Don's diary: Forging a tradition, Not following in one

June 27, 2003

March: Monday
First day on the job as principal of Queen Margaret University College. Why am I here? My career has been spent in large, research-intensive, well-endowed, self-confident and academically conservative universities. QMUC is small, focused, very good at what it does (but not complacent) and hugely ambitious - we are about to build a new campus and to submit for university title - but with an investment portfolio a mere fraction of my former university, Edinburgh.

The first official event for me and my wife - a reception for our international students. I participated in these occasions annually at Edinburgh, struggling to make conversation with desultory groups of students overawed by the grandeur and tradition of the surroundings. The QMUC gathering is in our functional, early-1970s conference centre and it is buzzing. Medics and health professionals studying at our Institute for International Health Studies; doctoral students and undergraduates in speech sciences; students from the Gulf states and India waxing lyrical about our physiotherapy courses and theatre-arts programme. Three hours later, exhilarated, we are still trying and failing to make our excuses and leave.

April: Tuesday
My first meeting at Universities Scotland. As usual, Stirling's principal, Colin Bell, takes me under his generous wing and, throughout the proceedings, gives me barely sotto voce character sketches of our fellow principals. He knows that I am a giggler and tests my self-control to its feeble limits. Two days later, tragically, he is dead. We have all lost a major presence.

May: Thursday
At the Universities UK meeting, fury flies in all directions: at the government, of course; at the Tories, for producing a policy even crasser than the government's; at the Higher Education Funding Council for England, for being the government's poodle; at other groups and heads of institution, for their failures of solidarity; at UUK, for its pusillanimity. I hope, however, that it does not collapse, because it does matter that the vice-chancellor of Cambridge and the principal of QMUC belong to the same organisation and may even talk to each other - though it certainly matters more to me than it does to him.

A celebration within the spectacular ruins of Dirleton Castle to thank friends and supporters for their help with our fundraising campaign (£5 million raised in four years) and to introduce ourselves to our future neighbours in East Lothian where our new campus will be built. As we climb up to the roofless castle ruins, the rain stops and the clouds part.

The evening sun beating down on the company in these extraordinary surroundings seems highly auspicious. We receive our first gift of artwork for the new campus, Anna Constantinou's sculpture of the tree of life, and, as they depart, all our guests are given the symbolic gift of a sapling. I remember now why I left the secure environment of Edinburgh. QMUC is a fine school, of the greatest relevance to the social agenda in post-devolution Scotland. We are forging a tradition, rather than following in one. Every achievement makes our history, rather than paling into insignificance against the accomplishments of our forebears. Everything we do carries risk, and everything we achieve without the risk materialising is a triumph.

Anthony Cohen is principal of Queen Margaret University College, Edinburgh. He was previously provost of law and social sciences at the University of Edinburgh.

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