The offices of the Master of Gonville & Caius College are nestled between the College chapel, Senate House, and the boxy supervision room where I was first introduced to Kantian philosophy. Concealed behind the College’s ominously aged dark-wood architecture, and within the silence that has descended on the three courts for Easter term, her offices quite neatly symbolise the fusion between the College’s traditionalism and age, and the requirement for it to remain active and agile.

Professor Pippa Rogerson shuffles a few pages around on her desk, moves an emptied coffee mug that reads “Isle of Wight” to the shelves behind her, and quickly familiarises herself with the post-it notes stuck around her monitor screen. I’d left my own desk in a very similar state. As my eyes skip across her mantle piece, I find photographs of her five daughters next to one from her own matriculation sat beside a menu from a formal at Clare Hall last week. She chooses which of her to-do lists might be the most up-to-date, before settling behind her desk for our photographer to take her portrait. Pippa recently announced her decision to retire at the end of the 2024/25 academic year, and I couldn’t help but wonder if she was going to miss this quiet, everyday sort of chaos.

Upon her appointment as Master of the College in 2018, Pippa inherited a college as it turned 668 years old, and one with an enduring ethos. “Education, religion, learning and research,” she tells me, “that’s what we do”. The College’s mission is unchanged in spite of an ever-changing climate. “I see myself as supportive of that,” Pippa says. “It’s been, in a very cliched way, an honour and a privilege, to have some years supporting, facilitating, and guiding the College” as it undertakes the challenge of pulling its age old mission into a new era, defined by a pandemic whose trace we can’t quite shake, and a discourse around freedom of expression that is only due to get more complex.

“The College’s mission is unchanged in spite of an ever-changing climate”

Pippa is, however, very aware of the necessity for the College to keep up pace with this changing climate. When I ask what the highlight of her time as Master of Caius has been, she simply tells me that “the highlights are quotidian”. “The very immediate and direct access to every new generation of young people,” seen in the slightest and smallest of moments throughout the year, are what makes the job worthwhile. “Matriculation, people coming back in October, that enormous wave of enthusiasm and excitement and curiosity and all those wonderful things, graduation at the end of the year, getting through that gate of honour [leading Caius graduands to Senate House], seeing the pride and success and joy, and yes maybe regret, but the moving forwards, amd getting to see that every year. Every year new people, new ideas, new challenges, new opportunities.” Sitting still isn’t an option for the College, nor is it for any of the other 30.

These moments of insight, however, are not the day job. Pippa tells me how one of the core aspects of her role is chairing the College’s many committees. Her job is to “help the committee arrive at a decision,” and in doing so she has found “very very little scope for making decisions oneself”. The College is managed “a bit like a democracy”; “you sort of go along with a consensus” based on “whoever is in the room at the time”. Committees vote on what the “expression of will of the College” will be. Pippa describes how most of the time, the “will of the College” is rather “an expression of the will of the people who are in the room at the time,” and “all one can do is sketch out the options”. From this, I gather that College bureaucracy has the capacity to bowl over any one individual’s aspirations. “The expectations, the hopes, the fears, the external views do not fit with what actually has to happen,” Pippa says.

From our conversation, I ascertain that being the Master of a College comes with far less sway than I might have previously imagined. “My personal views are no more important than anyone else’s,” Pippa posits. The entire College appears to be run by a plethora of committees which Pippa chairs, leading to her very often having to defend decisions that she doesn’t personally agree with. “That can be very jarring,” I am told, but is a sacrifice one has to make in order to secure what the committee in question deems to be “the best interest of the College”. My loadstone is always what I think is in the best interest of the College,” she says. That is “not personal or self-interested”, but rather must be done “with a sense for the present and the future,” for the “very, very different groups” that the College is composed of, and with simple acceptance of the fact that “you can’t keep everyone happy all the time.” Pippa identifies one of the core skills required to run a college is the capacity to “be pragmatic about it”. She confesses to not particularly liking using battle technology to describe the job, but that “sometimes you do lose battles” in the hope that “in the longer term, things go in a better direction”.

“The expectations, the hopes, the fears, the external views do not fit with what actually has to happen”

I couldn’t help wondering what that direction was. Caius is a college with a long and at times painful history, and one that has faced rather significant scrutiny under Pippa’s tenure. There are plenty of things wrong with most of Cambridge’s colleges, after all. Pippa tells me how one of her primary missions was to diversify the fellowship at Caius, and, in turn, how her “greatest disappointment is that [she’s] been unable to bring more women into the fellowship. We’ve actually diversified in a lot of other ways, such as sexuality and race, but we haven’t been able to find a lot of women, and that’s a matter of some regret.” “We’ve looked,” she admits, almost laughingly, but a distinct gender disparity continues to pervade the College’s fellowship.

Over the past two years, the three courts of Gonville & Caius have become almost synonymous with the setting for some of Cambridge’s most contentious debates surrounding freedom of speech and expression. I was struck by Pippa’s openness when I asked about events such as ex-fellow Arif Ahmed’s invitation to Helen Joyce to speak in the College in 2022. Pippa unwaveringly tells me that she “absolutely upholds freedom of speech,” and that when the matter of Helen Joyce speaking in College was discussed, she simply “could not say no”. Helen Joyce’s history of transphobic hate speech left many College members feeling unhappy and unsafe, and Pippa understands that “members of our own community felt under threat”. “Much as we would all like a calm dialogue, open-minded, in good faith, that particular issue did not seem to me to be in a place where that was possible.”

The College’s committee-based leadership, combined with its absolutist commitment to freedom of expression, appear to remove any sense of accountability for whose voices Caius platforms. “I suppose accountability has to lie with the person who has done the invitation,” Pippa muses, hoping for a separation between “the person from the institution”. She stresses how acutely she feels the “legal and a moral obligation to support freedom of expression,” but admits that she felt no need for these sorts of views to be tolerated: “You don’t have to go. You don’t have to listen. You don’t have to agree.” Nor do these views have to be “respected or accepted” – but they do have to be platformed.

She counters by saying that “any student can ask a speaker,” and that “it’s not a College event merely because it’s held in College,” but also feels the necessity for protest, and the needs for students to learn “how lawful protest works”. As Master of the College, she tells me that “a silent protest would be better,” preventing her students from facing legal action against them. My mind slips back to the protests that took place outside the College when Helen Joyce was speaking, and I remembered how valuable noise was to protesters as they attempted to disrupt the speech. I can’t help but feel that a desire for “silent protest” while the college Pippa represents fails to hold individuals accountable for which voices they platform is unfair. Voices must be countered with voices.

“It never occurred to me that women couldn’t do things”

Pippa’s perspective, however, comes from a genuine desire to protect her students from the legal implications of modern-day protest. When questioned about the changing laws around freedom of speech, particularly those set to come into effect in August that make academic institutions financially liable for any infringements on freedom of speech, Pippa confesses to being “terribly worried about it”. Really all she feels she can do is wish her successor luck with managing them.

Although an awful lot might have changed in Cambridge since Pippa arrived here in 1980, Cambridge continues to be defined by disparity. As our conversation flits onto the advantages that a modern Cambridge can offer students, she begins to recollect how Cambridge gradually came to admit women. Tales of male Magdalene students wearing black armbands to mourn their College after it voted to admit women in 1988 mingle with stories of horrific racial abuse as recently as 2018.


Mountain View

In conversation with Dorothy Byrne

Cambridge, and Caius, remain a great leap away from being equal. Pippa lauds majority-female settings such as Newnham, where she was an undergraduate, saying it was “always a refuge to go home to,” and the all-female leadership offered all-important “representation”. “Every picture hanging on the wall was of a woman,” she recollects; “it never occurred to me that women couldn’t do things.” Caius, like most colleges, doesn’t have a history of such acceptance. And, as Pippa summarises, Caius is a college with “a memory and conscience that goes back a long way”. In spite of Cambridge’s universal memory and conscience, I do feel convinced by Pippa’s sentiment that time can heal old wounds. “Nothing is perfect,” she admits, yet we must hold fast to the notions that “through conversation and dialogue, people can feel they are valued,” and “things can get better”.

As I pack up my notes and follow Pippa to her office door, I again fall to wondering about whether she’ll miss this haven of both passion and bureaucracy after her resignation. “Refreshment of everybody is very important.” she had previously told me. And yet, the College’s ethos stands firmly in the face of constantly refreshed staff. “Education, learning, religion and research.” Exiting her office, I’m left with Pippa’s farewell: “I’ll see you at graduation.”