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A note from the Vice-Master

Posted on Sep 30

4 min read

College Events & News

Now in the final few days of his role, Vice-Master Professor Tim Whitmarsh reflects on the last few months in College and preparations for the start of an academic year like no other.

Professor Tim Whitmarsh

As I enter my last week as Vice-Master, I feel — finally — that I can catch my breath and reflect on what is probably the most bizarre year of any of our lives. 2020 has been frenetic for all of us in the University sector. It is hard to rewind back to January, when we were taking for granted the warm face-to-face life that has been the College’s defining feature for five hundred years. Since March, the College’s Zoom accounts have supported thousands of hours of meetings and supervisions, but there has been very little meeting in person.

There have been two exceptions when we have held events in Chapel Court (following government guidance to the letter, of course!), each sad in a different way. The first was for the funeral of Peter Linehan, Fellow in History and former Tutor and Dean of College. Peter’s association with the College stretched back to his undergraduate days in the 1960s; he was part of the fabric of the place for as long as many of us could remember. The funeral service — a deeply moving requiem Mass held in our Chapel — was attended by the Master-Elect, who had had Peter as her undergraduate Tutor. The College extends its deepest sympathies to Peter’s widow Christine and her family.

The second occasion was when we gathered to offer our best wishes to Dr Annis May Timpson, who has served the College as Director of Education and Senior Tutor for three years. Annis May brought warmth, humanity and energy to the role: she was a strong champion of students, a powerful voice for justice and ethics, and an effective advocate for the Access and Widening Participation agenda. Her successor is Dr Mark Nicholls, who will be very well-known to many reading this piece, principally (but not exclusively) as the College Librarian for many years. We are very glad to have someone of Mark’s experience and calibre step into the hot seat in the midst of all of this pandemic drama.

The cowl of eerie calm that has rested over the College’s magnificent courts for these long months is beginning to lift. Even in the deepest days of lockdown, St John’s was still home to over 250 students, and to a number of Fellows, and the porters and catering and maintenance staff were still coming into work. Now, however, ahead of the new academic year, almost all students are coming back into residence, and most of our assistant staff are returning to work. There is a buzz about the place for the first time in a long while.

Preparations for this term have been long in the making, and have taken a lot of effort. We are of course insisting on social-distancing, mask-wearing and regular sanitising around the main College site, but historic buildings do not make these things easy. If you think about the transition points between First and Second Courts, or between Second and Chapel Courts, or even the entrance to the Buttery area, you will realise quickly how hard it is going to be keep people two metres apart. Even more challenging has been the planning for Freshers’ Week events, for subject meetings, and for supervisions: every room and every event has to be risk-assessed. We are also aiming to test every student resident in College for COVID-19 every week.

Trying to keep on top of all of these issues at a time when our collective understanding of the virus has been evolving, and when policy keeps changing, has been a hard job. Fortunately we have a superb team who have done an exceptional job throughout the pandemic: not just the Domestic Bursar, the Head Porter, the Lead Clinical Nurse (and others too numerous to mention) but also the JCR and the SBR, who have shown great maturity, leadership and creativity in helping to keep the students safe and happy.

We owe so much to all who have helped us weather this terrible storm — and will continue to do so (since it is quite clear that there are no cloudbreaks on the immediate horizon). I’d like to thank not just those who have been on the frontline, but also those who have been doing the less visible but equally crucial work of making sure that students (many of whom have been experiencing feelings of isolation) are supported, or of mitigating the hit to our finances, or of cleaning, or of keeping the communications flowing. I think too of those who have been furloughed at home, some with caring responsibilities. No one has had it easy.

All of us closely associated with the College want it not just to survive, but to thrive

Professor Tim Whitmarsh

This kind of collective effort is not to be taken for granted, and we do not. But I am very aware that there is a reason why people are willing to make such sacrifices. That reason is greater than any of us as individuals: it is because an institution that has shaped tens of thousands of lives for the better over a period of half a millennium generates a particular kind of loyalty. All of us closely associated with the College want it not just to survive, but to thrive, and to work its special magic on an ever-expanding range of people.

As I step down, I do so in full confidence that the College has never been in safer hands. Although I was elected in the saddest of circumstances, I always drew inspiration from Chris Dobson’s example. Chris did not live to know his successor’s identity, but I am sure he would have welcomed her wholeheartedly (having overseen, among other things, her election as an Honorary Fellow). I have got to know Heather Hancock well over the last year, and my admiration for her, which was stratospheric to begin with, has grown higher and higher. She is someone of huge integrity, intellect, courage and warmth, and I know she will bring those qualities to the Mastership. There could be no one better to lead us through what will inevitably be another challenging period, and into the College’s second half-millennium.

I hope each and every one of you is safe, well looked after, and happy; and that it is not too long before we can throw open our doors and welcome you back with the hospitality that you know so well.