Message from the Master, Alan Bookbinder

It has been a glorious start to spring in Cambridge; Downing is ablaze with colour and new life. Alas, it has also been one of the most difficult episodes any of us can remember.

We face the prospect of the new Easter term with most College buildings closed and all academic activity happening online. In Hall gongs will go unstruck, on the Paddock frisbees will go unthrown, in the Chapel benefactors will go uncommemorated, in the Heong Gallery art will go unseen, and in the Senate House degrees will go uncelebrated.

We are in uncharted territory which is unsettling to us all. It demands patience and flexibility. We need to appreciate the bigger picture and to accept the limitations and privations that ultimately will allow us to recover and to resume normal life.

With that in mind, College is neither empty nor idle. Safely in residence are around 70 students who do not have homes that are easily reachable. Catering staff are providing them with a hot takeaway lunch every day, and a skeleton staff of porters, housekeepers and maintenance staff are on site. Most of our Fellows and staff are now working from home and so far, with the help of the Government’s Job Retention Scheme, we have been able to retain all contracted staff on full pay.  Meanwhile, empty houses on Lensfield Road stand ready to be used by NHS staff as and when needed.

One especially regrettable casualty was the alumni reunion due to take place earlier this month, and the much-anticipated series of events to mark 40 Years of Women at Downing has had to be postponed.

However, online technology allows many events to go ahead digitally. A virtual MCR seminar was attended by 30 people; many thanks to Grant Hall for presenting his virology research, a topical subject!  Our residential sessions for under-represented groups of students have mutated into webinars featuring our Fellows; the Heong now has an enhanced online presence. And of course when the new term gets under way, supervisions and academic assessments will all be happening virtually.

So although we are all naturally feeling apprehensive, and the prospect of a lost Easter term and a blank May Week is deeply disappointing, this is a time for the whole Downing community to be resourceful and resilient. I’m delighted and deeply grateful that staff across the College have responded so brilliantly, and that students wherever you are have adapted to the new circumstances with good sense and a positive spirit.

I’m sure that this extraordinary period will be etched on all our memories forever. I’m confident that Downing will continue to rise to the challenge. And when we can finally gather together again, it will be cause for joyous and well-deserved celebrations.

Meanwhile, I hope you and your loved ones are able to stay safe and calm.


Published on 15 April 2020.