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A fond farewell (Nonesuch autumn 2016)

Baroness Hale © Mat Smith Photography

Baroness Hale aged 21 (middle top row) with friends at the Sidney Sussex May Ball, Cambridge, 1965

A graduation ceremony in the Great Hall, Wills Memorial Building

7 November 2016

Shaking the hand of the last student to graduate on 22 July 2016 signalled the end of an era for Brenda Hale, Baroness Hale of Richmond. Bristol alumnus Darren McCaffrey (BSc 2007), Sky News Politics Correspondent, explores how one of the University’s greatest Chancellors touched the lives and work of thousands.

Brenda Hale, The Right Honourable the Baroness Hale of Richmond, will be stepping down as Chancellor of the University of Bristol at the end of 2016 after 13 years at the helm. During her time at Bristol, she has presided over no fewer than 67 degree ceremonies, and has spoken personally with more than 16,500 graduating students.

On 22 July 2016, staff, students and alumni raised the roof at the final ceremony over which Baroness Hale presided, marking the departure of a colossal figure who has dedicated herself so fully to the growth and development of the University. Her legacy is one of inspiration, commitment and warmth – qualities which have greatly endeared her to Bristol’s growing community of students,
staff and alumni.

In this interview for Nonesuch magazine, Britain’s most senior female judge reflects on a decade in the University’s history and Darren McCaffrey explores her significant role in leading and guiding the University community.

Darren McCaffrey (DM) You presided over my graduation back in 2007, a very memorable day. Alumni have many stories about how you have always gone out of your way to make sure that it’s a day we enjoy. Is it right that you once restarted a ceremony for the benefit of a student and their parents who arrived late? And that you won’t let go of a student’s hand until you’ve seen them smile?

Baroness Hale (BH) That’s absolutely right, I think things have progressed because when I started in 2004 the ceremonies were on the whole too formal. I tried to lighten the mood a bit, but I had to do it gradually. Of course, by the time I finished my last ceremony only a week or two ago it was quite riotous, so that was rather good. Lots of smiles on happy faces, just as it should be when celebrating such marvellous academic achievements. And as I recall that dear student was so upset about arriving late (and he had a very good reason) that I felt I could not disappoint him. Upon reflection I think I have achieved something in the development of the degree ceremonies over my time, with the many degrees that I have conferred. I hope that alumni remember with fondness their very special experience of graduation.

DM Your contribution has been hugely significant – to the University and also the wider Bristol family and the higher education sector. What would you say are your highlights from your 13 years as Chancellor?

BH That would probably be my installation as Chancellor back in 2004, because Bristol does ceremonial events very well and they had a newly composed trumpet fanfare which was quite exciting. I also had the opportunity to visit Beijing with the University in 2015 to take part in a celebration ceremony for 350 Chinese graduates who hadn’t been able to graduate in Bristol or whose families could not travel to Bristol to see them graduate. That was very special because of the marvellous atmosphere and the number of families present, and it really highlighted to me the strength of Bristol’s international standing in China.

DM What was it like for you going to university in an era that was very different to today?

BH It was much more male-dominated and there was an exclusivity about it. I think only about six per cent of the population went to university when I did, of course fewer women than men. At the University of Cambridge, there were three women’s colleges and I think 21 men’s colleges, so the undergraduate gender ratio was something like 9:1. This was grossly unfair as it meant that a lot of the University’s practices were based on young men and their lives rather than young women and their lives. It’s taken the ancient universities a long time to become genuinely equal in their treatment of different people and different lifestyles, and this is an area in which I would like to see swifter progress and change.

DM When you became Chancellor of Bristol, you were already breaking down barriers and records in terms of your legal career, having recently joined the House of Lords as a Lord of Appeal in Ordinary, becoming the only woman to have ever held this position.

BH Yes, I was already a very senior woman judge, and I shortly afterwards became even more senior because no sooner had I accepted the idea of being Chancellor of Bristol than I was appointed a Law Lord. My closest connection with Bristol prior to that was actually in 1966 when I turned down the offer of an assistant lectureship at the law faculty at Bristol. I went to Manchester instead. I often wonder what would have happened if I’d not done that – whether I would have stayed in Bristol because it’s such a lovely place. Would I have felt the same desire to move out, and on, and up? I don’t know.

DM Your predecessors include Sir Winston Churchill and Nobel Prize-winning scientist Dorothy Hodgkin. What did it feel like to be asked to be the University of Bristol’s seventh Chancellor?

BH It’s a privilege and an honour to be asked to be Chancellor of any university but when it’s a university of the stature of the University of Bristol… well then it’s an even greater privilege and honour. The research standing and prestigious reputation of Bristol is well-known, but I also really felt that Bristol cared about its students. And of course, I knew that would be a key part of being a Chancellor: connecting with students, witnessing their growth and change, and sharing in the celebration of their success.

DM How would you describe the role of a Chancellor?

BH I suppose as Chancellor you’re a bit of a focal point for the staff, students and alumni. It’s primarily ceremonial though – it’s the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Hugh Brady, who carries out the day-to-day management of the University and serves as Chief Executive and President. I often say being Chancellor is rather like being Queen – you get to wear the robe and the hat, smile a lot, give out the prizes and say thank you to people, but you don’t have to run the place. Still, I wanted to do the job properly which I hope has meant making degree ceremonies more joyous occasions, real celebrations of the graduating students’ achievements. I also hope I have helped to make the Alumni Association [of which the Chancellor is President] feel like a valued part of the University.

DM What is it about the changes you’ve seen at Bristol in the last 12-13 years that makes you proud to be Chancellor of the University of Bristol?

BH Well it’s a combination of academic excellence in the staff and the research that they do which always rates very highly; the students, whose energy and ability never cease to amaze me; and the leadership and administration, whose vision and resourcefulness have brought the University so far. Bristol’s alumni are among the most enthusiastic and generous of any in the
country and they’re proud of their University, too. And proud of the city itself, of the beautiful historic buildings which add so much to the attractions the University has to
offer. Students have a vibrant, slightly edgy city on their doorstep, and there they are in the middle of it all.

DM Certainly, one of the things that attracted me to Bristol was the city. It’s a big thing – a lot of graduates continue to live in Bristol after they’ve finished their degree.

BH Yes, that’s right. And that attraction increases the longer you’re there. There’s always lots going on. It is an extraordinary city, really, isn’t it? Because it’s so old, every time you go around a little corner there’s another building that you don’t remember having seen before.

DM Now that it’s time to say farewell, do you think that you will you miss being Chancellor?

BH I will definitely miss it and what I will miss the most are the people. It’s hard not to develop a very personal regard for students and alumni as Chancellor. The wonderful thing about students is that they’re an ever-changing, ever-evolving body; they renew themselves at the very latest every three years and it makes me proud to think of all the outstanding leaders and citizens who have gone on to make major contributions after graduating. Bristol has a lot of people who’ve had a close association with the University for a long time, people who have helped in the funding and the running of the University over the years who care very deeply about the institution and its future. I shall miss them all but hopefully people will understand that the time is ripe for me to take on a new challenge. And of course, as it’s my discipline, I’ve probably seen more of the law school than anywhere else – while trying very hard not to show favouritism I do have a fondness for the subject and they’ve achieved extraordinary things. It’s a very different law school today from the law school where I declined a job ‘Bristol’s alumni are among the most in 1966.

What others say...

‘Chancellors will always say how much they value students, but Baroness Hale is the real deal when it comes to getting stuck in. Her approachability is one of her truly great qualities. Admired by so many students, this affection is certainly reciprocated. She will always keep an inquisitive eye on what Bristol students are up to, of that I am quite certain.’ Max Austin, former Undergraduate Education Officer, Bristol SU.

‘Baroness Hale has been a fantastic figure head for our University and represents all the qualities we should aim to hold as an institution. I am personally quite disappointed not to finish my degree in 2017 by shaking her hand. She will be missed.’ Sophie Hunter (History 2014- ), Deputy Online Editor, Epigram.