Alongside a fresh batch of freshers, joining Oxford next year will be former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, as Lady Margaret Hall’s new principal. The announcement of his appointment in mid-December raised a few suspicions, especially as to whether a mere journo is qualified to run an Oxford college.
The core issue is that many people believe that a master or principal of a college should be an academic. Here we enter a hazy realm of ‘academicness’ when deciding the worthiness of a candidate – does Rusbridger qualify as ‘academic’ enough? The fact that he held the position of editor for a major newspaper surely shows that he has the appropriate degree of intellectual rigour required for the position.
The notion that such positions must be held by straight-laced academics is not reflective of reality when we remember that our Chancellor, Lord Patten, was a career politician before joining the university.
The second concern that some people have is that Lady Margaret Hall is appointing Rusbridger for some degree of celebrity prestige. His appointment from some angles might look slightly populist, but surely most major positions at any university must consider the image that a candidate will bring.
Anyway, celebrity status isn’t necessarily negative. The ebullient mega-pop-physician Brian Cox, combining his televisual stardom with his stint this year as a professor of Physics at the University of Manchester, has been credited with a massive uptake in physics at advanced and degree levels.
Being a well-respected public figure and role model are surely qualities one would seek when appointing a master or principal of a college. It has been done time and time again at Oxford with prestigious scientists and politicians assuming the helm. Maybe I would have something to say to the contrary if James Corden, Keith Lemon or Ginger Spice were in the running, but celebrity on its own is no reason to discredit an individual when its effect can be beneficial and inspirational.
What’s more, this decision is not even a ground-breaking one: Will Hutton, principal of Hertford College, was the editor of The Observer. These newspapers, even when held up to the golden standards of this cherished publication, are no rags. Those that deride The Guardian should remember that it won the Pulitzer Prize last year for its part in revealing the governmental imposition on privacy, with which Rusbridger had personal involvement. He has even been played by Doctor Who star Peter Capaldi in the 2013 film The Fifth Estate about WikiLeaks. The values that he and his former cause represent are laudable, and his presence will surely be inspirational.
Similarly, St Anne’s principal is a former editor of the BBC’s Newsnight programme, as well as being a former Director of Programmes for Channel 4. Lord Patten too, until recently, served as Chairman of the BBC Trust. Appointing media types to these senior positions is a welcome variation from the more ‘academic’ scientists and historians that often occupy these roles.
When the question of why someone should be appointed principal is raised, it’s better to ask instead why they shouldn’t, which is often a lot more difficult to answer. I see no reason why Rusbridger shouldn’t be principal of Lady Margaret Hall, but many reasons why he should.