Doctor of Laws
Monday 18 July 2011 - Orator: Denis Burn
This Great Hall is filled with people today who have one of the best qualifications in the country - a degree from Bristol. We all know, however, that academic learning and the piece of paper, on their own, guarantee nothing. Something extra is needed – aspiration, values, energy, determination. I have no doubt that the Bristol experience will have helped to develop these qualities, but I present to you today someone who has them in great measure, although she does not in fact have a degree, yet.
Perhaps one of the things that characterises the greatness and achievements of this individual is her unstinting dedication to putting students at the very heart of what we do here – the student experience. This, of course, has recently entered into common parlance as can be seen from the title of the Government's white paper on Higher Education, but Alison Bernays got there more quickly - decades ago.
Alison’s own educational experience was challenging through having dyslexia at a time when this was approached in what now seems an extraordinary way, and was certainly frustrating and bewildering for a highly intelligent young person.
From school at Badminton in Bristol she took a secretarial qualification at Filton Technical College and went to London to join the BBC which, for seven years provided the opportunity for Alison to show her worth. She moved from a secretarial position to become a production assistant on arts documentaries with her eyes on becoming a director. This was an ideal environment for someone able to organise and influence people and who had drive and tenacity. Her skill and confidence were certainly challenged when, as a lowly member of a team filming in Paris, she found herself to be the only French speaker (thanks to a previous au pair experience). She became the go-between to untangle the complexities of whether or not their UK lighting systems could use the tired-looking wiring of the Comédie Française or whether this would cause blackouts, fire and an international incident.
Attractive as it was, even the BBC, however, could not compete with the attractions of a young farmer from Gloucestershire and Alison left to marry Robert and went on to raise a family of three daughters, two of whom are here today and in whom Alison has immense pride. Two are already Doctors: Sarah as a medic and Helen with a PhD. Alison has found a way of achieving the same status but without years spent in libraries and lecture theatres. Husband Robert and her extending family (daughter Annie was married just last Saturday) remain central to Alison’s life.
Over these years Alison developed skills that were later to become of great value to the University of Bristol and its students. In a true partnership with Robert they saw, early on, the need to diversify the work of the farm which led to all sorts of ventures: pick-your-own fruit; branded ice cream; a restaurant; a gift shop; an adventure course with zip wires and high ropes; all of which was marketed widely (with Alison in charge of media) to become one of the top visitor destinations in the area.
This was a hard-working way of life - seven days a week. However, at this busy time Alison found the energy to be involved in a number of public-service activities. In 1989 she became a governor of her old school, Badminton, taking over as chair in 2008. She has had a strong and positive influence on the school which punches well above its weight - a small school with an exceptional academic record and the highest levels of care for its students. She has been particularly successful at building an excellent relationship between governors and staff which has become the foundation for real teamwork.
Alison also supported, for 21 years, the work of the Gloucestershire Society, which is a charitable foundation that supports a wide range of deserving causes within the county. This charity receives multiple applications for grants and Alison frequently found herself reviewing up to ten applications per week, bringing an eye for detail and a strong concern for the welfare of others.
In recognition of her personal qualities and her experience in the recruitment of magistrates, Alison was invited to join the Lord Chancellor’s Panel that interviewed prospective judges and candidates for promotion within the judiciary. She brought to this a wonderfully pragmatic and at times a rather maverick approach, asking direct, common-sense questions that will have often irritated the more pompous candidates with eyes on a judge’s wig. I can imagine the discomfort that might arise from being asked, for example, ‘what in your background makes you feel able to understand the challenges of living in a neighbourhood plagued by vandalism, drug abuse and racial tension?’
This was no easy role; there could be seven interviews in a day all requiring preparation and concentration. Hurried phone calls from the farm in the lunch break will have added to the pressure, as Alison found herself perhaps coping with a chef threatening to resign or ice cream makers failing to do whatever they should have done. Anyway, the Lord Chancellor’s Panel eventually felt the need to replace the likes of Alison with HR professionals and sadly the voice of common sense may have been lost. But the experience brought further recognition of Alison’s qualities of wisdom and discernment and gave her some of the experience which she has turned to the University’s benefit in more recent years.
This brings us, importantly, to Alison’s role with the University of Bristol which began in 1998 when she joined Council – the senior decision-making body and the Trustees of the university as a charity. Almost immediately she joined the Student Affairs Committee and became chair of the committee in 2002. She later became Deputy Chair of Council before retiring from Council and becoming a Pro-Chancellor in 2010.
It is Alison’s association with students that has had a lasting impact and which stands out, in her own mind, as one of the significant and cherished achievements of her life. Alison clearly loves working with young people and is very good at it. As Chair of the Student Affairs Committee, she worked closely with each year’s set of sabbatical officers of the Students Union helping them to make their impact. She was their critical friend and their champion within Council and across the University. She was a highly skilled chair of a large and complex committee with representation from all over the university and she also worked quietly but resolutely behind the scenes, pushing, with the sabbatical officers, for investment in student facilities and increased focus on the student experience.
The sabbatical officers really have only around 9 months to make a difference. Alison was hugely supportive and keen to enable them to pick up the reins quickly at the start of their year. During her term, significant change has been introduced or started, including libraries, learning spaces, and, eventually, refurbishment of the students union building. She was sad to step down from her role but her commitment to the University has never diminished. Her popularity with the students is amply illustrated by the fact that every one of the past presidents of her period attended the celebration of her service on Council, when she retired last year. As one past president put it: ‘Alison dedicated an enormous amount of time to helping with student issues. With her support the Union has gained a new status as a stand-alone charity. She was always listening carefully, thinking ahead and finding ways to move things forward.’
Positive things happen because of people – people who can encourage, motivate and organise others. Alison does this, and more. She has forthright opinions and perceptive questions. She sees the big picture; often ahead of her time.
Mr Vice-Chancellor, the University of Bristol has a good track record in many dimensions of gender equality. We were amongst the first universities in the UK to award degrees to female undergraduates and over the years have had strong and successful women in senior roles including Chair of Council and, of course, as Chancellor. Alison Bernays follows in this tradition and has rightly continued to press for gender equality across the university.
She is a multi-skilled and multi-tasking woman who has brought a deep commitment and her many talents to the University of Bristol, in particular, for the benefit of students. She is steeped in a culture of service to others and happy to allow colleagues to take the credit. Today we turn some of that credit back to her, where it is so richly deserved.
Mr Vice-Chancellor, I present to you Alison Bernays as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.