The Principal, Professor Geoff Ward's Speech

Principal, Professor Geoff Ward, gives a speech at the Alumni Reunion Weekend 2016It’s a pleasure to be with you today, and to tell you something of what Homerton has been doing, and where we are headed. Last month I was in New York with our Charter Choir, who have recently returned from their first tour of the East Coast of the United States. As well as singing to appreciative audiences at Boston and Yale University, the Choir packed out St Thomas’ Church on Fifth Avenue (attendance in the hundreds) as well as other Manhattan venues, including an event at the Yale Club organised by Cambridge in America. This is an organisation with whom we work closely on transatlantic ties, who confirmed for us just a day or so ago that the event was the best-attended in the history of their organisation. Despite the fact that most New Yorkers flee the city at the humid end of August, it was standing room only that night, and a great pleasure for me to speak, hear our magnificent Choir sing, and get to meet Homerton alumni – a few of whom will in fact be here at different times over the Reunion Weekend. I even met two students who are about to come from New York to Homerton to study, and so our reach is truly global. It was great to have the opportunity to meet Homertonians of varying vintages that night, but good too to use the opportunity to tell Cambridge alumni from all the colleges about what we have become, and our direction of travel.

We have embarked on an ambitious estates and buildings programme. Morley House is the name we have chosen for our new postgraduate block, which houses a new Middle Common Room, and which will effectively establish a postgraduate ‘quarter’ on our campus. That one was easy – the College had a need, but also had the resources to meet that need, and so work began. The project for a new Dining Hall required a more complex thinking-through.

Everyone loves our iconic Great Hall, built in the late Victorian period. However, kitchen requirements and facilities where the staff can change must reflect the needs of 2016 and beyond. The old Victorian facilities are creaking badly behind the scenes, and some are borderline dangerous. The Bursar and the Estates Manager spent the best part of a year working out how to refurbish the Great Hall, but their calculations came back repeatedly to the same conclusion - that money spent simply on propping up the existing Hall would bring us nothing new, and would have to be re-spent in five or seven years’ time. Building a new Dining Hall, while retaining the Great Hall for a variety of activities and events, will by contrast meet several of our needs as a growing college at the same time.

At the moment our students lack practice spaces for Art and Music. Moreover our small Junior Common Room and Buttery has to cater for too many disparate users at the same time. At any lunchtime during term you will see students trying to work wearing noise cancelling headphones, while others are eating, playing pool, or working in groups alongside Fellows, staff and visitors. Our students need and deserve more designated, dedicated spaces. The new building project will enable this. It will also give us a new dining hall – to be built, most likely, on ground occupied by the Hilary Shuard block and other facilities that are showing their age or are little used. This will be iconic, last a century, and make a major architectural, aesthetic and hospitable statement about what Homerton means as Cambridge’s fastest-rising college. Once that work is complete we will move on immediately to erect a new Porter’s Lodge which will include an exhibition space, provide more space for our growing Library, and come out towards Hills Road.

Some of our building work will be complete and some ongoing in our 250th anniversary year, 2018. Events running throughout that year, including the unveiling of a major sculpture by Henry Moore on long-loan, musical performances under the guidance of our former Fellow and now Composer in Residence John Hopkins and the new and annual Kate Pretty Lecture are simply some of the occasions we will use to thank our partners, friends, and most importantly alumni.

People are more important than buildings.

However magnificent or functional, the buildings are shells and stage-sets allowing different groups to learn, teach, perform, explore and contribute to meeting the needs of society through advances in their professions. Trainee teachers come to us, and the Faculty of Education next door, to take the Postgraduate Certificate in Education. They do this because it is the benchmark for excellent teaching, and we do it better than anyone else. In two weeks’ time I will welcome our first ever students reading Medicine. My hope, a realistic hope, is that Homerton will join the top colleges in Cambridge as a premier institution in which to train as a doctor. The signs are all propitious – the University has supported me unconditionally, and I am pleased to say that as a Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the University I will be chairing all appointments in the Clinical School from next month. Undergraduate Medicine is the tip of the iceberg, and we are already becoming known as a medical, and biomedical, college. But then, from Homerton you can walk to Addenbrooke’s Hospital and to the biocampus where we are forging significant partnerships with experimental science, the pharmaceutical industry, and numerous institutes for whom we are the default venue for conferences, away-days and planning meetings. The beauty of all this new growth in the sciences is that it adds to, and in no way detracts from, our portfolio of students in the Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities. We are now the biggest as well as the newest Cambridge College – but we will continue to grow.

I believe that all our new activities are modern extensions of our original ethos. It follows that we should honour and invite exceptional individuals who can help us reaffirm that ethos. I am pleased to say that Homerton is about to welcome as Honorary Fellows, four absolutely outstanding individuals: Dame Evelyn Glennie is a world-famous percussionist, figurehead for the disabled, and a motivational speaker for young women in particular. Meg Rossoff, writer for children and young people, is winner of the ALMA award as well as the Guardian Fiction Prize and many other laudations. Sir David Harrison was Vice-Chancellor of the Universities of Keele and Exeter and Master of Selwyn College Cambridge, but more importantly guided Homerton, alongside Kate Pretty, through its long and steady march to college status. Lastly, I am delighted to say that Dame Sally Davies, the Chief Medical Officer for England, will be joining us as an Honorary Fellow. This stellar quartet will be of immense assistance to me in an advisory role, but all show by their top-level achievements in the Arts, Medicine and Education in what esteem we are now held. I am immensely proud of this College, and its Fellowship.

When we were a Teacher Training College, we were the best such College in the land. The students who trained here were united by a common purpose. This meant not only excellence but harmony, not only efficient training but friendliness. While the College has evolved in new directions, that friendliness has stayed. Our students share a spirit and an identity which will stand them in good stead as they make the transition to the world of work. And how well-qualified they are, at that point. I am delighted to tell you that the 2016 Finals results were the best the College has ever known: one in three of our graduands gained a First, and ninety per cent were awarded either a First or a 2:1. Of course for some students the most significant and challenging journey is not the one that ends in the highest result, and our dedicated supervisors, tutors, Directors of Studies and counsellors know just how challenging the contemporary student journey can be. I am proud of all our students, and privileged to lead the College that is their term-time home, and their lifetime supporter.

It gives me pleasure now to hand over to a staunch student supporter with whom it will be a pleasure to work closely over the year ahead – Mr Will Hewstone, incoming President of the Homerton Students’ Union. Thank you Will – and thank you all.