Professor Paul O'Prey
Doctor of Laws
Monday 18 July 2011 - Orator: Helen Galbraith
It is a daunting pleasure to be asked to give an oration for an honorary degree. This being my first, I began by reminding myself of the qualities the University looks for when selecting candidates for such a prestigious award. We look for people with a record of outstanding achievement, potentially in more than one area; for inspirational role models who exemplify the University’s core values, and for people with strong links to the University or the city of Bristol. I would like to commend to you Professor Paul O’Prey as eminently worthy of an honorary degree on all these counts. His rich and varied career encompasses life at the University as a student, academic, hall warden and senior leader, a strong record of research and scholarship in modern literature, and numerous contributions to higher education policy and strategy, currently as Vice-Chancellor of Roehampton University.
Paul has never been one to choose the easy or well-trodden path, and his trajectory from a rundown estate in the suburbs of Southampton is as intriguing as it is impressive. He was the youngest of five children from a seafaring family , and was the first in that family to go to University, winning a place at Keble College, Oxford, to study English language and literature. He dates his love of this subject to a year of enforced childhood quarantine following a serious case of tuberculosis, affording him ample opportunity for bedtime reading.
In 1977, two years into his studies at Oxford, a summer job working with the poet Robert Graves and his wife, Beryl, on their rambling estate in Mallorca quickly turned into the beginnings of a career. Paul built a lifelong friendship with the Graves family, and this memorable time in his life would provide the cornerstone for much of his future research, including a preface to the first Spanish edition of Graves’ poetry, written when Paul was just 23, a major biographical study of Graves’ life and work, and eventually a PhD thesis. The piles of correspondence Paul discovered in Graves’ attic, being progressively gnawed by mice, also formed the beginnings of a major archive of the poet’s papers, now housed at St John’s College, Oxford.
Paul’s wide-ranging job description at this time also encompassed the production of a community play, performed in the cliffside theatre on Graves’ estate, which Graves was impelled to delegate to Paul due to deteriorating health. The resulting play was entitled ‘The Maoist Trap’. Amongst the local performers was Paul’s future wife, Pilar, whom he elegantly pursued on the pretence of needing Spanish lessons. They returned to England together in 1984, and eventually found themselves in Bristol, where Paul was accepted as an English PhD student under the supervision of Professor Charles Tomlinson. This provided the starting point for a long relationship with the University of Bristol.
Paul combined part-time study with an academic position as an English tutor , as well as taking on the role of Warden at Goldney Hall. He also pursued research interests beyond his PhD work, including a study on the novels of Graham Greene. There was also the matter of raising two young children, Llorenc and Mireia. A formidable work ethic, the unstinting support of his family, and probably the ability to survive on minimal sleep were all essential for Paul to thrive and survive during these years. He and his family made Goldney Hall their home, building a vibrant and cohesive hall community and remaining there until Paul left the University some fourteen years later. He once said to me that the role of warden was ‘not so much a job as a way of life’, and I was one of many students who benefited from his dedication, support and friendship.
Paul completed his PhD in 1993, and his supervisor remembers him as one of the most outstanding students he had had the privilege of teaching. Paul then sought a new challenge. Whilst continuing as Warden at Goldney, he also became the University’s Director of Research Development. This role quickly expanded to Research & Enterprise Development, as Paul masterminded a successful bid for a new government-funded Enterprise Centre, one of only eight in the country at that time. This provided the foundations for the thriving enterprise culture that is now an inherent part of University life. I am sure there are many students here today who have taken enterprise courses as part of their studies, taken part in the University’s New Enterprise or Beermat Challenges or sought funding from the Bristol University Business Angels. But more than this, Bristol’s successes have sown the seeds for the growth and development of enterprise across the higher education sector. Many of the colleagues who worked with and for Paul at Bristol have gone on to establish enterprise centres at other institutions, and this germination of activity prompted the formation of the National Council for Graduate Entrepreneurship, which in turn has supported thousands of graduates in establishing new businesses.
In 2002, Paul was promoted to the role of Director of Academic Affairs at Bristol. He helped to produce a new Education Strategy, designed to encompass the whole of the student experience, from application through to graduation. In the face of rising tuition fees, he championed the introduction of new bursary and scholarship schemes intended to ensure that no student would be deterred from coming to study at Bristol on financial grounds. These contributions endure in the University’s approach to education and student support. He felt that being a warden had kept him grounded in taking forward these difficult tasks, once saying that ‘if I couldn’t go home and look students in the eye and convince them that the decisions I had taken during the day were in their best interest, then I knew there was something wrong with the decision’. His strong sense of community also extended to the city, where he helped to forge relationships with local authorities and businesses at a time when the University was still seen as something of an ‘ivory tower’.
By 2004, Paul was again looking ahead to his next challenge, and was appointed as the first Vice-Chancellor of Roehampton University. He joined Roehampton on the cusp of a new era, as it was moving from an institute affiliated to the University of Surrey to an independent university in its own right. He was undoubtedly the right leader at the right time, and has transformed Roehampton from an association of four independent colleges into a single cohesive institution with a clear vision and strong reputation. He has transformed the rate of student retention: in 2003, nearly one in five first-year undergraduates failed to complete their studies; by 2009 that figure was less than one in ten. He has focussed on pockets of research excellence: in the 2008 national research assessment exercise, 80% of the work submitted at Roehampton was deemed to be world class, with dance and biological anthropology ranking first in the UK. He has also nurtured the same culture of enterprise he fostered at Bristol: for example, Roehampton will soon launch a new Business School, collaborating with Syracuse University in the United States to deliver joint masters programmes in management and entrepreneurship.
In whatever spare time remains, Paul has somehow managed to sustain his research interests in modern literature and war poetry. He is President of the War Poets Assocation, which he was also instrumental in establishing, and he is active on the Council of the Friends of the Imperial War Museum. He is also active in higher education at a national level, being a member of the Board of Universities UK and chair of its Longer Term Strategy Group.
So, what are the personal qualities and values which enable an individual to achieve so richly on so many levels? Paul’s friends, colleagues and family all speak of his ability to reach out to and empathise with others, and of his quiet but determined style of leadership which has led one colleague to describe him as ‘the velvet bulldozer’. I suggest, Mr Vice-Chancellor, that Paul exemplifies many of the qualities and values to which any of our graduates might aspire. He is successful but self-effacing, a wise counsel and a willing listener, firm but always fair, hard-working but also dedicated to family life, friendly, personable and consummately professional. Above all, he has forged a career by pursuing what he loves, and always with a boundless sense of commitment and enthusiasm. He has never sought accolades and his surprise and humility in being nominated for an honorary degree only make him all the more deserving.
Mr Vice-Chancellor, it is with great pleasure that I present to you Paul Gerard O’Prey as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.