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Magdalene’s master stroke

04 January 2013

Joy Starkey, an undergraduate at Magdalene College, Cambridge, welcomes its new Master


After Lambeth Palace: Magdalene College, from Magdalene Bridge

After Lambeth Palace: Magdalene College, from Magdalene Bridge

NOW that the Rt Revd Justin Welby has been chosen to succeed him as Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams can pack away his mitre, close the door on Lambeth Palace, and step down after nearly ten years of responsibility for the Church of England and the worldwide Anglican Communion.

On 17 January, the former Archbishop will be inaugurated as the Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge. He will mix mainly with college dons rather than religious leaders, and his flock will be whittled down from a nominal 80 million to about 300.

The words "Cambridge University" conjure up for many images cobbled streets, cycling students, and spindly Gothic spires; for others, it means stuffy old academics with brooding stares, excessive ear-hair, and a tendency to petty squabbling. Yet others will think of Old Etonians (oops, sorry, Bishop Welby) lounging in their gowns on immaculate lawns, reciting Shakespearean sonnets to each other.

Magdalene College was, for many years, the epitome of this Cambridge élitist stereotype. It was, notoriously, the last college in the university to admit female students, finally relenting in 1989. Legend has it that male students walked around wearing black armbands in silent protest, and that the college flag was lowered to half-mast.

I SPOKE to the outgoing Master of the college, Duncan Robinson. He explained that, before the admission of women, the stereotypical Magdalene student was indeed a wealthy public schoolboy who had chosen Magdalene for its reputation as one of the least academic colleges in Cambridge. It was the ultimate finishing school for privileged males, or, rather, a massive boys' club.

This reputation has stuck stubbornly to the college, and, understandably, many outside the university do not have the evidence or experience to believe otherwise. But as a female, ex-state-school student, in my final year at Magdalene, I can certify that the majority of stereotypes attached to my college are plain wrong.

Magdalene is a friendly college, one of the smaller ones of the University. Its corridors have been graced by such notables as Samuel Pepys, C. S. Lewis, the present Duke of Gloucester, and Simon Ambrose, winner of series three of The Apprentice.

Founded as a monastery in 1428, it was the first college to be built on the other side of the river, to stop the monks from being tempted by the indulgences of the town. A bridge has been built since then, and the college now opens its doors to students from all backgrounds and faiths.

It is famous for its biennial white-tie Summer Ball. This may sound grander than it is: really just an excuse to dress up and eat an inordinate amount of food.

THE college may have been established in the 15th century, but its views and values now are far from medieval. The new Master will be representing a college that, last year, took 57.4 per cent of its intake from state schools, compared with the Cambridge average of 43.5 per cent; and whose access committee is committed to making sure "every applicant gets a fair chance."

And, no, "Master" in this context does not mean the same as a lightsaber-wielding "Jedi master", as seen in the Star Wars films. The Master of Magdalene is the person who represents the college, and is responsible for its overall running. This includes chairing the college-council and governing-body meetings. His executive powers of office are limited, however (this aspect of the job might seem familiar to Dr Williams).

In addition, and most importantly, he has his own special seat at the centre of the high table at Magdalene's candlelit formal dinners (the cheapest in the university, at £5.10 for three courses). It is an impressive area, elevated above us lowly students at the end of the grand hall, and generally reserved for dons and special guests. They have the privilege of better food and real tablecloths.

From speaking to friends at other colleges, I gather that Masters can decide for themselves what sort of contact they will have with undergraduates. Each is unique in his or her level of pastoral care and one-to-one contact.

For example, the previous Master of Magdalene used to invite all the freshers to his house for lunch once a year. On the other hand, a friend from a different college said that he had barely spoken to the Master during his three years at Cambridge, despite a supposed "open-door policy".

It is clear that, technically, a Master has no obligation to form close bonds with the student community. It is the same for the college dons - none of whom I have ever met, or would recognise in the street. Dr Williams will have to decide on his own personal manner and identity as Master.

I HAVE no doubt that Dr Williams will settle into life at Magdalene. He is, after all, familiar with both the academic life of Cambridge and of being in a position of leadership. But I will be interested to see whether, and how, students' attitudes to the Christian faith change during his time at the college.

The new Master might not have to tackle tough issues such as women bishops or gay marriage, but he will be brought face to face with a variety of new challenges, including the growing number of young people and students who do not attend church and see it as irrelevant and boring. Last week, an anxious third-year undergraduate asked me: "If our new Master is the ex-Archbishop of Canterbury, will he cancel the bop?" This is the twice-termly college party: clearly, there are misconceptions he will need to address.

I imagine that Dr Williams will enjoy being in a position of authority which does not bring with it daily and incessant criticism. You never know - perhaps having a former archbishop as a Master could revive chapel attendance, if only because some will be curious to see a person who has been in the public eye for so long. Maybe he will help this diverse group of 300 students to start thinking about faith for the first time.

I hope he can solidify his position by being a Master who engages with the student community; who comes down to our level; and who grapples with the problems that young graduates face today; or even just be a Master who knows the names and faces of the undergraduate community, and keeps his door open to overworked and stressed students.

Maybe - and this I hope, more than anything - he will show us his best dance-moves at the first college bop of 2013.

Joy Starkey is studying fine art at Magdalene College, Cambridge.

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