Doug Chalmers became Master of Emmanuel in 2021Tobia Nava with permission for Varsity

Settling myself into a particularly soft cushioned couch opposite my own college master, Lieutenant General Douglas Chalmers – or just Doug, as we call him at Emmanuel – I’m aware this interview is going to differ from the other masters I have interviewed across this Yearbook. Firstly, we’ve gotten to know each other quite well in my running of the Emmanuel Politics and Policy society, and he is the first master I’m interviewing who I have met prior to the interview. More so, however: Doug’s career is quite different from every other head of college at Cambridge, in that he spent almost 40 years in Army service.

“I did very well in my O-Levels, and then I got distracted”, he begins. “My A-levels did not go the way I expected them to, so I started to do night school to retake them – mainly because my father was not impressed at all”, he admits with a wry smile.

“I always thought I’d only stay for three years”

It was at this stage his career began to line up, with schooling at night and tarmacking roads through the day: “I enjoyed the tarmac, it was quite good. They offered to sponsor me to do an HND then some higher education, which was very appealing and I pondered that for quite a while”, he reminisces, “but then someone else from my family said: ‘have you ever thought about joining the family regiment?’. Well, I didn’t know we had a family regiment – or at least, the one most of my family had served in at points during the wars. So I looked it up, I was still only 18 at this point, and I enlisted as a private soldier”. “I thought it sounded like an adventure”, he tells me, “so I thought I’d give it a go”, and thus his military career began.

“I always thought I’d only stay for three years”, Doug recalls, “but I went through Sandhurst, then to Germany during the Cold War, and Northern Ireland during the Troubles which were… pretty difficult times. I didn’t leave after three, I kept on and I found I was reasonably okay at it.”

I was aware that, although he grew up in England, Doug was actually born in Belfast, and I was interested to hear whether this gave him a different perspective of the 80s. “I didn’t go to school there, but my family has deep connections there”, he begins, carefully. “I come from a family of judges, and my grandfather was the Chief Justice at the time. They were all absolutely passionate about the rule of law”. Contrasting his experience then with where we’ve got to now, Doug tells me: “Belfast is a pretty, vibrant, bustling city, and its connection with Dublin is strong. But as a child, my memories of it were quite dark, and grey. It sounds philosophical but that’s just my memories.”

Coming to the conflicts itself, it became a difficult conversation for him, particularly in the way violence was used in the Troubles and how that affected him personally: “There was always: ‘we’re gonna win through the ballot and the gun’ – I mean, that’s no way of doing it. I don’t like being told what to do by someone with a gun and a mask, and that happened to me and my family – my grandpa was blown up in Ireland, for example”. Doug then returned to this idea of the rule of law he spoke so passionately about earlier: “The Good Friday agreement put everything back into negotiating territory.”

We then moved on to a terrorist organisation who despite, everyone knowing the name, Doug is adamant: “People in the UK don’t know enough about them, but they really should.”

“ISIS came out of the blue, at least at that scale – the issue we knew was there, but the scale with which it caught fire was unbelievable,” Doug dismayed. A major problem they had fighting ISIS, Doug explains, is that: “it’s the first time we never had a backchannel or way of talking”. “They were extreme, obviously. I mean, it’s quite difficult to have a conversation with a group who welcomed the apocalypse and wanted the world to burn.”

“It’s quite difficult to have a conversation with a group who welcomed the apocalypse”

When we talk about his time spent training Iraqi forces to fight ISIS, it is clear to me that there is some sense of contradiction in the UK’s relations with a country it had invaded just a decade before, and this was by no means at all lost on Doug either. “I was deeply troubled by the invasion of Iraq in 2003”, Doug says gravely. “There were a series of, I think, catastrophic errors, which eventually led me to apply to my MPhil at Cambridge to write my thesis on the problems of coordinating government departments”. Doug makes clear that there was a personal factor in training Iraq’s forces to fight ISIS: “For me, it was really helpful to come full circle, because I felt I hadn’t done the right thing. Going back, having read a lot more about Iraq in the intervening period, to go back and help them deal with this was… yeah.”

This also led to us discussing his four tours in Afghanistan, which Doug felt the decision to go into Afghanistan was “the right thing to do, but, the way it unfurled, I don’t think went well”, with his frustration evident in the non-inclusion of the Taliban in peace talks: “I don’t know any war that’s ever ended without all parties round the table. It was always going to create a problem.”

Doug feels there’s an important thing people have to realise here: “I’m happy to sort of chat some of those paths through because it’s important, but it’s uncomfortable because not everything was right or wrong – and hindsight really is 2020”. I know that when Doug says this, he has evidence to back this up, as all Emma students can attest. Following the invasion of Ukraine by Russia last year, Doug held an emergency lecture in Emmanuel with students, fellows, and staff all in attendance, in which he explained what was happening, why, and what the most likely progression was from that point.

“For many people, this was the first time there had been a war and a full-scale invasion in Europe in their lifetimes, which is quite big, and it is dramatic – brutally so”

“I did it because people asked me to”, he tells me, “and it is one of the few areas I do know, especially because I spent a lot of time in and out of Ukraine during the 2014 invasion of Crimea and the Donbas – so I had some sort of insight.”

“Also,” Doug continued: “for many people, this was the first time there had been a war and a full-scale invasion in Europe in their lifetimes, which is quite big, and it is dramatic – brutally so.”

To finish off the interview, I was curious to hear whether he was concerned about his career coming into this role. “I was very worried. Perceptions and what people think of you, matters. I was very aware of it”, Doug confesses, openly.

“I was voted in by the fellowship, so that was okay, and I spent a lot of time meeting staff before I took over. The students, though, I didn’t really get to know until I arrived – and I was very conscious that I needed to spend time to build trust and find vehicles to connect with students; to try and support every match or every activity or achievement. More than all the other bits of the job, I was particularly worried about that, and I think right to be.”

“There were some very big transferable skills, though”, Doug says proudly. “All my life I’ve spent a lot of time helping, worrying about, and mentoring young adults, and developing talent. And when we get stuff wrong, I’m very good at reviewing that and working out why”. I suppose holding down the fort at Emmanuel college isn’t a million miles away from Doug’s previous career.

Why did you take the job of master at Emmanuel?

As I was ending my first career, I derived three things from a series of conversations about what I wanted to do in the future. I wanted to work out where I want to live with my family, what the minimum I need to balance the accounts was, and finally what will bring me contentment. When I was here as an MPhil in 2007, me and my wife bought a house in Cambridge; we fell in love with Cambridge. I came across the advert for the master of Emmanuel College, and I read the personal specification and everything, and I thought: ‘hey, I actually have some transferable skills here’. I sent my covering letter and CV – like any other job – and then entered into a six month interview process, before an election, then the fellowship voted.

What is your favourite part of the college?

I think Emmanuel has a very genuine sense of community, between the different types of students, different types of fellows, different types of staff we have. We have enough size that you can move around in your own space, but not so big you don’t know anybody. By the time you’re in second year, you know most people. I’ll do all I can to help continue to build that sense of community around Emmanuel.

The best and worst thing about being a head of college?

My favourite aspect of the job is about people; trying to understand the people, get to know them, build trust with them and try to help them with their journey through life. If I can do anything to help people, that’s the best bit.


Mountain View

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The hardest bit is not being able to do everything we’d like to do. Sometimes that’s just because it’s too difficult or it’s too expensive. But I think the hardest bit is time. There’s all of the stuff we’d like to do, but the terms are short, and people don’t have a lot of time; building trust and relations with people takes time and so that can be difficult in such short periods. People don’t have a lifetime here to help them with their journeys. So that’s probably the hardest bit.

If you had to be the master of another college, which would you choose?

How could I choose somewhere over Emmanuel?

What would you say to your successor in this role?

Don’t think you’re the most important person in everyone’s life. The job is not telling people what their journey is or how to get there, but to try and help nudge everyone along on their own journeys and help them along the way. As they’re seeking what the next chapter is, you need to provide some sort of outside support on how that next chapter shows up.