One Right Way to do Things in Education

I just found out from the local newspaper this morning that Bielefeld University had a “gala” celebration of its 50-year anniversary on Saturday evening, with a concert by the Bielefeld Philharmonic and a few speeches and refreshments in the local concert hall, the Oetkerhalle.

Well, how nice. I worked there for 22 years. Obviously not in a distinguished enough manner to win me an invitation. (It can’t have been “benefactors only”, because German public unis don’t generally do benefactors. Although the Uni Potsdam has the Hasso Plattner Institute, with a fine building and lecture theatre donated by the founder of SAP.)

My old Group in Berkeley is pretty small – I was the 28th graduate after 30 years. There have been a few more since; about a hundred ten in all. Contact is haphazard, though I do get a regular invitation to the Christmas party and other singular events, put on by alumnus and now Professor John Steel, as well as public lectures and symposia put on by the Group (I used to get a real poster through the snailmail for the annual Alfred Tarski Lectures).

Contrast this with my Oxford college, Magdalen. I had a stressful time when I was there, full of the usual self-doubt – it took me a much longer time to learn to do what I am good at, rather than what I thought I needed to be good at. But it led on to Berkeley and subsequently my career. So my gratitude is plentiful.

I am of course a member, because, once a member, always so (following medieval tradition, I suppose). I enjoy walking into the Lodge at the entrance and saying “I’m a member”. The response, inevitably, “welcome back!” is simply – welcoming.

There is a medium-paperback-size college report each year, the Magdalen College Record, with substantial photographs, essays worth reading and extensive information about members, including obituaries, and 50-word write-ins to let others know what one has been doing in life. There is a monthly newsletter which comes by email, replete with calendar of events and invitations to them; periodic formal dinners for the various cohorts by year, and very occasionally for subject-matter. The college has a notable video presence on Twitter (lots of music, including some songs from the Tower on May morning).

As well as an annual lunch for prospective benefactors. I have a few pence in an English bank account and mentioned once that I might well give it to the College. I was forthwith invited to the lunch; as every subsequent year. Yes, there was and is a lot of particular privilege associated with all this community-building which most universities less than half a millenium old do not have; equally, as the son of a pair of teachers I had little in common with the conspicuously-moneyed and privately-educated crowd which was a significant portion of the cohort in my time. But of the 7 people who matriculated in Math/Math&Philosophy in 1970, the three of us grammar-school kids who are left get together for a meal once a year or so, now in memory of Mike, who died a couple of years ago and for whom we donated a chair to the college library. Summary: stuff stuck. And sticks.

And it is important also for others coming after. Because of this effort to keep the community, the college has built and maintains a substantial fund for students in tight financial corners. I received a telephone call this year from a first-year from Whitechapel, Samiya, who had been helped by the support fund and wondered if I could see my way to helping the fund this year. Sure I can, in a couple of months. This all doesn’t amount to a Harvard-level stipend fund, but it would be wonderful if it will cost Samiya and others in similar situations less to get their degree than for students at other English Russell-group unis. (Aside, while I see the point of some moderate payment of fees, to ensure that students are at Uni for some purposeful reason, I was and am outraged at the current level of fees at English Russell-group unis perpetrated by HMGovernment in 2016.)

Such alumni programs at German unis? Hard to see much of any chance. My faculty has a hard time even getting professors to turn up to the graduation ceremony in December.

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