Date: 16th October 2018

New Master Alan Bookbinder looks forward to building on Downing’s impressive successes

Alan was installed as the 18th Master of Downing College on 1 October 2018. Although he has degrees from Oxford and Harvard, he did not pursue an academic career but went instead into journalism (26 years as a programme-maker and editor at the BBC) and then philanthropy (12 years with the Sainsbury Family Charitable Trusts).

Space to breathe

In starting to get to know the college, he has been impressed by the warmth and cohesion of the Downing community and the college’s long track-record of innovative thinking and independent action:

“You only have to walk through the gates to see how different it is from the enclosed, cloistered medieval colleges. Downing is open and spacious, the beautiful architecture and the splendid grounds breathe easily, and the art gallery, the theatre and the café give the place an outward-looking, inviting feel. The sense of freedom is palpable – academically, culturally and personally.”

A mix of skills

Alan relishes the opportunity to help Downing to thrive as a community – to be a place where intellectual rigour and scholarly endeavour are cherished, but also where broader skills are nurtured through non-academic pursuits:

“My experience in the wider work-place tells me that success depends on more than having a well-trained mind. That’s necessary but not sufficient. So-called softer skills are also essential – empathy, team-working, self-awareness, resilience – and these can be developed through college activities. It might be music or drama or sport, it might be the myriad Downing societies or the many chances to work and play together that the college community offers.”

A healthy community

When he met groups of students as part of the master’s selection process, Alan was struck by their concerns about the intense academic and personal pressures of navigating life in Cambridge. It made him acutely aware of the importance of the college in helping make a large and demanding university more manageable:

“A college is on a more human scale, you get to know people and are known to them, you notice each other’s ups and downs. There’s a better chance for mutual support to flourish.”

“A community thrives not just because people are nice to each other and smile a lot (though that’s a good start), but when people recognise their common purpose, when they celebrate each other’s successes and share their sorrows, when different views are respected and different identities valued, when a mutually supportive environment gives people the confidence and comfort to face issues and have tricky conversations.”

Open to new talent

He also wants to keep up Downing’s excellent work in opening up the college to students from disadvantaged backgrounds:

“This is not a straightforward task, and it will take imagination and determination to move the dial further, but it’s essential to seek out talent and potential from a broad pool of students. Cambridge offers a fine, privileged education; its highly prized opportunities shouldn’t be restricted to those whose lives are already greatly advantaged.”