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‘Hughes has come of age’ – a retiring Senior Tutor’s reflections

When Dr Philip Johnston joined Hughes Hall in 2009 as Senior Tutor, the job description was full of terms like ‘improve, develop, take initiative, give leadership’. In the years since then, he has demonstrated all those qualities and more. Now, on the eve of his retirement, Philip reflects on his ‘very challenging and extremely rewarding’ time at Hughes Hall.

Hughes Hall has truly come of age as a Cambridge college in the last decade. This has been a remarkable period of growth in numbers, infrastructure, vision and integration. Hughes Hall no longer sits on the outer periphery of Cambridge colleges as a relative newcomer. It is well integrated into university and inter-collegiate life, provides excellent facilities and support for its increasingly diverse student body, and has a clear vision for the future. I have been privileged to be its Senior Tutor for the last 12 years (2009–2021) and to have played a part in this wonderful development.

The basis for our current momentum was laid long ago with a progressive foundation in 1885, followed by agility and adaption to survive through the early 20th century. Then came the crucial late 20th century developments: expansion of the student body from the early 1970s to both genders, all subjects and all levels; and extensive building from the late 1980s, with the Pavilion annexe, Chancellor’s Court, Centenary and Fenner’s Buildings, Leong Library and Gresham Court.

But the development of the last decade has been far more profound than any of this. A key aspect is the exciting vision for a college which bridges academia and the wider world. However, I want to focus here on the extensive developments in my own areas of responsibility. A Senior Tutor has to be a ‘jack of all trades’. The old saying continues ‘and master or none’, but that’s not possible in this role, since you have to quickly master a wide range of activities and arcane knowledge, and contribute to almost every college area and committee. My work has involved three broad areas.

Improving student support and wellbeing

Over my 12 years the student body has nearly doubled, with a steadily growing undergraduate cohort, several large part-time masters courses and more PhD students. The Senior Tutor’s main responsibility is oversight of all students. This covers helping students in difficulty, leading the tutorial team, being a tutor myself, steering admissions, leading the Directors of Studies, addressing academic concerns, overseeing hardship and scholarship awards, and ensuring good administration and strategic leadership.

This growth in numbers and diversity meant that it was critical to invest in support for our student community. So in this last decade we have diversified the team with Associate Tutors and Deputy Senior Tutors, appointed a Nurse and Counsellor, and recruited increasingly professional and competent administration. We’ve revised all the old policies and instituted many new ones, addressing key issues such as disability, equality, safeguarding and study support. We’ve steadily increased college bursaries for student hardship. We’ve massively increased college funding for scholarships from zero to £100,000 pa and successfully attracted many more external benefactors. We have also developed the college’s post-doc community, both in number (more than tripled) and in engagement with the student body and senior membership. Overall this has been a huge collective effort, and I’m proud to have led the team.

Supporting college senior management

I’ve worked with two Presidents, two Bursars and four Development Directors. Each change has brought new ways of working and new enthusiasms, especially from the Presidents, with Sarah Squire’s emphasis on enhancing the student experience and Anthony Freeling’s drive to bridge the academic and wider worlds. Recent appointments of Fellows and College Officers have brought other excellent colleagues, and together we have enabled Hughes Hall to develop in all directions.

Enhancing University cooperation and representation

The 31 Cambridge colleges are legally independent and all operate differently, but they need to work together, all the more so with increasing educational changes and the pandemic challenges.

However, change does not come easily. So I’ve made a point of being as involved as possible, contributing to a dozen different University committees in both policy decisions and practical details. Central administration traditionally focused on undergraduates, but now pays increasing attention to postgraduates. Rightly so, since the latter now constitute nearly half the University’s students as well as the large majority at Hughes. I’m very pleased to have contributed to this shift of emphasis.

Looking ahead

Despite a very difficult pandemic year for many college members, Hughes Hall is in good shape. It has a strong foundation, has developed excellent student provision, is thoroughly integrated into the University and has a distinctive vision for the future. It has truly come of age! So I leave in good heart, and wish my successor every success as she or he leads the academic and welfare team through the coming decade.

And what about retirement? Alongside my day job as Senior Tutor I’ve done a little teaching and writing in my subject area of Old Testament/Hebrew Bible. But not much beyond regular book reviews and a few articles, so I’m looking forward to renewed acquaintance with my bookshelves. Plus a bit more leisure time, and  – of course – the occasional visit to Hughes to enjoy friendship and fellowship, happily free from my current responsibilities!

To mark Dr Johnston’s retirement, the college is welcoming contributions from across the Hughes Hall community to establish a new prize that will recognise outstanding achievement among our postgraduate students – the ‘Philip Johnston Prize’. This important initiative, close to Dr Johnston’s heart, will ensure that many more students receive recognition from the college for their hard work. Donations for the Philip Johnston Prize can be made online at www.hughes.cam.ac.uk/gift.

This article was published in the most recent edition of the College magazine, Hughes 32 which can be read in full here.

June 2021