Principal Sir Michael Dixon on his first academic year

Purple flowers and low hedge along side of quiet and sunny Walled Garden

Quiet walled garden by Carolyn Serra

At the time of writing it is early July, I have completed my first ten months as Principal of GTC and the academic year is drawing to a close. It has been far from the first year in post that I anticipated when accepting this role early in 2020. The world over the time since then has been dominated by the global COVID-19 pandemic and its devasting impact on the way we all have lived and, sadly, the many who have died. So, whilst I haven’t been able to observe GTC operating normally I have seen how the college can respond to a crisis, and what a response it has been!

The staff of the college developed a laser-like focus on maintaining operations as much as possible for the benefit of our students who adapted quickly and impressively to completely new ways of learning and interacting. Meetings of staff, fellows and students switched to online and we all became used to a new meeting etiquette, including the almost ubiquitous use of the new catch-phrase ‘You’re on mute’! Joking aside, the switch to digital delivery has brought some benefits – we have learned how to deliver events to bigger and more widespread audiences and maintained closer links with our alumni, good lessons to put to future use.

Students holding pots and number made from clay at GCR-led pottery event

GCR-led pottery event held in line with COVID restrictions

The uncomplaining resilience and good humour of our students has been impressive and I am eternally grateful to them. Locked down, in some cases unable to get to Oxford and in some cases unable to get home, they have shown great fortitude under difficult circumstances and achieved so much. I have enjoyed dropping in on GCR-led events and those as part of their social programme, especially those involving students in Oxford with partners and children. We recently reviewed nominations for the student Nautilus awards and the selfless, community-minded exuberance and achievement of so many students shone through. May all our students go on to change the world with such positivity, as so many of them clearly intend to do.

The COVID-19 pandemic has necessarily meant an internal focus and reduced my ability to network across Oxford as much as I would have liked, though the Heads of House at the other colleges have been wonderfully warm in their welcome and massively supportive. The benefit of this introspection has been time to focus on developing a new strategy for the college. This is now well advanced and will be rolled out in the early part of the new academic year, but I am indebted to the great many who have responded to requests for input to consultation exercises and to the Governing Body of the college who have been supportive and positive in their own contributions to the plan.

We are currently reviewing the structure and size of our Fellowship and Governing Body and have deferred making replacements to retiring Governing Body Fellows David Cranston, Keith Hawton, Tim Morris and Neil Mortensen until the review is complete. However, my thanks to each of them for distinguished service on behalf of the college over many years, and I hope to keep seeing them in college as Emeritus Fellows. My thanks also to all our Fellows who have acted as College Advisers, served on Committees or taken on college roles in addition to their day jobs. This work is an essential part of our college life and helps make college the friendly, supportive and egalitarian place that is so highly valued by all.

Portrait photos of retiring Governing Body Members David Cranston, Keith Hawton, Tim Morris and Neil Mortensen

Retiring Governing Body Fellows

Across almost a year there have obviously been a great many memorable moments. 1A Observatory Street has become a comfortable home from where I have worked much of the time, though over the past few weeks trips into my office in college have become more frequent and more varied. However, it is college events that lodge most in the memory.

An artwork by Weimin He commissioned for the Human Welfare Conference showing a group of people standing below the Radcliffe Observatory dome. The background of the piece is a multicoloured rainbow

‘Healthy Together’, 2021, Weimin He, artist-in-residence

I have enjoyed so many of our alumni lectures and symposia; the Green Templeton Lectures held in conjunction with Franklin Templeton and which focused on recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic; the fascinating Philip Pullman contribution to the latest in the Ann McPherson Memorial Lecture Series; Anne Marie Rafferty’s entertaining exposition on the history and future of nursing, a feature event during Giving Day; my interview with BBC Energy and Environment Analyst Roger Harrabin, which aired the same day; and Giving Day itself.

Add to these, a chance to experience the virtuosity of our fellows, students and Musician-in-Residence Maki Sekiya in our first ever online ‘GTC Performs!’, the wonderful Black Lives ‘By the Fireside’ event and the student-organised Human Welfare Conference on living longer and healthy ageing. I can only conclude it has been an extraordinary year for events, notwithstanding the pandemic.

If the past year has taught us anything it has taught us that planning ahead with certainty is difficult. Uncertainty is always a challenge, it makes any kind of planning at best provisional and it undermines morale. So, I am very grateful to be able to report that morale within college remains far higher than I could possibly have imagined if a year ago I had been told the way these past months were going to play out. Fundamentally GTC is on track to finalise a progressive and forward-looking new strategy, and the platform from which to enjoy a very successful future. I look forward to playing my part in delivering it.

Michael Dixon, Principal, Green Templeton College
July 2021

Read more from Michael Dixon in this Spring 2021 Q&A

Created: 14 July 2021