They Zoomed in from around the globe — Wolfson alumni, Fellows, senior members, current and former staff, including a former President (Gordon Johnson) and Bursar (Chris Lawrence), some of our very first students (Edward Torgbor) and some of our most recent (Churen Li). Wolfson President, Professor Jane Clarke, and her husband Chris Clarke were seated in the refurbished Old Combination Room, where so many Wolfson staff and students had spent time in meetings, seminars and even theatrical performances!
With guests from Australia, Canada, Mexico, Finland, Singapore, the US and Kenya, amongst others, the President hosted both a morning coffee meeting and an evening cocktail hour to accommodate different time zones. Mixologists had prepared special drinks recipes and some guests had even cooked up a mini-Formal Hall. Both recent graduates and longstanding alumni were able to share reminiscences of their days at Wolfson.
In her toast, Jane pointed out that even though the "river has been silenced and the swans have been left undisturbed" during May Bumps, College life has continued and even strengthened during the current Coronavirus crisis. She reflected on the many ways our community has found to draw together, to share ideas and research, to teach and learn remotely, and to continue enjoying intellectual debate and knowledge on topics ranging from Ancient Greek Warfare to Global Health and Sustainability.
The full text of her speech follows:
Welcome to Wolfson on this, the 55th anniversary of the founding of our wonderful College.
It has been a funny old year!
Normally at this time we would be gathering for a celebration of the year gone by. I would have just been presiding in the Senate House, conferring degrees on our departing undergraduate students and sending them off confident, exhilarated, into a world which always holds such promise for them. At our dinner tonight we would have been celebrating their successes and congratulating our prize winners. But gatherings are out, dinners are off, and our students are scattered to the four winds.
Today – with online examinations – not all our finalists know their final grades. They are not here. And I fear that they will be facing the future with more concern than joy, more uncertainty than confidence. I want to tell them now that they should not. We may be moving into a new world, but our Wolfson graduates are well equipped to face that brave new world. They should pack up that bag full of achievements, of life-long friendships, of the deeper understanding of the world that they have gained by being a member of this wonderful Wolfson community, and go out and change our world for the better. We are proud of them, and the world will be a better place with them in it.
But the Covid virus is not the only thing that has blighted 2020. We have witnessed the murder of George Floyd and the spotlight that this has thrown upon the racism within our country. We have seen in this pandemic the clear evidence of the devasting effect that inequality and racism have had on our ethnic minority communities in Britain, with the death rate amongst BAME communities being far higher than amongst their white neighbours. Racism is affecting members of our Wolfson family, directly right now, and lifelong and it is time to do something. This last year I am aware that a number of our students have had direct experience of racism, within our City, within our University and even, I am ashamed to say, within our College. Time has come to say ENOUGH. It is no longer any good to mouth platitudes “we will not tolerate racism”. We in Wolfson need to commit ourselves to acknowledge the racism in our midst and to work to combat both racism itself and its effects of racism on our students and other members of our community. I call on you all to support us moving forward as we commit to action – to be part of the solution, rather than being part of the problem.
In any other year, standing below the College crest I would have been celebrating Wolfson’s year - the blades won by our crews in the bumps – but sadly the river has been silent and the swans have been left undisturbed – can you imagine it? Cambridge without the Mays? I would have been recovering from the May ball – Once upon a Time at Wolfson… it was to be a magical night. But we do still have things to celebrate about our year in Wolfson…
First let us toast the achievements of our students. I hope you have been to the Wolfson Research Event (over 400 people have!). I have had the pleasure to attend all four sessions. What a joy it is. I was pleased to be asked to open the event, and I shared my view of research – in Einstein’s words .. “if we knew what we were doing it wouldn’t be research, would it?” It is that leap into the unknown which characterises the very best research. And in this event, we followed where the curiosity of our students has taken them. We have travelled in time and across the globe with these researchers, we have investigated the huge and the tiny the esoteric and the precise. It has been a joy. I congratulate the many students who have left Wolfson this year with PhD theses tucked under their arm, having enlarged the world with their research and our Master’s students who are polishing off their dissertations right now or awaiting the results with bated breath.
But life is not all about learning I want to celebrate our students’ contribution to the world around them – the students who have volunteered to work with those less fortunate than themselves, in Cambridge and further afield; those such as Charlie Barty King and Bonnie Gee working to make the world a greener place; The musicians enriching our lives; the sports men and women keeping the Wolfson (and Cambridge) flag flying with Wolfson’s Sophie Paine captaining the light blues to victory in the virtual boat race; those, who are working within Wolfson to improve our own community. Call out to the WCSA committee here – Benji and Kenneth and their fellow committee members; to David Izuogu for the entrepreneurs society, the welfare officers – and of course to the Ents officers for the howlers!
And we have had a very active programme of events. We ended our year of Transformation events with our own Gordon Johnson considering” Cambridge Transformed: Town and Gown in the Twentieth Century” last November. This year we launched Wolfson Explores Borders - a year cut brutally short in March, just as the science festival was to begin. But thanks to all our students, Fellows and Fiona Gilsenan we have been virtual since March and at the last count 1370 of you had attended these events
Every year this time I reflect on hellos and goodbyes. We have lost a few key long-serving staff members this year – Phil Stigwood has retired and the domestic bursar Alan Fuller has moved onto pastures new – but don’t worry they have been superseded by Oscar Holgate (over 1000 of you have followed his virtual tour round the gardens) and give a cheer to Darren Smith our new domestic Bursar who joined just 2 weeks before the lockdown.
We have also said goodbye to a number of Fellows, mainly JRFs moving onto pastures new, to exciting positions in Universities elsewhere. We are proud of them, but have been equally excited to welcome new Fellows to our college who are already contributing to both teaching and research.
I have been tied down! Last December Sian I had a great trip to the Far East but the lockdown has made our events programme different – and in some ways better! Instead of a trip to the states this May we have met up with alumni from across the globe from 6 continents, joining in their pyjamas, business suits, joggers or evening dress! I am glad to see so many of them join for this celebration tonight.
I want to thank all members of Wolfson from the bottom of my heart for the support you have given Wolfson, across the years but particularly at this time. Alumni who have encouraged us and stuck with us, Fellows for their unstinting offers of time and wisdom, senior members and CRAs for their messages of encouragement.
I thank the entire staff who are working so hard to get us back up and running, I thank our students for their patience and their understanding, I thank our generous donors who have come to our support at a time when there will be a real financial hole in our coffers.
It has been tough – make that very tough. I am not built for isolation, nor is a College.
At the very heart of a College are those social and intellectual interactions that enrich our lives, forge friendships and collaborations and create a community. Wolfson has had a spectacularly successful 55 years. And building on that success Wolfson will come out of this stronger still. We will be ready to start a new academic year, our new future, in October.
I give you a toast:
To Wolfson College: May we meet again soon.