Raising the curtain – and ideas for an ‘ideal’ college

With the opening of the conference almost upon us, and with many delegates even now en route to Durham, this final pre-conference post on the Collegiate Way Blog is our opportunity to start to raise the curtain – or, if that would be premature, at least to give the curtain a twitch!

A few numbers to begin with… As you’ll shortly discover by meeting one another and comparing notes, the conference has 100 delegates, from some thirty two colleges, themselves drawn from twenty universities, variously distributed across nine countries in five continents. So you have a fair claim to representing a global collegiate community all in one place for the coming few days! And if we add in two members of our International Advisory Committee who unfortunately aren’t able to attend, then we can’t think of a single major collegiate university anywhere that isn’t represented in the conference. So, even before meeting you, thank you for your part in what is thereby already a very significant milestone in the direction of ‘global collegiate consciousness.’

Here in Durham city, ten of the fourteen colleges are waiting to receive you into residence and/or Senior Common Room membership. We’ve tried to interfere as little as possible with the scheduling of events in those colleges in order to give you – on Tuesday and Thursday evenings – a decently-authentic flavour of their various expressions of collegiate life, student activities, and the fellowship of the table. Of course, some events have been re-timed or augmented, but for the most part you will be immersing yourselves in colleges as they are ordinarily found here. It is the University’s “Environment Week” so expect some hints of green around the place.

Variety in what one might call the different ‘personalities’ of our colleges (something that embraces style, ethos, purpose and collective temperament) is something we really prize, and aim to promote. There are common purposes, of course – providing a safe, secure, welcoming and comfortable environment with the highest standards of personal and pastoral support and supporting a broad range of opportunities for recreational, sporting and artistic endeavour. But since we all ought to be doing that anyway, the challenge is to flourish in different and distinctive ways over and above the ‘standard’ high quality student experience. We hope you’ll be able to get at least a brief taste of more than one college while you’re with us, and form a view of what may be interestingly different between them.

A while ago when we got through the early rounds of organising the conference’s preparatory arrangements, we asked ourselves what an ideal – an absolutely ideal – college would be like, if money and goodwill were no object, and regulatory restrictions were in abeyance. It was an entertaining question to consider, and one you might like to ponder – perhaps en route if you’re reading this while travelling. So here are some of our suggested ingredients.

People first: a community genuinely small enough for everyone to know everyone else by name – but big enough to be able comfortably to field our chosen sports teams, our performing arts ensembles and a vibrant social life. Shall we say: four hundred students? – comprising undergraduates in all years of study across a broad subject range, with research and taught postgraduates and a resident senior common room awash with permanent and visiting fellows! We’ll leave it an open question as to whether all students reside in college for the whole of their studies, but a clear majority in residence seems desirable. As for staff, we’ll opt for a fully-catered arrangement sustained by permanent kitchen, serving, cleaning and portering staff who, by virtue of their undivided service to a single college, are fully members of that college’s community. The same holds for welfare, student support, admissions and administrative staff in numbers that do justice to the needs of the college community – and we’d want to see the senior college officers all resident, fully and visibly members of the community.

And now to the physical college. Architectural style is a many-splendour’d thing, but the buildings and grounds should in any case be purpose-designed and purpose-built, and they should achieve beauty and distinction as well as comfort. Detailed aesthetic debates probably begin at this point(!) but some outline desiderata from us might be as follows:

Inside: a dining hall large enough to dine the entire college at a single sitting, whilst sufficiently (and unobtrusively) dividable to sit smaller numbers informally and at ‘rolling’ mealtimes; and sufficiently splendid to impress on large formal occasions yet without being oppressive at other times. Large, light, airy single study-bedrooms with en-suite facilities throughout, and so arranged that communities are instantly-formed; the buildings as a whole to be arranged such that every bedroom has a splendid view over college grounds and a large, though easily-shaded, picture window through which to enjoy the prospect. Pantries aplenty to ensure easy self-catering when desired. A theatre space and a musical auditorium (each of these separately necessary owing to their distinct acoustic requirements of course). Plenty of well-appointed common spaces for student recreational and cultural activities, as well as a bar and dance floor – all of the foregoing easily accessible but, in terms of sound, well-insulated from bedroom areas. Corridors wide and light enough to serve as art exhibition spaces.

Outside: Rolling lawns, wooded slopes and a really big lake with room at least for recreational rowing; good patio/picnic areas, sheltered sunny places for relaxation and summertime exam revision; to delight the eye, plenty of flowering shrubs everywhere for colour without the hard work, and some real specimen trees of distinction; for culinary pleasures a walled kitchen garden, allotment and orchard (the wall being, shall we say, for administrative convenience); tennis courts (astroturf and grass, please); and – betraying something of our own cultural heritage – a cricket oval and a rugby pitch. This really doesn’t seem too much to ask for (although Junior Common Rooms wanting a nine-hole golf course situated in college grounds must apply to the Bursar).

One final luxury from each of us, oblivious to cost or the constraints of health and safety. Martyn: a ‘live steam’ miniature railway of the sit-on-and-ride variety please, running around and through the college grounds. The role of engine-driver can become a Junior Common Room elected Executive position. When we need a bit of extra cash, we can open it up to the public. Tim: a large pipe organ for the auditorium, with thousands of stops including a 32-foot rank, maybe even 64 foot if the building can stand it!

Well, if the foregoing provokes your own further ideas, please bring them with you to add to the pot and we can see if the Collegiate Way 2014 conference can cook up the recipe for an ideal future college. We can tackle the funding questions later…

Meanwhile, best wishes for safe travelling, and we look forward to seeing you very soon.

Martyn and Tim


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