Alex Vincent on the contribution of the humanities

alexandra vincent

I joined the University back in September as the Divisional Registrar and Chief Operating Officer for the Humanities Division and, so far, it has been a quite a steep – but enjoyable – learning curve, getting to grips with the nuances and intricacies of Oxford life. My 17 years in and around the Research Councils is helping a bit. For the last 5 of those years, I was Chief Operating Officer for the Arts and Humanities Research Council, which has given me an understanding of the challenges and opportunities facing humanities disciplines, as well as the benefits of working closely with colleagues across the University.

It is not an overstatement to say that there are abundant opportunities for the Humanities Division to build on its already strong profile to extend its contribution and influence, locally and nationally. Often, erroneously, the contribution of the humanities is dismissed as being small-scale or lacking the right level of influence. That is not my experience and, in every introductory meeting I have had with our faculties, I have been impressed with the impact that both teaching and research are already having. One of the most prominent advocates I have heard expressing the value of the humanities was not an academic from within ‘our’ disciplines, but a former CEO of the Medical Research Council, who made the case that without the humanities, every other discipline would be worse off because they would forget what it is to be human. But the humanities aren’t just a neat add-on to other disciplines; they are intrinsic to so much of what we do because they help make sense of complicated issues in society and the world around us. It was good to hear our new Vice-Chancellor, Professor Irene Tracey, highlight this in her address at her Admission Ceremony last month.

There are plenty of examples of the value of humanities, whether in partnerships with business and industry; in government organisations, NGOs and other charitable organisations; or in schools and community organisations. I could point to economic benefits through our work with the creative industries; or to contributions to public policy through the networks that our academics have in government and other agencies; or to public engagement concerning big issues like climate change, mental health and wellbeing, and intergenerational justice.  The relatively modest amounts of funding available in the humanities can pose a challenge, but they also provide an opportunity: the return on investment from our activities is enviable in terms of pounds spent to benefits realised. Historic funding levels should not constrain our ambition to grow, whether in terms of income or of scale of impact and influence. Over the next couple of terms, we will be working to ensure that, within the current 5-year planning cycle, we embed this ambition in our strategic plans at faculty and divisional level.

With the Oxford skyline showing the addition of several huge piling rigs in the Radcliffe Observatory Quarter, there is further excitement on the horizon for the Humanities Division, the University and, I hope, the local community. The Stephen A. Schwarzman Centre for the Humanities provides us with a lever for change and scaling up our ambition. Drawing together academic expertise, cutting-edge facilities and a cultural programme which will have local, national and international reach gives us an opportunity to deliver on these ambitions. Planning for the change is important: we’ll need a significant change management programme to bring the faculties together and realise the potential that the new space will offer us, both internally in the University and for local and national audiences. Many of the challenges surrounding change are cultural. Building on existing strengths, we have the opportunity to interweave traditional mediums of teaching and learning with new technologies and methodologies, alongside the cultural programme of activities, taking us into new local and global audiences whilst creating additional value for existing ones. As we develop our ambition and strategic plans for the Humanities Division, I am confident we can create a dynamic environment for learning, research and innovation.