... the rain has commenced its delicate lament over the orchards 
an enormous window morning and the wind, the beautiful desperation of a tree
fighting off strangulation, and my bed has an ugly calm

Excerpt from Joe’s Jacket, Frank O’Hara

I met Homerton’s Principal for the first time at our matriculation dinner, back in 2017. Then, he seemed a kind but inaccessible figure. Now, I have to pinch myself to believe that yes, I really am interviewing him over Zoom, seated just no more than 100m apart in our respective College rooms.

For Homertonians, there is no way to refer to our Principal other than “Geoff”. This reflects his friendly personality, initially obscured to me by the formality of an intimidating sea of gowns. But Professor Geoffrey Ward, Principal of Homerton since 2013, is a master of both tradition and progression. His retirement in September may mark an ending for Homerton, but the community spirit he has fostered will continue.

To begin with, I ask Ward about his time as Principal. He describes a significant shift in attitudes towards Homerton, proudly informing me that the last three years have seen a year-on-year increase of 30% in the number of applicants applying directly. “It’s been a destination of choice, and that’s great!” His time at the College he describes as a “really great time for Homerton”, and says the increase in direct applications builds on the College’s existing qualities: “It always was a friendly College, so even if students were pooled here they came to love it.” As a Homerton-pooled student myself, I can certainly get behind Geoff’s words: “in the end, the right people will get here, one way or another.”

“I was quite braced and ready to be the Principal who banged on the door, and eventually keeled over exhausted”

His love of the College is clear in his sincere, passionate tone. Ward tells me that the best part of his role is seeing positive change, highlighting that Homerton now offers all Triposes to its students. Even he seems surprised, which makes me smile: “we could all see what we wanted, I just wasn’t sure it would happen on my watch. I was quite braced and ready to be the Principal who banged on the door, and eventually keeled over exhausted, and the person after me would just lean over me and open the door. And as it happens we’ve got everything we wanted and it’s all worked out in a timely way.”

I ask him what defines Homerton as a College, referring to a recent formal speech when he described it as a place for students “who have not had an easy ascent” in life. He says that diversity is “in the College’s DNA” and is “who we are”, citing articles from as long ago as the 1890s praising Homerton’s diverse student body. “I think Homerton is synonymous with widening access, and I’m very proud of that, but it’s widening access without lowering quality.” He recognises that many Homerton students achieve brilliant academic results, but have faced a “much steeper journey to get to that final success.” He continues: “they’ve not been on a conveyor belt of privilege, where they could simply smoothly go on, and do pretty well, and get to this college, and graduate, and it all be pretty foreseeable. People have had struggles, poverty, backgrounds that were broken in various ways, difficulties, but still we help support students to thrive and overcome those difficulties.”

Ward’s time at Homerton may have overseen huge change, arriving shortly after it received its Royal charter in 2010, but this is only the culmination of his career. After a brief Wikipedia session, I discovered he has worked at many, varied universities, from spending a year in Japan, to working at Liverpool and Royal Holloway. I asked him whether this journey has enabled him to bring something to Homerton that makes it unique as an Oxbridge college. He agrees and describes initial uncertainty about whether his experiences would be of use, as they were all so different to Cambridge. The University of Dundee he remembers with particular fondness, and the skills he utilised there are a good example of how his transferrable experiences soon became valuable, because both Dundee and Homerton face the same questions about place and identity. “I worked a lot in the city of Dundee with Councils and planners, to make sure that the University and the city were trying to transform themselves in the right direction.”

“This has been the most satisfying role that I’ve had”

We turn to leadership more generally. Ward believes there are two questions that every leader must ask themselves: what it is you are leading, and whether people are with you. Despite having enjoyed his previous roles, he “never had the unanimity of support and mood and sense of purpose that we’ve had at Homerton… Homerton was always happily unanimous, we knew what we wanted and it was just a question of how quickly we could get there and how well we could do it.”

I question whether this unanimity is a natural outcome of a collegiate system. “You make an important point there I think, and one that explains why this has been the most satisfying role that I’ve had.” Ward explains that at a large university, it is too anonymous to ensure that everyone is of one mind. Meanwhile, the collegiate system enables intimacy and a sense of community that benefits both staff and students. 

Ward’s time at Homerton is in fact a return to Cambridge, having studied at Clare College from 1972, the same year women were admitted to the College. According to him, this was regarded as a great experiment. “Go figure,” he utters with a laugh. When I ask whether he prefers Clare or Homerton, he is conflicted. He concludes, however, that Clare’s newer buildings make the College feel far more cramped than in his day, while Homerton’s green spaces have been a “privilege” during the pandemic. “Some of the colleges in town, although they have beautiful and ancient buildings, they’re cheek by jowl. They don’t have the space that we have.”

From nature, we turn to art, discussing Shezad Dawood’s artwork that will be featured in the College’s new dining hall and include shapes from around the College such as the “special, iconic” orchard. I then move on to Ward’s academic expertise, American poetry, asking whether he has a favourite poet. Barely missing a beat, he recommends Frank O’Hara, who he describes as “the poet of New York.” O’Hara has long been an inspiration, and Ward recommends one poem in particular, Joe’s Jacket, which concerns itself with carrying memories with you – just as he will carry them from Homerton. As the epigraph shows, Joe, like us Homertonians, is clearly influenced by orchards, and while one could read rather too much into a comparison between a Cambridge student and a tree being strangled by its environment, I prefer to focus on the contrasting “calm” of the bed. Ward has a similarly optimistic reading of O’Hara, and tells me his favourite line is: “it is possible isn’t it?”


Mountain View

In conversation with Wolf Alice

Looking ahead, Ward has been made an Honorary Professor of American Studies at the University of East Anglia, and plans to spend more time writing fiction. Despite not starting until his fifties, he says it has become an integral part of him which he did not foresee. But before that, he has many goodbyes to say, including at a College picnic tomorrow (26/06), where students will mark his departure in a socially-distanced, Covid-safe way.

The Principal’s view of the future is one of hope and sincerity. He recognises that the last couple of years have been strange and challenging, and congratulates students for having made it through to this point. He hopes that Homertonians will make use of the College in the future, and describes his excitement for his successor, Lord Simon Wooley, to join the College community. “I wish him every success, because this community that we’ve talked about is a work in progress. It’s not a done deal, and I’m sure that Simon will bring things to that, and connections and thoughts that will take us, not to a radically new direction, but a continuation of all that’s good about Homerton.” 

His final words are full of praise for those around him. “I couldn’t have had a better Vice-Principal. The amount of work that I subsequently discovered that Louise [Dr Louise Joy] had put in for the search for my successor, and her attention to detail, and all the things she thought of and the wide range of people she consulted, I was kind of stunned, and very impressed. Another way in which I’ve been lucky is that I’ve been surrounded by people who are working incredibly hard for the College, and it’s all been a great adventure.”

Homerton will miss you, Geoff, but it will always be here, waiting to welcome you back. I say to you what you have said to me on several occasions: once a Homertonian, always a Homertonian. Or, as Frank O’Hara wrote: “it will be just what it is and just what happens.”