we can do. And it’s my task to help lead the next stage of Oxford’s ambitions on equality and diversity, and to draw together the many efforts being done across the University.
I’m particularly keen to partner with different parts of the University, whether it’s through events, programs or leadership development. My approach here will be pluralistic, which is perhaps only apt when you’re dealing with diversity. We should be prepared to draw inspiration from many sources and understand that progress can come in many forms.

Ultimately, equality, diversity and inclusion matter because they are integral to our mission in teaching and research. Our efforts on this are not only about doing the right thing, but also about ensuring we do everything we can to attract and retain the best students, academics and staff. That is why I would say equality, diversity and inclusion are critical to Oxford’s success as a British and global institution.

What about the challenges?

This work does have its challenges because it’s about cultural change. Sometimes people will need to think about things differently – and do things differently. That may not always be comfortable, though I would say progress doesn’t come from always being comfortable. At the same time, I know from my experience working in human rights that, for those who advocate on diversity and inclusion, it may not always seem that change comes quickly enough.

Equality and diversity also touch on issues about which people have strong views. There’s an important challenge here: How can we have civil conversations when people may disagree? How can we nurture the right kind of institutional culture? These are some of the questions that will accompany the work I’ll be doing.

What are you most looking forward to in 2023?

I can’t wait to meet colleagues and students across Oxford. I’m looking forward to learning more about what is happening on the ground in the colleges, divisions, departments and faculties . So much of my work begins with a conversation, so if you see me, don’t hesitate to say hello. I’d love to hear your ideas, and I’m always up for a chat.

Read the University's Race Equality Strategy.