Interview with Stephen Milner

The Italian scholar discusses how Machiavelli might have appraised current politics, the benefits of birdwatching and discovering Stevie Wonder

August 10, 2017
Stephen Milner

Stephen Milner is Serena professor of Italian studies at the University of Manchester. He has held positions at the universities of Cambridge and Bristol, as well as research fellowships at Harvard University and the British School at Rome – a UK humanities and fine arts research institute. In July, he was announced as the next director of the BSR, which is the UK’s largest overseas research institute. He will take up the role at the start of the 2017-18 academic year.

Where and when were you born?
I was born in Coventry in June 1963 and grew up surrounded by Leyland car factories. When I was seven, the family moved to the dockside area of Southampton, where I lived until I went to university.

How has this shaped you?
I naturally feel at home in multicultural industrial cities. As a child living in areas of social deprivation, the visits to civic galleries, museums and libraries were always wondrous events. In hindsight, this probably laid the foundations for my interest in the relation of urbanism to cultural production. As an undergraduate, I was fascinated by Marx and Engels’ critique of political economy. In many ways, moving to Manchester in 2006 felt like an intellectual homecoming.

The directorship of the BSR has included some illustrious names over the years. What are your aims in terms of maintaining and perhaps emulating your predecessors’ work?
Since its foundation in 1901, the BSR has shown a tremendous ability to adapt to the times. I’m aware that my not being a classicist or an archaeologist marks a departure for the BSR, but I’m hoping that my interdisciplinary background and initiation into the multiple forms of the classical tradition at the Warburg Institute will stand me in good stead. And Rome itself is always a catalyst for new thinking. As a long-established transnational capital and cultural crossroads, it hosts an impressive concentration of international agencies, academies, international embassies and an unrivalled cultural patrimony.

What role will the BSR play in maintaining humanities research links with Europe?
A vital one. In my opinion, the importance of the BSR, and the wider network of British International Research Institutes, is potentially enhanced post-Brexit. Part of the director’s job involves advocating for continued support in maintaining a strong UK research presence overseas and keeping routes open into Europe, the wider Mediterranean basin and the Middle East and North Africa region. The BSR also has an important role as a Commonwealth research and fine art institution with strong global links. In this respect, it provides a unique research space and support function at the heart of Europe for UK- and Commonwealth-based higher education institutions, not just in the humanities but also in the social sciences, the fine arts and architecture.

As an Italian scholar, you will probably have felt the impact of the UK’s referendum on EU membership quite substantially. How has the past year been for your academic area?
Filled with uncertainty. We face a real threat of losing outstanding academic colleagues from across Europe who contribute so much to the international character of UK higher education. Last month, an Italian Embassy poll of 5,000 Italian academics in the UK found that 82 per cent were contemplating leaving. In the negotiations that lie ahead, it is vital that the traditional diversity and openness of UK higher education is maintained if we are to remain globally competitive.

You’ve written books on Boccaccio and Machiavelli. What do you think they would have made of modern society and politics?
Both were acute commentators on, and satirists of, the socio-political world of late-medieval and Renaissance Italy, and both were “insiders” in terms of being active participants in the political and diplomatic affairs of Florence. I have no doubt that they would have found inspiration in current global developments. I’ve often thought about updating Machiavelli’s Prince with modern-day examples, but it would have to be a rolling project given the speed of events. I’m sure Machiavelli would have been amused by the notion that “fake news” was a recent phenomenon. And Anthony “the Mooch” Scaramucci sounds like a character straight out of Boccaccio’s Decameron. You really couldn’t make it up.

What kind of undergraduate were you?
All in. I burned the candle at both ends, survived and enjoyed the experience. I was lucky to have some truly inspirational, and patient, teachers.

What’s your most memorable moment at university?
The advice given to me in the Warburg Institute tearoom by Sir Ernst Gombrich when I received a letter from a postgraduate student in the US warning me off my proposed PhD topic: “Young man, in the theatre of scholarship, there are no reserved seats.”

What do you do for fun?
As a former twitcher, I still love a day out walking with my “bins”. Colleagues have consistently mocked this geeky trait, but then always end up asking me to identify the strange bird they saw in the garden over the weekend.

What’s your biggest regret?
Not paying sufficient attention during O-level Latin classes. Mr Killick deserved better.

What divided your life into a “before” and “after”?
Getting a Panasonic music centre with turntable for my 18th birthday and playing Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life at full volume. A soundtrack for life.

What are the best and worst things about your job?
The enthusiasm, curiosity and talent of students constantly remind me of why I entered higher education. In a profession that is all about untapping individual potential, increasingly impersonal corporatism hangs like a dark cloud.

If you were the higher education minister for a day, what policy would you immediately introduce to the sector?
The publication of academic and managerial salaries in higher education, BBC-style. It would be a more meaningful step than the teaching excellence framework in working out whether the public, and students, are really getting value for their money.

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