In my day at Oxford, the head of College was a primarily academic figure, with additional administrative and public responsibilities. It was certainly an Establishment role, when such a thing was understood. I’m intrigued, therefore, by the fact that so many of them now are being drawn not from the traditional fields of achievement but from the media.
There’s Frances Cairncross, who became Rector of Exeter College in 2004, after 20 years on the staff of The Economist, preceded by 11 on the staff of The Guardian. That same year Tim Gardam, after a distinguished career at the BBC, Channel 5 and Channel 4, was appointed Principal of St Anne’s.
More recently Mark Damazer, who after a string of senior roles in BBC news and current affair, had been Controller of Radio 4, took office in 2010 as Head of St Peter’s. And Will Hutton, who spent four years as Editor-in-Chief at The Observer, and alongside books and other work has written a weekly column for 15 years, became Principal of Hertford in 2011.
In the past, the media was not a field from which Oxford drew its figureheads – but nor did media have the significance which it holds today.
“It is true that media organisations are bigger and more influential than, say, 40 years ago, so maybe there is a double effect,” suggests Will Hutton. “Colleges can see that the leadership roles in the media are no less demanding than the conventional organisations from which they have historically recruited. And media people are higher profile than they used to be, so they come to fellowships' attention more than they did.”
Perhaps there has also been an increasing engagement between the two. “When I was a student, in 1974-77,” says Mark Damazer, “there was a degree of suspicion about the media. Academics could be worried about how they would be perceived by their colleagues if they engaged with it. For the most part, that has now gone, and academics have a greater awareness of the media and the use it can have for them. Of course it would be a mistake to measure academic importance by media profile, but academia now understands the notion of impact.”
There have, of course, been critics. The Spectator made reference to “the spurious glamour of the London media gang”. But there is enormous value to the Colleges in the networks which those in the media inevitably build during their careers. Damazer points out that “doing those jobs throws you into contact with interesting people from different walks of life – politics, journalism, the arts, religion, museums…”, and he is particularly keen to “try to bring a degree of connectedness” to those other worlds.
“I told the College that I wanted to persuade them to be porous,” he says, “that I wanted to connect this particular, real Oxbridge world with other complementary, stimulating and interesting worlds, and make the College susceptible to outside influences.”
And, to say nothing of the increasing importance of fundraising, networks are useful in terms of the people, the institutions and events with which a College can become engaged.
“Colleges have always had a weather eye on the networks and convening power of those they appoint as heads of house,” agrees Hutton. “And it is an interesting commentary on our times that governmental, diplomatic and civil service networks are plainly felt not to have the unrivalled supremacy they once did.”
The administrative side of the head’s role can also benefit hugely from an experience of managing in the media. “Colleges are very democratic institutions with flat management hierarchies – like most media organisations,” he says. “And very few journalists or broadcast professionals in my experience take kindly to direction – you have to argue and persuade, which is a pretty good grounding for a role as head of house.”
Damazer put forward a similar point during his appointment by St Peter’s. “I felt that my experience in thinking about how talent works, and having to work out how to get the most out of them all, would be quite helpful in the environment of a College, where there are a lot of creative, sometimes difficult people milling around.”
He similarly feels that St Peter’s gains from his experience of senior media management. In a media organisation like the BBC, he says, “you get hit by stuff – call it controversy, call it the mess of creative endeavour – and you’ve just got to deal with it. If you survive, and rise to a certain level, you’re bound to experience stuff like that. And I think dealing with the degree of unpredictability and buffeting that goes with that territory, that’s not an unreasonable preparation for somewhere like this”
And so, if he’s used to unpredictability, has he been surprised by anything in his new Oxford role? Mark Damazer almost laughs. “That deadlines operate in a different way!” he says.
“In the media, deadlines are instinctively understood and everyone works around that understanding. They are not a matter for negotiation. Here, deadlines are different and various, and things are dealt with in a different rhythm. And that has been difficult to adjust to.”
Mary Bennett, who was Principal of St Hilda’s for 15 years, always said that it was not necessary to be an intellectual to run a College. She maintained that all that was needed was “common sense and a certain degree of cunning”. And who would deny those are also elements in a successful media career?