The sun is shining again in Oxford, there is blossom on the trees and I am reliably told that the wisteria is flowering in College. At some level, then, just as we would expect for Trinity term.
But this is the start of a term like no other. Most of our students are no longer in Oxford, and haven’t been here for several weeks. Around 80 are still living in College accommodation, and there are others elsewhere in the city, but all are socially distancing and not able to enjoy the shared spaces and social interactions which are so important to any College community.
Most College staff are ‘wfh’ – which we all now know means working from home – and in regular contact with one another, colleagues elsewhere in the University and with College members. I am very grateful to them and to the IT and support teams who made it possible for them to set up their home offices and become familiar with remote working technology.
The Academic Office is working through the admissions process for next year, whilst supporting current students who need advice on examinations and assessments, and how to cope when everything around them has changed.
The finance team are ensuring that payments are made and beginning to arrange refunds for those who will not be back to use their College rooms in Trinity. They are also helping assess the impact for the College of this extended period of lockdown.
Estates and accommodation are responding to continuing residents’ concerns, organising maintenance, and running the accommodation ballot for next year’s continuers, whilst also making sure that we keep a close eye on the buildings. Our cleaners are making sure that the College remains a wholesome and safe environment – we are extremely grateful to Gary and all his staff for looking after everyone so well. And the team of porters, led by Paul Wicking, are ensuring that post and messages can be collected, as well as providing a friendly and familiar face for residents.
Lockdown is no fun – rowers are worrying about fitness levels and musicians struggling to practise, whilst we are all missing family and friends and the ability to ‘pop out’ for a coffee, a meal, some shopping or just a stroll, whenever we feel like it. The University has subscribed to Big White Wall – offering on-line welfare support – to help students who need somewhere to talk through their worries, completely anonymously.
I am so grateful to the whole College community for following the Government’s rules and helping ensure that, by staying inside, we are helping protect the NHS and one another. Standing on our front step on Thursday evenings and clapping and making a noise to thank NHS and other frontline workers for everything they are doing is incredibly moving, as the sound echoes around the whole city.
Whilst we do not expect to hold any social events this term, and are not currently offering a catering service, the events team is planning a full programme for Michaelmas term, as well as taking external bookings and generally doing their best to ensure that we are able to swing back into action as soon as we are allowed. Paul White’s catering folk are all on furlough, but they keep in regular touch with one another and Paul is a member of our core strategy team.
The Student Representative Committee, in particular the President, Teele Palumaa, and Vice President, Chloe Agar, have been directly engaged in key discussions and they and our Junior Deans, Seth Stadel and Lonie Sebagh, have been incredibly supportive, helping us always think things through from the students’ perspective and using their own links to offer support to students.
The development, communications and alumni team are spearheading our efforts to keep in touch with as many College members as possible. WhatsApp groups have been set up, zoom calls arranged (including a careers talk), messages sent and magazines planned. We will keep many of these new ways of communicating running well after the return to more normal life.
That is a thought to which I keep returning: what are we learning now which helps us understand what we should be doing in the future? There is no doubt that being together, sharing meals, sitting in the sun in the quad, working in the Library, playing sports, are core elements of the life of any Oxford College. But these last few weeks have reminded us that there is also something much more – a community of spirit which binds us all and leads individuals to reach out to one another in difficult times.
Very sadly, the College’s wonderful Art Registrar, Lesley Forbes, died a few weeks ago, after a long illness which she bore with tremendous fortitude and quiet determination. Lesley had been a Fellow of the College for over 20 years and in recent years, working with my PA, Lesley Sanderson, she had helped us transform our organisation of our collections of art and ceramics. We will miss her terribly and plan a memorial, with her family, in the autumn. Another long term supporter of the College, Bill Tollett, the husband of our late Fellow Lorna Casselton, has also recently died. Neither death was the result of COVID-19.
Our Fellows continue to address the most pressing matters of our time: Vice-Master Professor Andy Pollard is a key member of the Oxford team developing a COVID-19 vaccine; Professor Michael Parker has been working with colleagues on the application of a contact tracing app to help track the spread of the virus; Professor Robert Carlisle is involved with work on drug development; Professor Julian Savulescu is involved with work on behaviour and societal impact; Professor Achillefs Kapanidis is working on diagnostic tools and JRF Betty Raman on public health implications of the virus. Details of the University’s involvement in relevant research can be found here: https://www.research.ox.ac.uk/Article/2020-03-18-coronavirus-researchers-at-oxford. And, of course, as well as our Fellows, our students will be members of teams working across all of these fields.
As they work with colleagues across the country and, indeed, the world, I am immensely proud to have these extraordinary researchers as friends and colleagues. Through them, the College can truly be said to be making an outstanding contribution to tackling this new and very frightening virus. With their help, we look forward to being able to enjoy the fritillaries in Magdalen meadows next year.