Provost's View: Our shared interest in intellectual curiosity

20 February 2014

After nearly six months as President & Provost of UCL, I still feel that I have barely scratched the surface of learning about this wonderfully complex organisation.

Not surprisingly, I am still meeting many people and visiting some parts of the university for the first time. To accelerate my learning curve, I have been out and about around UCL as much as I can. I have accepted as many invitations to UCL events as my diary can accommodate, and I have had a rewarding time.

Motion in the Octagon

My journey has seen me at the opening of the new exhibition ‘Collecting – Knowledge in Motion’ in the Octagon, which I would thoroughly recommend. ‘Motion’ is interpreted very liberally; I enjoyed learning more about the history of UCL in the war years, particularly the correspondence between those who found themselves in Aberystwyth and those remaining at home base. There seems to have been an insatiable appetite for updates on ‘college gossip’ and the exchange between Professor Haldane and the bursar of the day is also highly entertaining.

Bartlett 2050 leadership programme

Also in the Octagon, we recently launched the Bartlett 2050 leadership programme, aimed at the built environment industry, with a view to creating future leaders in that sector. The evening, organised by Tim Broyd and his team, drew a large audience of colleagues from Industry, including members of the programme’s advisory board.

The star turn, however, was a highly entertaining and thoughtful speech from the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, who got the evening off to a flying start. The fact that he gave up his early evening to come to this UCL event speaks volumes about the current positive state of our relationship with the Mayor and the Greater London Authority, in part because of our ongoing interaction with him and his team over the Olympic Park.

Heller bursary reception

Marc Woodham

More recently, I had the pleasure of attending the annual celebration of the Heller bursaries, together with Sir Michael and Lady Heller, who have generously supported this programme for the past 18 years. It allows our medical students to develop a special interest outside their medical studies by funding their tuition or activity.

The talent on display, pictured right, was truly wonderful. There were outstanding exhibitions of photography, oil painting, design and dressmaking. Three students each gave an extended thank you speech respectively in Italian, French and Mandarin, having learnt the language de novo through the bursary. Two pianists gave breathtaking performances of Chopin and Nina Simone. One student had taken singing lessons to perfect a rendition of ‘Chelsea Hotel #2’ – Leonard Cohen’s song about his encounter with Janis Joplin. Those were the days. A Chinese medical student performed the beautiful aria ‘In Pursuit of the Dream’ from the Chinese opera The Peony Pavilion.

As you may have gathered, I was quite taken with the evening, as were Sir Michael and Lady Heller. My congratulations go to all the students and to Dr Claire Elliot from Primary Care & Population Health, who coordinates the programme.

Nicola Sturgeon seminar on Scottish independence

For something completely different, I attended the School of Public Policy's seminar given by the Deputy First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, who gave a spirited and eloquent speech on the rationale for Scottish independence, on a day that also saw the Chancellor of the Exchequer and all three main Westminster parties rule out the prospect of a currency union.

The event was brilliantly chaired by Robert Hazell from our Constitution Unit, who needed all his diplomatic skills to keep an audience of more than 200 under control during a wonderfully well informed and intellectual question and answer session. The questions were searching, but Sturgeon parried well. The debate continued at a lively reception and I thoroughly enjoyed a discussion with Robert, David Coen, Tom Pegram and Alan Trench, who has written a fascinating blogpost on the subject.

In addition, I’ve hosted an informative dinner with the Provost's Fellows from Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy, at which I learnt that we have been truly innovative in creating momentum in this distinctive development, and have recruited some very talented early career researchers and teachers.

I also attended the LGBT group’s hosting of the local Camden 'Opening Doors' group (for LGBT people aged 50 or older), at which a very moving video of life stories and personal experiences was shown, with much subsequent discussion over a glass of wine or two.

I especially enjoyed a Chinese new year reception organised by Xiao Guo of Chemistry and the Chinese Society, which was attended by more than 200 of our Chinese students and, amongst others, Shen Yang, Minister Counsellor of Education from the Chinese embassy, an old friend from my time at Leeds. The students I spoke to were delightful and it was a very happy occasion marking the start of the year of the horse.

This wide variety of academic and cultural events – which represent only a selection of those I have attended in the past fortnight – served to remind me just what a diverse organisation we are, and what outstanding talent we have at UCL. It also demonstrated to me a very positive sense of community and a bond that is based on collegiality, our history and values, and our shared interest in intellectual curiosity. It is wonderful to be part of it, to enjoy meeting so many new people, and to experience the culture that is UCL.

Professor Michael Arthur

UCL President & Provost

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