Journalist and Writer
Hilary Wilce specialising in all aspects of education
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Our Fifth President: a profile of Dame Barbara Stocking

Published By: Murray Edwards College, Cambridge University - 07 Apr 2013

Education writer, consultant and coach, Hilary Wilce (NH 1967) speaks to Dame Barbara (NH 1969) about what New Hall gave her and how she plans to give back to Murray Edwards.

Murray Edwards’ fifth President is the first home-grown ‘old girl’ to take the post, and one who feels sure that it was her years at the College that gave her the confidence and self-belief to launch her hugely successful career. Now she is returning, determined to grow and strengthen the institution that nurtured her, and to show the world the unique experience that the College offers.

“I came from a very ordinary working class background. I was the first in my family to go to university, so it was Cambridge and especially New Hall, as it was then, that helped me develop the inner confidence to go out and do things in life.

“For me it was like a dream to be there. I was delighted, although I also remember that I was in two completely separate states. On the one hand it just felt incredible, a great place to be, but on the other hand there was also the feeling of 'I’m really scared’."

“I think what the College gave me is the essence of what I was and could be; that fully grounded sense of yourself that is so important.”

As Chief Executive of Oxfam for twelve years, as well as fulfilling senior roles within the NHS, Dame Barbara is a figure who stands tall on the world stage, with a strong command of issues of international governance and finance, climate change, agriculture, health and poverty. Yet, she is also very definitely a female leader, someone who sees the whole picture, and is as comfortable sitting down with poor Bangladeshi mothers talking about husbands and contraceptives, as she is hob-nobbing with global leaders and financiers at Davos. She has a superb grasp of the issues around women’s development, and a highly collaborative style of leadership.

“My strength as a leader is bringing people together and binding them to a common purpose.”

If the job is a big step from circling the globe as head of Oxfam, her reason for taking it is similar. “I wanted to do it because I could see there was a real job to be done. In this case it is to ensure that the College continues as a special place for the education and development of women.”

She says, “I will need about a year to get to know how the College works, to understand the academic issues, to get to know the undergraduates and the graduate students and the faculty, and get my head round the finances and fundraising. Like a lot of people, I probably thought, after the fantastic £30million endowment gift from the Edwards family the College didn’t need to worry so much anymore. But we do. The College still needs considerable investment if we are to continue to be at the forefront of learning, teaching and research. As we alumnae all know, our beautiful Grade 2* listed buildings bring their own challenges - and they need maintaining and updating. Like many Colleges, we have loans that will have to be repaid over time, and we constantly struggle as the demand for student accommodation, especially for graduates, outstrips the supply we can offer.

“I will be fundraising from all kinds of different sources to try and get that long-term security. There is a very real need for alumnae to back us in our endeavours and lend us their support. But it’s not just about money. It’s about the all the skills and experience we have within our ranks that can help us and our students in so many ways. I would love to really strengthen community.”

For now, in a world which still falls very far short of full gender equality, Murray Edwards will stay an all-woman’s college, devoted to its core mission of supporting and encouraging young women from all backgrounds to reach their potential. “It’s not the moment for a big change, and I really want to try and show outwardly what is so special and unique about Murray Edwards.

“So often the image of ‘a woman’s college’ is not a good one and can be off-putting to sixth formers, parents and teachers, but I want to work to make sure the image and the reality are aligned."

"I want to get out and explain to people why we are a woman’s college, and what our purpose is."

"I am keen and proud to be the head of a women’s college and to get the message out about why this is a really good thing.”