Q&A with Baroness Scotland of Asthal

We speak to the chancellor of the University of Greenwich

April 24, 2014

Source: Alamy

Appointed Queen’s Counsel in 1991 at the age of 35 – the youngest QC since Pitt the Younger – Baroness Scotland of Asthal was also the first black woman QC. She later became the first female attorney general. This year she was appointed chancellor of the University of Greenwich.

Where and when were you born?
St Joseph, Commonwealth of Dominica, in 1955. Dominica is one of the most beautiful islands in the Caribbean and is often referred to as “the” nature island. It is unspoiled and is probably one of the only islands in the region that Christopher Columbus would still recognise.

How has this shaped you?
I’m a child of the Caribbean and the Commonwealth. My father was Antiguan Methodist and my mother Dominican Catholic. The rhythm and beat of Caribbean culture and their shared faith resounded through our home and was woven into the fabric of my childhood.

How did being the 10th of 12 children affect your upbringing?
I was extremely lucky as my nine older siblings were great influences on me and the younger two were my delightful companions in fun. I was cared for by all of them.

What role did higher education play in bringing you to this point in your career?
I couldn’t have become a barrister without a degree and doing the Bar exams, so it has been essential.

What do you see as your most important job as chancellor?
Trying to be of assistance to the university and student body by promoting the things that education and Greenwich stand for.

What are your views on attitudes towards different types of university (as someone who studied at Mid-Essex Technical College)?
It is troubling if people think that talent comes only in one form or shape. I am really proud to be chancellor of a university that has such an eclectic group of extremely talented people who come from such diverse backgrounds. The students at Greenwich have, in the main, had to really fight against the odds to get here. They have passion, energy and vivacity along with the willingness to apply themselves.

As a lawyer, do you think that higher education could become more “legalistic” as a result of higher tuition fees?
As the cost of education rises I think it is natural for students and their parents to become increasingly challenging about the nature and quality of the services they receive in exchange for those fees. If the quality is exemplary and the product good I see no reason for this to become a more litigious area. However, if the quality is poor or unsatisfactory in some significant way then I think it is inevitable that such poor service could be challenged.

Have you had a eureka moment?
Understanding that I can’t control what other people do or say to me, only my response.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
Continue to be you. Don’t let others determine your future. I came here in the 1950s to a country that had beautiful plaques that said things such as “no dogs, no Irish and no coloureds”. I was said by others to be the type of person least likely to succeed in joining any of the professions – black, a woman, Catholic, socialist, Caribbean, East Ender – so I had no choice but to be me.

How did it feel to be the first female attorney general?
Extraordinary. I was sad that it had taken 700 years to appoint a woman to the role. It is one of the most burdensome jobs in our country, but it was an honour and very sobering.

Women and ethnic minorities are poorly represented at senior levels in higher education. How can we improve this?
We have to be really clear about the talents that women and BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) people have. We must address any unfair imbalance by taking positive steps to ensure rebalancing takes place and real opportunities are given to all equally, which are then monitored and sustained.

Tell us about someone you’ve always admired.
Mary Seacole and Rosa Parks are both heroines. Reports from the period say Mary was the person the men on the front line really admired and although Florence Nightingale was important, Mary was the greater influence in the eyes of the troops. Rosa Parks led what proved to be a revolution in the southern US because she refused to accept injustice.

As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?
I wanted to be a modern expression ballerina.

What do you do for fun?
I spend time with my children, travel with my family, go to church and read. But what I’d really like to do is dance!

What’s your biggest regret?
That we haven’t reduced domestic violence murders to zero yet.

john.elmes@tsleducation.com

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