Interview with Geoffrey Alderman

We talk poverty, political correctness gone mad and the comfort of whisky with the outspoken historian

July 13, 2017
Geoffrey Alderman

Geoffrey Alderman is Michael Gross professor of politics and contemporary history at the University of Buckingham. He has held senior positions at the University of London, Middlesex University and Touro College in New York. In June, he was elected to a senior research fellowship at the Institute of Historical Research, part of the School of Advanced Study, University of London, to undertake research into the Jewish contribution to crime in the UK since the Cromwellian Readmission.

Where and when were you born?
I was born in the Royal Palace of Hampton Court, to which the Bearsted Jewish Maternity Hospital, Stoke Newington, had been evacuated, in February 1944. I was circumcised by the late Jacob Snowman – who circumcised Prince Charles. My mother had a younger brother who was in Bomber Command and whose Lancaster had been shot down, with the loss of all the crew, on the night of 21-22 January 1944. The pilot was the son of a Durham coalminer, and his family invited me and my mum to spend some time with them in the relative safety of Hetton-le-Hole [in Tyne and Wear].

How has this shaped you?
I spent my early years living in a miner’s cottage, with no mains drainage: there was a bucket privy – “the midden” – in the yard. We moved back to Jewish Hackney at the end of the war. My father was a warehouse "packer"; there was always some food on the table, but we kids knew that none of it was to be wasted. I grew up in an orthodox Jewish socialist household – full of political argument. If you were to argue politics with my parents, G-d help you if you hadn’t marshalled all your facts. We were poor – but we never suffered from the worst form of poverty: poverty of aspiration. How has all this shaped me? I know what real poverty is like: no television; a "wet cell" radio; no refrigerator; no pocket money.

What kind of undergraduate were you?
Very studious. I was intellectually advanced, but socially immature. I never had a girlfriend. My social life was limited. The entire Oxford drug scene passed me by. I did enjoy some of the lectures – especially those by A.J.P. Taylor (we became friends) – and went to hear David Cecil lecture on Thomas Hardy. This had nothing to do with my degree, but so what?

What are your initial hypotheses about the Jewish contribution to crime in the UK?
Ethnic minorities typically legitimate themselves in the eyes of their host communities in one or more of the following ways: through the acquisition of wealth; through entry into politics or the professions; through success in the world of entertainment or sport; or through success in the criminal underworld.​ To date there has been no scholarly study of the Jewish involvement in crime in the UK. Why have Jewish immigrants to these shores become involved in criminal enterprises? Were they simply criminal immigrants? Have Anglo-Jewish criminals favoured some types of crime rather than others? Is it true that Jews are "over-represented" in certain forms of criminal activity, but "under-represented" in others? In the Oxford empirical tradition, I shall go wherever the evidence takes me.

You’re well-known for presenting forthright views. Do you think people are less willing to do so nowadays?
There’s no doubt in my mind that this is so. “Political correctness” is a disease that has – alas – infected the academy. I was recently verbally reprimanded because, at a public seminar, I had pointed out that the late Martin Luther King, as well as being a brilliant leader of black America, was also a serial plagiarist, who plagiarised most of his PhD thesis. Folks don’t like the truth, do they? Even academic folks. Very sad.

What divided your life into a ‘before’ and ‘after’?
Getting married (1973). I still haven’t got over the shock.

What’s your biggest regret?
Not having placed a bet on the outcome of the 1979 general election.

What do you do for fun? 
I collect Victorian pressed glass made by Davidson of Gateshead, and I have a collection of loud chiming antique clocks that I enjoy winding and listening to. I also have an Edison phonograph in full working order. I don’t watch much TV (which is mostly rubbish) but I am addicted to Law & Order.

You have written your own obituary. Why?
I want my story told my way. I’ve actually written two obituaries of myself – one for The Times and the other for the Jewish Chronicle. I’ve left no turn unstoned. So not everyone will be pleased to read them, but you can’t please all the people all the time, can you?

What brings you comfort?
Scotch.

What saddens you?
Hypocrisy.

What are the best and worst things about your job?
Best: dialogue. Listening to and learning from my students. Testing myself against my peers and sometimes conceding that they’re probably right and I’m probably wrong. Worst: giving formative feedback to students who are simply not interested.

What does the future hold for higher education in the UK?
I think we’re on the cusp of a golden age, driven in part by digital technology and in part by the ability to reach out to new student markets. My worry is that sub-mediocre institutions will survive. The Office for Students will have the power to shut them down. But will it?

If you were higher education minister for a day, what would you do?
I’d abolish the Office for Fair Access. I’m principal of Nelson College, in East London, which is at the cutting edge of widening participation. We take the best students irrespective of their social, economic, racial, sexual or religious backgrounds. We don’t need an Offa to tell us how to do this.

john.elmes@timeshighereducation.com


Appointments

Shaun Ewen has been appointed pro vice-chancellor (Indigenous) at the University of Melbourne. Professor Ewen will continue in his role as foundation director of the Melbourne Poche Centre for Indigenous Health. As pro vice-chancellor, he will lead Melbourne’s Indigenous higher education strategy and development, working with the associate provost, Marcia Langton, who is foundation chair of Australian Indigenous studies. “Professor Ewen is an Aboriginal academic who has spent the past two decades living on Wurundjeri country, and has family connections to Gunditjmara country in Victoria’s Western District,” said Glyn Davis, Melbourne’s vice-chancellor. “The university is proud to have two outstanding Indigenous academics in such vital chancellery leadership roles.”

Claire Warwick, pro vice-chancellor (research) at Durham University, has been appointed chair of the pro vice-chancellor research committee of the Russell Group. Professor Warwick will discuss current areas of research interest with the committee every six months. Likely issues for discussion include the development of the research excellence framework and the future of research funding after Brexit. “I enjoy chairing committees, so I’m confident that I can continue the excellent work of the previous chair[s]...who established our open, collegial way of working,” she said.

Toby Wilkinson has been appointed deputy vice-chancellor (external relations) at the University of Lincoln. Previously he was director of international strategy and head of the International Strategy Office at the University of Cambridge.

Paul Almeida, deputy dean of executive education and innovation at Georgetown University, will become dean of its McDonough School of Business on 1 August.

Audencia Business School in Nantes has appointed Daniel Scott Evans as its new director of programmes. He takes up his position in September.

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Related articles

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: HE & me

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Featured Jobs

Most Commented

Daniel Mitchell illustration (29 June 2017)

Academics who think they can do the work of professional staff better than professional staff themselves are not showing the kind of respect they expect from others

As the pay of BBC on-air talent is revealed, one academic comes clean about his salary

Senior academics at Teesside University put at risk of redundancy as summer break gets under way

Thorns and butterflies

Conditions that undermine the notion of scholarly vocation – relentless work, ubiquitous bureaucracy – can cause academics acute distress and spur them to quit, says Ruth Barcan

University of Oxford

Reinstatement of professor over age discrimination must force rethink over ‘unfair’ retirement rules, say campaigners