Cambridge seeks makeover to revive its arty image

October 8, 1999

Cambridge University is to shake off its image as solely science-led to challenge its rival Oxford's perceived superiority in the arts, writes Phil Baty.

Cambridge vice-chancellor Alec Broers in his annual address last week admitted that Cambridge's pursuit of excellence in science had meant that its work in the arts had been "dispersed around the arts faculties, often with inadequate support and accommodation".

He said the university was considering establishing a humanities research centre to help focus on "advanced study in the arts in the century ahead".

Cambridge's rival Oxford University is perceived as dominating the arts, while Cambridge leads with science. Professor Broers, an engineer, acknowledged this.

"Cambridge's achievements in the 20th century have often been thought of largely in terms of the sciences and technology," he said. Much of the problem was perception: "We must not forget that some of the most eminent figures connected with the university had been in the humanities."

But he also acknowledged that more needed to be done to focus on the arts. A new humanities centre would "facilitate a major, coordinated visiting fellowship programme; provide a venue for short visits by eminent international scholars; and help to focus advanced research, seminars and lectures in the humanities on a single site," he said.

He said the "exciting possibility" being explored by pro vice-chancellor Quentin Skinner would depend on finding funding and accommodation. But Cambridge should "strive for a balance between the arts and humanities and the sciences and technologies". Such a balance, he said, "will be a prerequisite for success in the century ahead".

The other prerequisite for success, he said, was to redress the gender imbalance.

Professor Broers admitted that the proportion of women in senior posts at Cambridge had fallen in recent years. "It has to be admitted that the recent early retirement exercise led to a fall in the number of senior women, reducing their percentage from 17.6 per cent in 1997 to 15.8 per cent in 1999," he said. The university was committed to addressing the imbalance, he added.

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