Interview with Pippa Rogerson

We talk diversity, the joy of family meals and Professor Stephen Hawking with the new Cambridge college master

June 15, 2017
Pippa Rogerson

Pippa Rogerson is a senior lecturer in law at the University of Cambridge. An alumna of the institution, Dr Rogerson pursued a legal career before turning to academia. She has served in Cambridge’s law faculty since 1989, while also serving as fellow and lecturer at Gonville and Caius College. In May, she was announced as the next master of Gonville and Caius, the first woman to lead the college in its 669-year history. Her appointment means that more than one-third of Cambridge colleges are now led by women.

Where and when were you born?
1961, in deepest Suffolk.

How has this shaped you?
Although I was brought up in London and later Essex, I still have a yearning for the soft landscape, medieval towns and pink cottages of Suffolk. The county has a fascinating history and remains quite distinct in attitude from London or Cambridge. It’s a type of hiraeth.

Your appointment means that more than one-third of Cambridge colleges are now led by women. What is the significance of this tipping point?
We have a lot more work to do before the diversity among the heads of houses properly reflects the population. I’m proud that Cambridge is leading the way towards that aim.

How important a role does higher education play in a movement towards equality?
I have found that creativity and understanding flourish in open and diverse environments. It is vital that higher education is open to everyone able to benefit, irrespective of where they come from, what they look like, who they have sex with and whether they have faith or not. We must all ensure that our employment and applications processes are free of bias so that we get the best people and enable them to do their best work.

You said of your legal career: ‘The City was a hard place to be a woman. The experience instilled in me a certain tenacity and I learned to work very long hours.’ Do you think that there is a similar environment in higher education? If so, has the tenacity you gained been valuable?
Definitely. Finding a way to make myself respected when a young woman has certainly stood me in good stead in higher education. The sector is in many ways similar to The Bonfire of the Vanities world of the City in the 1980s. The hours are long, and research takes a long time to come to fruition. There’s little allowance made for the vicissitudes of life that come with children and caring responsibilities. Things are changing in both places: Athena SWAN and the 30% Club are raising awareness.

What’s the biggest misconception about your field of study?
People think that law is easy and that anyone can do it. It’s true that the complex world of private international law can be described in a straightforward way. Resolving the issues is much more difficult and takes a lifetime of understanding.

What are the best and worst things about your job?
Best is the (relative) autonomy, worst is the (relative) autonomy. An academic never gets away from the job.

You have been an undergraduate, postgraduate and an academic at Cambridge. What is it about the university that has kept you there?
It is simply the world-leading university in my subject area. Nowhere else has such brilliant colleagues or such a history of teaching and research in private international law. More prosaically, the two-body problem of finding suitable jobs for both parents in a family kept me grounded in the Cambridge community.

What kind of undergraduate were you?
An uncool one. After looking through my photo album of the early 1980s my daughters confirm that!

Did anything divide your life into a ‘before’ and ‘after’?
My husband died 10 years ago and I became a single parent overnight to five school-age daughters. Nothing can be the same again.

What brings you comfort?
Having all my daughters around the kitchen table for supper. It’s a rare occasion these days.

What do you do for fun?
I sing in one of the local choral societies weekly and go to a boot camp early in the morning. Both are fun, although my daughters tell me that they have a different view of having fun.

What’s your biggest regret?
I’ve made mistakes, of course. A mother’s place is always in the wrong. But I hope always to do the best in the circumstances and that has to be “good enough”.

What saddens you?
Currently, the terrible situation in Syria and Iraq as well as the recent [terrorist] attack in Manchester. For me, there is a link between them.

If you were a prospective university student facing £9,000-plus fees, would you go again or get a job?
I recognise that I am fortunate to have enough social capital to work out that going to university would give me benefits. The 6 per cent compound rate of interest on the loan might make me think twice.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
Lighten up. Life is long and you don’t have to be so afraid of mistakes.

If you were higher education minister for a day, what would you do?
Finance this country’s unique asset of higher education properly. And persuade the home secretary to remove the immigration problems for students from the rest of the world.

Professor Stephen Hawking is a Caius fellow. What’s the value of having one of the world’s most famous scientists as a college representative?
My fondest memory of Stephen is him joyfully dancing in his wheelchair at a May Ball. His huge success as a world-renowned physicist while living with profound disability is a testament to what someone can achieve.


James Knowles has been appointed dean of arts and social science at Royal Holloway, University of London. Professor Knowles, who takes up his position on 1 August, is vice-dean for research and professor of Renaissance literature and culture at Brunel University London. He has also held positions at University College Cork and Keele University. “Joining Royal Holloway offers the chance to work with excellent scholars and teachers, and the opportunity to contribute to an exciting, diverse and ambitious institution,” Professor Knowles said. “The expertise within the faculty provides for research that addresses global problems for the benefit of society, working transculturally to demonstrate the power of the arts and humanities to change the world for [the] better.”

Dame Julia Goodfellow is to be the next president of the Royal Society of Biology. Dame Julia will succeed Dame Jean Thomas in May 2018. The vice-chancellor of the University of Kent and president of Universities UK, Dame Julia will take up the position after her retirement from Kent. She has previously served as the chief executive of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and chair of the British Science Association. “I look forward to working with the RSB to help strengthen the bioscience community [that] they have successfully fostered, and ensure [that] we are able to represent their views and priorities in the coming months and years,” she said.

Pearson College has appointed Anne Morrison, former chair of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, as the new chair of its governing body and Ruth Farwell, former vice-chancellor of Bucks New University, as deputy chair.

Bar-Ilan University has appointed Arie Zaban as its next president. He takes up the role in October.

Peter Widmore, professor of economics at Aberystwyth University, has taken up his year-long position as president of the Agricultural Economics Society.

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