About this speech

  • Title: Annual Address to the University
  • Speaker: Professor Alison Richard, Vice-Chancellor
  • Date: 1 October 2008

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As Vice-Chancellor, I sign many documents in the name of the Chancellor, Masters and Scholars of the University. Our historic identity is deeply embedded in that sonorous phrase, but it does not fully reflect the composition of the Cambridge community today. The University continues to attract some of the best “Masters and Scholars” in the world, but its composition has changed and broadened, and its capacity and identity have evolved along with its composition. For example, Cambridge is a community of men and women today, and a large number of postgraduate students, postdoctoral and research staff, and administrative and professional staff have joined its ranks in recent decades. These changes require imagination and commitment from all parts of the University and the Colleges, adapting our institutions and customs to include new members while maintaining the best traditions of this scholarly community. Much good work has already been done to this end, although I think we all acknowledge that more can and must be accomplished.

This morning, however, I want to consider a different dimension of the changing make up of the Cambridge community. About 2,800 of our former students work for the University or the Colleges; yet the total number of living former students approaches 200,000. Over the last quarter-century, the relationships of departing students with their Colleges and the University have deepened and the importance of their role to the Cambridge community has grown. Today, the value of these developments is ever clearer, but so too are the questions to which they give rise. It is about these matters I will speak this morning.

Let me begin with a word about nomenclature. In modern parlance, the Chancellor remains indomitably such while “Masters” may be loosely parsed as “academic staff”, and “Scholars” have become “students”. The translation is universal in everyday language at Cambridge, with the original usages reserved for formal contexts. There, they reflect our long history and foundations, and also remind us of initial conceptions of the University community.

The use of “alumni and alumnae” to refer to former men and women students is by no means universal at Cambridge, and is viewed by some as a distressing incursion from the New World. But, in fact, John Evelyn is recorded as having introduced the word into English vocabulary in 1645, and only in 1696 did it migrate to Boston, Massachusetts, with another diarist, Samuel Sewall (i). Universities in the United States subsequently adopted the term and gave it currency in the twentieth century.

Here in Cambridge, the term “senior members” is sometimes used to describe the generality of graduates of the University, and I am sure that phrase will persist in the University’s lexicon. But for my own taste I find it clearer to follow John Evelyn’s lead and use “alumni” and “alumnae”, internationally accepted terms for former students (ii). Besides, I like this borrowing from Latin with its philological echoes of nourishment.

The past

For most of Cambridge University’s history, the community consisted of men of varying age who taught, studied, or were Cambridge-educated. With the exception of undergraduates, they participated in the substantive business of the University, through individual administrative roles, committees, and, collectively, the debates and votes of the formal bodies.

Looking back at the University’s first seven centuries, to my eyes the most prominent change in the composition of this community of men and boys had to do with social inclusivity. From the outset, the University afforded opportunities to students from poor backgrounds. Indeed, the earliest recorded donation to Cambridge, around 1284, was 50 marks for the support of poor students. But in the eighteenth century, undergraduate education became a fashionable affair, and the sons of privilege came to dominate the ranks of undergraduates. Over the last sixty years, we have been unmaking that piece of the past, first in parallel with the social changes set in motion by the 1944 Education Act and, more recently, by the energy, time and resources that Collegiate Cambridge pours into raising the aspirations of talented school pupils and encouraging them to apply, regardless of their background.

This effort, important for Cambridge and society alike, sits alongside other significant changes in the University community’s composition and governance in the twentieth century (iii). these changes have been in the direction of greater diversity and inclusivity. The most dramatic, and welcome, has been the gradual inclusion of women – as academics, students, and administrative staff, as well as their increase within the assistant staff.

But one sharp move away from inclusivity stands out. It took place in 1926, when the modern Regent House was created and former students, as members of the Senate, were formally excluded from control of the substantive business of the University. Henceforth, they could only expect to participate in largely formal and ceremonial matters, eventually restricted to the election of the Chancellor and the High Steward. It was a disenfranchisement of sorts.

Of course, there is a long tradition of alumni-run associations, particularly in the Colleges but also in support of academic departments. These subject- and College-based groups complement the more than 200 alumni societies around the world, some going back a century or more. But as best I can tell, though valued by the participants, these activities were generally regarded with benign indifference by the University. It is in the last quarter-century that the institutions of Cambridge have come to value relationships with alumni, and to treat those relationships seriously.

The evidence of change, a re-imagining of the role of alumni in the life of the University, is all around us. Every College now has an active alumni relations programme. For 18 years, the University has published CAM magazine and distributed it to all contactable alumni. More than 50,000 alumni now receive a University alumni e-bulletin six times a year, and many Departments and Faculties publish regular alumni newsletters. Alumni Weekend has grown in strength and success over a period of almost twenty years, taking pride of place in an array of activities organised voluntarily by staff of the University and Colleges. Building on the foundations established by the American Friends, Cambridge in America provides support and outreach to the more than 14,000 alumni in the United States. And last year, the University and the Cambridge Society agreed to merge their alumni activities into a new, strengthened Cambridge Alumni Relations Office.

The importance of alumni

Why are these developments important? The common answer, “it’s all about money”, is profoundly incomplete – although funding matters, to be sure.

In growing numbers and with mounting generosity, alumni contribute financially to their Colleges and the University. Currently, more than 20,000 alumni give annually, and the total raised toward the Campaign goal so far is well ahead of our milestone targets. The percentage of alumni who give and the level of giving are still behind our peers in the US, but we are gaining ground.

The financial generosity of alumni and friends is absolutely vital to our future as one of the world’s great universities. Their gifts help us maintain an edge of excellence in undergraduate education otherwise unachievable; they support innovation; they help us compete for staff and postgraduate students; they reinforce the collegiate system; and they diversify our sources of finance, thereby strengthening our position of “honest independence”. In order to sustain our high ambitions, the inter-generational transfer of wealth through gifts, modest and large, must become a significant and enduring feature of the financial landscape of Collegiate Cambridge.

Less clearly recognized or appreciated are the critically important contributions to Collegiate Cambridge made by alumni that have nothing to do with money. They are our ambassadors, talking and writing about us, opening doors, and encouraging prospective students to apply; they help create and reinforce the University’s many flourishing partnerships with the private sector, not-for-profit organisations, and institutions of government; and they are a great pool of experience and expertise. Having spent a lot of time over the past five years in conversation with alumni around the world, I am convinced that they are an institutional asset whose value we have not yet fully realised.

The advantages to Cambridge of greater alumni involvement are clear, but what are the advantages to our alumni? For some, in my experience, it is the sheer interest of the place; for others, the opportunity to give back in gratitude for what Cambridge has given them; for still others, the exasperated hope that perhaps Cambridge can be persuaded to change its ways. Simply feeling part of the Cambridge community is surely a motivation too. Supported by new technologies, new forms of community proliferate in these times and Cambridge communities are no exception.

Championing the University

Fostering a sense of community among Cambridge alumni is of great importance: Cambridge has urgent reason to articulate its values clearly and explain the full range of its contributions, and we need as many voices speaking on our behalf as we can muster. I believe the informed voices of alumni can make a critical difference, for they speak with the passion of direct experience as well as the acquired wisdom of their lives.

Over the last decade, the national and international recognition of the relevance and importance of universities has grown. This is a most welcome development, and it increases yet further the importance of ensuring that the fundamental mission and contributions of universities are fully understood and appreciated. At this University, our mission is to contribute to society through the pursuit of education, learning and research at the highest international levels. In three areas in particular, I believe this statement needs further articulation and explanation.

The first has to do with undergraduate education, about which I spoke two years ago. Cambridge undergraduates are here to learn how to think deeply, rigorously, and independently. The content of their learning, and the particular skills they acquire, are important and the academic programmes of the University prepare them for several professions. But a Cambridge education is not simply or primarily about professional or vocational training, or the acquisition of skills. I believe that alumni, having been educated at Cambridge themselves, have an intuitive understanding that their years here amounted to far more than the content of the books they read. They are potentially the strongest advocates and expositors of the value of the education we offer.

The second area concerns the continuing and vital importance of the arts, humanities, and social sciences, alongside science and technology. Our contributions to cultural wealth and societal understanding are as significant as those we make to technological innovation and human health and prosperity, and rare is the problem in the modern world that does not demand the full panoply of disciplines for its solution. Climate change and energy sufficiency are not simply technological challenges, any more than religious conflict is merely a matter of clashing theologies. We have many accomplished alumni who have made great contributions to society and who deeply appreciate their education in the arts, humanities, and social sciences. They are not only voices for, but also examples in support of, the value of education in these fields.

The third area has to do with the meaning of relevance in the context of research. There is much evidence, not least from Cambridge’s track record, that fundamental research is often at the heart of innovation and transformational changes in the world, and increasingly today fundamental research is in fact undertaken with considerations of use (iv). But discovery, in the fullest sense, must remain at the heart of our research programmes, with strong funding directed to its support.

Common to all three of these issues is the more particular matter of the public perception of Cambridge. Our contributions as an institution are global in their reach and impact. We play a significant economic and societal role in the UK, and we are of pivotal importance to this country’s university system, a system that is one of the UK’s greatest assets. We need to work hard to explain to all our constituencies both the excellence of our work, and the value of our many contributions.

Well-informed alumni can speak cogently to these contributions. In my annual letters over the last four years, I have written to alumni about some of these issues precisely because we need their help in making the case for the value of the entire spectrum of Cambridge’s activities in research and education.

The limits of engagement

As we seek the greater involvement of alumni, we must also ensure that the limits of that involvement are understood and observed by all concerned. The 1926 decision to exclude the Senate from control of the substantive business of the University remains a good one, and the re-involvement of recent years is not without risk, even though it is on quite different terms.

In building these closer relationships, could the influence of alumni come to dominate the business of the University? The structural arrangements of Collegiate Cambridge make this unlikely in my view. Alumni play important roles on the University’s Council and other central bodies, but they serve at the request of the University with the approval of the Council or the Regent House. A growing number serve as invited members of advisory committees across Collegiate Cambridge. But the advice of these committees is open to challenge and demur, and the academic community has ample opportunity to exercise a moderating effect on alumni influence.

Could alumni, as donors, encroach upon the University’s freedom and independence by imposing conditions on their gifts that go beyond proper and reasonable accountability? Yes in theory, but such gifts can be declined, and so too can those that would support activities in which the University is not interested. But let us not forget that from the present 800th Campaign stretching back into the past, there are abundant examples of academic and institutional innovations led by the vision, ideas and generosity of donors. The fact that something is not our idea does not make it a poor idea.

To my mind, the one real concern amidst the positive developments of recent years is the possible creation of inequalities running counter to the broad interests of the institution. This could happen if donations clustered around particular academic fields, or if differential contributions between the University and the Colleges or between the Colleges themselves, seriously unbalanced institutional interdependencies, and undermined the high quality we see and expect of every part of Collegiate Cambridge.

I believe the risk is manageable. Collegiate Cambridge already has mechanisms for the internal redistribution of funds, and examples of farsighted generosity on the part of individual Colleges are well known to us. At Cambridge, an intensely competitive atmosphere mixes with a certain culture of altruism and enlightened self-interest. These conditions bode well for developing additional ways to transfer wealth between our interdependent parts. And develop them we must.


In conclusion, the re-emergence of our former students as an important constituency represents a significant change afoot in the Cambridge community today. In considering the consequences, I suggest three kinds of action are called for.

First, the build-up of recent efforts notwithstanding, we must push hard to engage and inform alumni. Memories of life as a student here are important to many of us, but for those who no longer live or work here, Collegiate Cambridge must also be brought to life as it is today: an institution living fully in the present, with its eyes on the future. To connect the past experiences of alumni with the present Cambridge, we must communicate more consistently and substantively than we have done in the past.

Second, the Colleges and University must continue to work together as we gear up these efforts. Through the 800th Anniversary Campaign, we have successfully established our capacity to do this in the context of fund-raising. Learning from that experience, we must keep developing broad and comfortable collaboration in the context of alumni relations.

Third, we must confront the possibility of cumulative inequalities resulting from discrepant effort or success in fund-raising. With vigilance and determination, we can and must ensure that the great sweep of academic endeavour characteristic of Cambridge is sustained, together with the interdependent strengths of the University and Colleges.

I end on a note of celebration. Next year will be the 800th since the University’s foundation. Its identity as a community has undergone significant change, and this surely contributes to Cambridge’s stature today. We are fortunate indeed to have educated some of the brightest students in each generation, and now we are fortunate to have the opportunity as well as the need to bring these former students more fully into the Cambridge community – today, and for the future.


i. This, according to the OED.

ii. Following common practice, I will use “alumni” to refer alumni and alumnae, unless there is a particular reason to distinguish between men and women.

iii. See University Politics by Gordon Johnson (Cambridge University Press, 2008) and A History of the University of Cambridge, vol. IV, by Christopher Brooke (Cambridge University Press, 1993).

iv. This proposition is explored interestingly by Donald Stokes in Pasteur’s Quadrant: Basic Science and TechnologicalInnovation, Brookings Institution Press: Washington DC, 1997.