Interview with Sonita Alleyne

The first black leader of an Oxbridge college on the need for careers-based initiatives for students, the joys of parenthood and seeking out moments of calm

December 5, 2019
Sonita Alleyne

Sonita Alleyne is master of Jesus College, Cambridge. She is the first black person to lead an Oxbridge college and the first woman to hold the role at Jesus. Ms Alleyne read philosophy at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge before co-founding the media production company Somethin’ Else, which she led as chief executive from 1991 until 2009. She is a member of the BBC Trust and of the British Board of Film Classification’s management council. In 2004, Ms Alleyne was appointed OBE for services to broadcasting.

Where and when were you born?
I was born in Barbados at the end of the 1960s. I can honestly say that I’m a child of the Sixties.

How has this shaped you?
I came to the UK when I was two or three years old. My parents were very positive about education as a means of enhancing the lives of their three children – why else would you travel 4,000 miles to the UK? Before I went to school, they were keen to make sure I was a good reader. I read fluently at the age of three, and that push definitely gave me an advantage.

What kind of undergraduate were you?
I’d describe myself as one of those fully “lean-in” undergraduates. I was very keen to meet people. In the days before mobile phones, you just had to go to the bar and trust in serendipity that you would meet or make friends. Everything was less planned and, in a way, more exciting. I took part in lots of extracurricular activities and was able to develop my own sense of agency, exploring what I might be interested in and who I wanted to be.

How do you feel about becoming the first black person to lead an Oxbridge college?
When I was approached to apply for the role, my focus was on whether this was a job that I wanted and felt that I could do well. That my appointment has marked some firsts was not on my radar; but if it shows potential students what is possible and encourages them to apply, that’s a great outcome. It’s been an honour to be one of five women taking up leadership positions at Cambridge this term, and to join Jesus College in its 40th anniversary of mixed education. This is a time of real and positive change.

What do you hope to achieve as master of Jesus College?
I see my role as a call to care. Jesus College is a very special community, from our students, academics and staff in Cambridge, to our thousands of alumni across the world. Part of my call will include exploring how we can support student welfare and mental health in a modern world that puts increasing pressures on young people both from outside and within. I’ll also be involved in continuing the excellent widening participation work taking place at both the college and the university, as well as looking at employability as our students move on from their studies.

What changes should UK universities make to become more diverse?
It’s a big question, and what diversity looks like can depend on where a university is located and which degrees it offers: some have a very diverse catchment area as they draw in local students, for instance. However, what we can do is demystify the applications process, showcase role models and have conversations about further and higher education at an earlier age to foster aspiration. As a sector, we need to listen to the concerns of prospective students with disabilities, those leaving care and those from low-income and working-class households. Information and support need to be tailored to encourage them to apply and then enable them to complete their course. When it comes to Cambridge and other Russell Group universities, we also need to myth-bust. If you have the grade potential, you have nothing to lose by applying. For our applicants, students and their teachers shouldn’t discount themselves if they go into A levels without 9s across the board at GCSE. Come to our open days, talk to our students and admissions tutors. Don’t discount us as not being for you.

If you were the universities minister for a day, what policy would you immediately introduce to the sector?
I’d introduce a broad bucket of careers-based initiatives. First, compulsory project planning lessons. As a former employer, I’ve seen many students come out of university without project planning skills, which are of massive benefit on a CV and in the workplace. Careers advice and work experience elements would be integrated into courses, and I’d also introduce provision for mature students, as people’s work ambitions develop in later life. For students leaving university, I’d bring in transition coaching to prepare them to move from academia to the world of work.

What divided your life into a ‘before’ and ‘after’?
Parenthood and having my son. I realised the joy to be had from being my son’s Lego “apprentice” (I’ve never been promoted!). It balanced and settled me, helping me realise what everything’s about.

What do you do for fun?
I enjoy creative writing and love a good box set – I’ve just caught up with Peaky Blinders and enjoyed Black Summer. I also seek out moments of calm. I’ve recently taken up oil painting. I’m really not good at it, but I really don’t care. It’s good to spend some time accepting that you can just enjoy something and don’t have to be the best at it. We’ve started an art club at Jesus that [is open to] students, academics and staff. It’s a great way to meet people and to share different perspectives.

What would you like to be remembered for?
It would be lovely to be remembered through anecdotes of how and why I helped people: “Here lies Sonita Alleyne: she helped a lot of people and her body is now fertilising a lot of plants. Still helping.”


Andy Schofield has been appointed vice-chancellor of Lancaster University. He is currently pro vice-chancellor and head of the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences at the University of Birmingham. The professor of theoretical physics, a winner of the Maxwell Medal and Prize for his work on the emergent properties of correlated electrons, will take up his new role in May. Professor Schofield said he was “tremendously excited” to succeed Mark Smith at Lancaster. “It is an outstanding and ambitious university, renowned for its research, its high-quality teaching and its collegiality,” he said.

Nic Beech has been announced as vice-chancellor of Middlesex University. He is currently vice-principal of the University of Dundee, where he previously served as head of the College of Arts and Social Sciences. Professor Beech, a former dean of arts and head of the School of Management at the University of St Andrews, will join Middlesex in February, replacing Tim Blackman. Professor Beech said it was a “great honour” to join the university. “I have been very impressed by the spirit of community and everyone’s deep commitment to making a real difference in the world,” he said.

Matthew Weait is joining the University of Hertfordshire as deputy vice-chancellor. He will join the institution in March from his current post as executive dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences and professor of law and society at the University of Portsmouth.

Marilyn Wells has been appointed the new chancellor of Pennsylvania State University-Penn State Brandywine. She is currently the provost and senior vice-president for academic affairs at Minnesota State University, Mankato.

Stuart Flack has been named dean of the Graham School of Continuing Liberal and Professional Studies at the University of Chicago.

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