Unlocking Downing

Message to Downing alumni from the Senior Bursar

Pandemics - plagues and influenza - have punctuated Cambridge life since its beginning.   Colleges had plague houses:  Caius tutors led their students out to Coton and Christ’s simply transferred the Master, Fellows, students, and staff to a house donated by Lady Margaret Beaufort for this purpose in a village some five hours’ walk away across Cambridgeshire’s only hill.  Arrangements in 2020 are more complex. As the University traffic-light risk system moved towards red, our Pandemic Plan, hatched in 2002, was adapted and implemented, making it possible for the key administrative functions to transfer operations to homes from Mill Road, to Saffron Walden, to London.  “Red” coincided with the end of the standard undergraduate accommodation contracts; those and longer undergraduate contracts were terminated, and postgraduates were encouraged to go home, many leaving belongings behind - either optimistically imagining a quick return or rushing to board last flights.  Our resident community of 588 students gradually shrank to the current 65.

None of our planning envisaged a simultaneous public health and financial crisis, so as for everyone, there was an element of making it up as we went along – and mostly on Zoom.   The Senior Tutor, his Academic Registrar (Sarah Pickard), my chief of staff (Rob Beardwell), and I have seen more of each other than ever before, virtually, of course – interpreting guidance for the College setting, counting students, moving households, and supporting both students and staff.   It seems that we have all invited the virtual world into our homes and study spaces and – by choice of virtual screens  - into our imaginations.   I suspect that Rob’s son is grateful that Ai Weiwei’s Cubes have replaced his room.

If “Lockdowning”, as the students call it, was challenging, unlocking the College is even more so.  Asking students to leave and staff to stay at home were in retrospect simple messages.  The task now is to reconfigure the College – as a space and an idea – for a social distanced community that is partly defined by its sociability. 


Susan Lintott, Senior Bursar

Published 22 May 2020.