Masterclass in engagement

From BBC Radio 4 to St Peter's, Oxford, Mark Damazer has worked to put scholarship in the spotlight. Matthew Reisz reports

November 18, 2010

Mark Damazer admits that there is something counter-intuitive about his recent career move from controller of BBC Radio 4 to master of St Peter's College, Oxford.

In post since the beginning of October, Damazer says much of his time and energy is going to be devoted to "the development effort".

"We don't have a huge endowment," he observes. "The government isn't going to come over the hill on a white horse to rescue us, and Lord Browne certainly hasn't come to our rescue - not entirely to my surprise.

"I need to make alumni feel that the college is an important cause for them to contribute to, particularly given likely cuts. I need to be unembarrassed about asking people to help, and to make them feel that it is worth their while."

Yet if Damazer's new employers wanted someone with professional fundraising experience, he says, "I am not their man. My model (at the BBC) was: everyone pays £145.50, I get a slice of that, a cheque arrives for about £100 million and I spend it.

"It's terrific, but it can't be replicated, despite my attempts to persuade people that it should. I'm not going to give you your headline: 'New master of St Peter's demands licence fee'."

Funding models apart, however, there are some strong links between Damazer's old and new jobs.

"Without the quality of British academic life," he notes, "Radio 4 would not be what it is."

The programme In Our Time, he says, is the obvious emblem of the relationship, but a great number of the factual programmes are also underpinned by contributions from academics, including the entire science strand, All in the Mind, Thinking Allowed, Start the Week and programmes such as David Reynolds' 90-part series America: Empire of Liberty.

"Many of the contributors get little or no media exposure elsewhere," he says. "You can pitch the bar higher on Radio 4. The channel has an audience of 10.3 million, listening for an average of 12.5 hours per week. It is an audience that wants to be informed, challenged, debated with and entertained - and that gives a window for academics."

But if Radio 4 needs the academy, how far should the academy engage with the more serious end of the entertainment business? Does Damazer plan to help or even urge the scholars at St Peter's to get out into the media and raise their public profile?

"I don't see it as a central goal," he replies, "but I'll be delighted to facilitate and demystify the media, because there are all kinds of superstitions about it. Academics are treated pretty well on Radio 4. Their contributions are respected and possibly even cherished. There are no rules, except to be yourself, know roughly what you want to say, don't over-rehearse and have a good time."

Damazer says he will offer himself as a conduit if asked, but the fundamental drivers of college life are teaching and research, "and I don't want to be seen as a traffic marshal for media appearances. It is a fatal error to assume that weight of academic achievement is proportionate to media exposure."

Although he has no particular desire for all the staff of St Peter's to become media stars, Damazer is keen to promote "a sense of porousness to the outside world".

He would like to bring people into the college, not just from broadcasting but also from politics, literature, journalism and perhaps even the military, to speak and to debate issues.

"It's amazing who you bump into at the news and Radio 4," he adds.

His other key goals are more straight-forward and less contentious. Damazer wants to be seen in and around graduate and undergraduate events "in not too intrusive a way", and to project the college's "true sense of warmth, friendliness and informality. It's a newer, more intimate place than some of the other colleges, and you don't feel 700 years of history sitting on your shoulders."

Damazer describes his class origins as "not particularly distinguished", and his whole life as "floated by smoked salmon. My father's ability to cut smoked salmon very thinly gave him a living among an immigrant community in northwest suburban London. I don't remember my life as being one of grinding poverty, but there was certainly no wealth."

When it comes to widening access to Oxbridge, Damazer believes that it is very desirable to have a broader educational base, with more students from the state sector.

"But you have to start from somewhere and the only non-negotiable bit of the equation is excellence," he says.

"You have to work back from excellence. Of course you can have a debate about what excellence is, but you have to avoid putting a lot of other things into the equation. Oxford and Cambridge need to be institutions of real excellence - if they are not, what is the point? That is the organising principle.

"The final bit of the process, when you are selecting at 17 or 18, is far more about what happened when applicants were 13, 14 and 15 than about tutors looking at the whole cohort of 17- and 18-year-olds and making a bunch of wrong choices. I'm sure they existed 40 years ago, but I no longer meet people who select on the basis of social prestige or the ability to row in a boat. It's a whole variety of different issues - social, educational, economic, cultural, parental - that go on before that."

On one aspect of Oxford tradition, Damazer is adamant.

"The absolutely identifying hallmark of Oxbridge is the tutorial system, which is more expensive than other forms of teaching. If we throw that away, we throw away a trump card vis-à-vis the Ivy League universities, which do not do that kind of focused, small-group and sometimes one-on-one teaching in which the individual is at the centre. If we give this up, we'll be giving up something that was the chief inspiration for me to come back."

That unique educational approach certainly reflects his own experience at the University of Cambridge, he says.

"The standard of teaching I got at Gonville and Caius over 30 years ago was inspiring, stayed with me forever and gave me a tremendous boost. I had one colossally fantastic tutor and a whole variety of very good ones."

The former was Vic Gatrell, still a life Fellow at Gonville and Caius, and a scholar Damazer recalls as "the dominant intellectual influence in my early life, for the detail and penetration of his critique, and the generosity of spirit - he gave me at least twice the length of the advertised tutorial.

"He has a searing, occasionally distressing, honesty of intellectual critique of your position, in all fields of activity, which can be very bruising, but the degree of insight remains unmatched by any other single figure in my life. I've never met anyone else with that degree of intellectual acumen," Damazer says.

Professor Gatrell's most recent book, published in 2006, was City of Laughter: Sex and Satire in Eighteenth-century London. A winner of the Wolfson History Prize, it celebrates the obscene and often lavatorial prints that poured from the popular presses and mocked just about every form of piety and authority.

Isn't so gleefully anarchic a historian a strange role model for someone running an Oxford college?

"He is very pro-rudeness," agrees Damazer, "but I've also got another good friend at Cambridge, Lawrence Klein, who is an expert on the history of politeness, and I feel compelled to support them both.

"I'm not a great fan of rudeness per se, although I can see its merits in the context of political corruption - and I don't want to encourage it as the dominant currency at St Peter's. There is much to be said for civility, temperate expression and solidarity."

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