The outsider: Andrew Hamilton

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Oxford’s new Vice Chancellor, Andrew Hamilton, has outlined his position on a number of Oxford’s biggest challenges this week. He announced that he has an American-style vision of “tying alumni [to a] life-long relationship with Oxford,” which he insisted is “not about money.”

Hamilton went on to talk to Cherwell about the future of University funding and the problems of his own image as an ‘outsider’ from America. He also discussed how he intends to tackle the University’s media image, its recent slip in an international poll of Universities and the lack of female academics in top University jobs.

Hamilton stressed the importance of University life; one of his chief ‘imported’ aims is to help current freshers to continue to feel connected with their University into their old age. “The three or four years that you spend at Oxford are often the three or four years where you find the passion in your life,” he said. “Also in those three years you make life-long friends, you engage in the interests that become important in your life.” He commented, “The American Universities have done this very well.”

While considering his vision to be part of a response to the funding problem, he argued, “People often think too quickly that it’s about money. It’s not about money; it’s about a life-long relationship with the University… The money comes later, the money becomes a natural deepening of the relationship that an alumnus or alumna who perhaps has been successful in their life feels the affinity with the University and wants to ensure that future generations have the same benefits and experiences that they had.”

He defended his ‘outsider’ status, saying, “You say an outsider as if that represents something foreign and problematic; absolutely not. I think it gives me a perspective of many different aspects of education, research and University administration which I hope will give me an advantage.” He added, “I am the first Vice-Chancellor not to have an Oxford degree. It’s not an advantage or disadvantage – it’s who I am.”

Since getting the job in June 2008, Hamilton has been trying to dispel the myth that he intends to Americanise the University. He pointed out, “the leading American Universities are, in fact, trying to become more like Oxford, they’re building colleges, they’re focusing on undergraduate education in an intense and excellence driven way in the way that Oxford does.”

He admitted to being frustrated recently by the Guardian’s description of his trans-Atlantic twang and shiny white teeth. “I think they were wishing to portray me as an American. While I have spent many years in America I still retain and have retained close links with the country of my birth.” He made clear that his teeth were “the product of 1970s British dentistry.”

In light of the recent ‘When Boris met Dave’ programme, he attacked the media’s often outdated depiction of Oxford. “The media has a perception that is much developed for their own purposes; that Oxford is an exclusive place with Sebastian and his teddy-bear on every street corner. That’s not the Oxford I’ve discovered; I’ve actually found a very modern, very vibrant, very diverse place that is firmly focused on the future.”

Hamilton lauded student ambassadors and bloggers who set about “busting the Oxford myth,” but agreed the University, too, had a duty to do more to tackle an off-putting ‘exclusive’ image. “We need to work harder to project the real Oxford. We’ve got to counter the perception of Oxford by a blizzard of stories of our own on the real Oxford.”

He was not worried by Oxford’s slipping in international league tables. “We should recognise that league tables are a very poor mechanism of judging the enormous complexity of a University and its many different dimensions. It’s very puzzling that here we have a University that only a few months ago achieved a remarkable performance in the research assessment exercise. It is odd to see that drop of one place. If one looks very hard at the details you will see that the only change that occurred from the previous year is a drop in the citations per paper.” Noting the drop had come in the very week of his taking up the job, he joked, “How careless of me!”

The male-dominance of the University’s staff was more of a concern. “I think it’s an area we’ve got to pay very close attention to; it’s a process that begins at the very beginning of recruitment, we’ve to be sure that we’re searching aggressively far and wide for candidates of the very highest academic quality but who come from different backgrounds.”

When pressed upon his position on student fees, he avoided committing himself to a side of the debate, “I’m not going to support or reject anything at the beginning of a debate – it’s too early for me to support or reject any part of that debate. I’m going to listen and consult… I want more information in front of me before I make any personal comments on the advantages or disadvantages of a particular strategy.”

He was, however, adamant in his focus on upping bursaries and scholarships. “I feel very strongly an important part the university has to play is in ensuring that, as the debate about fees unfolds, the issue of bursaries unfolds at the same rate.”

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