Nancy Trenaman

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The Independent Online

Nancy Kathleen Fisher, university administrator and civil servant: born Bradford, Yorkshire 25 August 1919; Assistant Secretary, Ministry of Materials 1951-54; Counsellor, British Embassy, Washington 1951-53; Under-Secretary, Board of Trade 1962-66; Principal, St Anne's College, Oxford 1966-84, Honorary Fellow 1984-2002; Member, Commission on the Constitution 1969-73; married 1967 Mervyn Trenaman; died Cassington, Oxfordshire 17 March 2002.

Nancy Trenaman was the sixth Principal of St Anne's College, Oxford, holding office from 1966 to 1984. This was a time of momentous change for the university and its colleges; St Anne's, a women's college with a distinguished but comparatively short history, was in a better position than most to adapt to it, never having known anything else.

The Principalship was Trenaman's second career, her first having been in the administrative arm of the Civil Service. She had been born Nancy Fisher in 1919 and brought up in Yorkshire, where her father was a headmaster, and educated at Bradford Girls' Grammar school and Somerville College, Oxford, taking a First in English in 1941.

From there she entered the Board of Trade and later became Assistant Secretary in the Ministry of Materials. From 1951 to 1953 she was a Counsellor at the British Embassy in Washington. Many years afterwards a diplomat's wife was to confess to suffering painful pangs of envy when, as a shy young hostess, she met this bright career woman dazzling the company with her knowledgeable conversation and pithy wit. Subsequently Fisher was Under-Secretary at the Board of Trade until in 1966 she was elected as successor to Lady Ogilvie at St Anne's. The following year she married Mervyn Trenaman, a former colleague at the Board of Trade.

The unstuffy open-mindedness evident in both dons and undergraduates of St Anne's suited Nancy Trenaman's forthright temperament. On one occasion, presenting without excuses a dismal list of Final Examination results she recalled how, once upon a time, she "had sought to dissuade a succession of Ministers from glossing a bad month's export figures by references to all kinds of averages (seasonally adjusted) . . ."

Projects already under way when she arrived at the College were successfully brought to completion. One such, which embodied a particular concern of hers, was the joint venture with Balliol in setting up a centre for graduate students at Holywell Manor in 1967. Graduate colleges open to both sexes already existed at Oxford but this was the first institution with mixed accommodation. She saw the Manor, with its strong contingent from overseas, as an ideal setting for widening social and intellectual horizons.

Its foundation was also prophetic: "the year of revolution", 1968, found St Anne's engaging in its first serious discussion over whether the college should admit men as undergraduates. The subject of so-called "mixed" colleges was to be a burning issue throughout the university for the next 10 years, and it was clear that St Anne's would soon have to make a decision. Trenaman not only steered this contentious issue through numerous debates but, like the good administrator she was, saw to it that all parties understood the implications of both options.

It was largely because she had familiarised everyone with the most mundane details that when male undergraduates were admitted in 1979 it seemed even to opponents a natural development. By 1982 mixed colleges had become the norm and St Anne's examination results plummeted, as the Principal had foreseen they would. Undismayed she testily reminded those lamenting past glories that to reach the academic heights again only needed hard work from everyone, "something the college, by tradition and present practice, is very fit for".

Meanwhile, in the university at large, agitation by the idealistic young who wanted immediate change resulted in unexpected violence and damage, events which Trenaman felt were "for all of us, collectively, grievous". The unrest coincided with a period of acute financial stringency which took its toll on every function of the university. Both were seriously impoverishing to intellectual life. Aspects that troubled her greatly were the government's cap on the number of home and EEC undergraduates, and the charging of higher fees for overseas students, which hit particularly hard in the expensive sciences and medicine. She saw the university being deprived of people of ability and its international dimension reduced.

In the college's Centenary Appeal in 1979 there had been general agreement that money should be earmarked for overseas students and in 1981 all the college's bursary funds were devoted to that end. By 1984 the financial situation had eased somewhat and Trenaman felt it was time for the college to have a new Principal. She was glad to be succeeded by Claire Palley, an academic, always having professed herself to be insufficiently patient with the byways of academic minds.

The college in Trenaman's time included several powerful personalities, and its policies were arrived at after brisk arguments over principles and practicalities. Nevertheless, having become Principal at a pivotal time, Trenaman was able to influence those policies with pragmatic good sense. A shrewd judge of character, she gave wise advice. Under her bracing encouragement, women graduates went into the world prepared to take seriously their own needs and careers, and they became an intellectual force. She excelled in that virtue rarely seen in academic institutions, loyalty to individuals; it was perhaps an inheritance from Civil Service days.

During her tenure she served on many committees in and out of Oxford, particularly relishing the Commission on the Constitution which in 1973 produced the Kilbrandon Report. In her retirement she was Chairman of the Executive Committee of the medical charity LEPRA.

Like her father before her, she died of the effects of Alzheimer's disease.

Margaret Howatson