Former provost brings Yale experience to Oxford

OXFORD—It has been only 11 months since former Yale Provost and chemistry professor Andrew Hamilton took up the top academic post at the University of Oxford, but already he is making waves across the pond. Hamilton, now the vice-chancellor of one of the United Kingdom’s most elite universities, is using his experience at Yale to develop Oxford’s campus and build stronger alumni support. The U.K. nativespoke to the News this summer about his experiences and the challenges of moving back after 28 years in the United States.

Q: What is it like being back in the UK?

A: It has been quite a challenge to slip back into this world, but at the same time it has also been enormously enjoyable. To be here at a time of really quite considerable change —political change and change within the higher education system —is quite exciting.

Q: How has your role changed from being provost at Yale to vice-chancellor at Oxford?

A: In my new role as vice-chancellor, I take on now many of the additional responsibilities that the president of Yale has at Yale, and that includes fundraising. Fundraising activity in universities is newer to the United Kingdom. At Yale, at Harvard, at Stanford, it has been a part of a tradition, a part of life for many, many decades. Among U.K. universities, there was relatively little attention paid to fundraising until about 20 years ago. We at Oxford have [a goal of] £1.25 billion and are now at £875 million, so we are well on our way to £1 billion. The response of our alumni has been very, very encouraging. That being said, when I look at Yale, I see a network of alumni volunteers. I see a network and a tradition of philanthropy that Oxford still has some distance to reach.

Q: How has the economic downturn affected UK and U.S. universities differently?

A: [The downturn] has dramatically affected budgets at Yale and Harvard, and the leading universities in the U.S. are obviously going through major readjustments at the present time. In Britain, that has been a little filtered because Oxford does receive a part of its funding from government. The big impact on British universities has been a little delayed because of the way in which a significant proportion of our support comes from government, but we are feeling it now. Very significant cuts have happened this year in our government support, and we are all bracing for very significant cuts in the coming year.

Q: What do you think the Yale and Oxford undergraduate education systems can learn from each other?

A: As I look at the American system and the liberal arts system that Yale has, I see great strengths in the opportunity it gives students to explore at an age when they really can appreciate the intellectual offerings that are in front of them. So I think that there’s great value in the opportunities of intellectual exploration that the liberal arts system provides. I think its faults, its flaws are the potential to superficiality —that “subject 101” is not a true engagement in that subject. There’s a danger that even in your major, because you’ve spent two years exploring, you will not be engaged in your major at the same rigourous level that you would have been if you’d solely studied that major from day one [as in the British system].

There are many advantages of the British system. The British system, we would argue, is a training of the mind, the training of the mind in deep and rigorous thought. It is an education that somewhat takes the view that the mind can be trained. A mind that is trained in one subject can then be applied at a deep and rigorous level to other subjects, other issues, other challenges that are encountered later in one’s career. The disadvantage is that it is very narrow. There is a lack of engagement with other parts of the intellectual world in the British system that I think can have its own reverberations.

Q: While you were at Yale, you were very involved in the development of West Campus. Have you done anything similar at Oxford?

A: There’s lots going on in Oxford. It’s not quite our West Campus, but we have a marvellous once-in-a-generation opportunity for the development of an area in the center of Oxford called the Radcliffe Observatory Quarter. Oxford, because of the collegiate structure, can sometimes be a rather disaggregated place. This new mathematics institute will bring together mathematicians who are in different buildings around Oxford and in different colleges [so that] they will be able to… really develop a coherent and cohesive research enterprise and teaching center.

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