Cambridge alumnae protest at plans to rename New Hall college

By Hilary Wilce
Saturday 22 October 2011 22:34

A bitter fight has broken out in Cambridge over the decision by one of the two remaining women's colleges to change its name. New Hall announced at the end of last term that it was to become Murray Edwards College after receiving a £30m endowment from a former graduate, Ros Smith, and her husband Steve Edwards, both software entrepreneurs. But angry alumnae, who include the Hollywood actress Tilda Swinton, are vowing to reverse the decision.

The 54-year-old college says that New Hall was only ever a temporary name while it sought financial backing, and that the new name has been chosen to honour the benefactors and the college's founder, Dame Rosemary Murray.

But protesting alumnae point out that the new benefactors never asked for a name change, and are also furious that the college, which was founded to champion women's education, should be taking on a man's name.

"The college always had, in my experience, an explicit commitment to furthering the education and profile of women. But this writes women out of history," says Susan Bruce, an alumna of the college and now senior lecturer in English at Keele University. "People are always going to say 'Who's Murray Edwards?'"

The protesters are writing an open letter – signed by almost 90 alumnae – to the donors, asking them to reconsider. "New Hall's got a 50-year track record and its equity is in its people," according to Clare Salmon, strategy, marketing and customer director for the RSA Group, a recruitment consultants. "You don't just sign away an institution's reputation like this, especially not for a relatively modest sum."

Although the protesters accept that the college says it was always the intention to change the name when it got an endowment, this was never mentioned before. They argue that there are alumnae working in the City who feel that if they had known the name was for sale might have been able to knock on the door of top institutions and get a lot more than £30m.

The decision still has to go before the Privy Council and will not be legal until next year, so the protesters will be exploring every avenue to see if they can stop it, according to Liz Colvin, another alumna. "No one has ever said why this is a good idea, and I haven't come across any alumnae who want the name to change," she says.

However, Anne Lonsdale, the college's outgoing president, who secured the endowment, says that only just over two per cent of the college's 4,400 graduates have protested. Most responses have welcomed the college's new financial stability. "I am sorry this has upset some people, but we have been looking for years for someone to give us an endowment and a change of name was always going to be part of that," she says. "It's bizarre in this day and age to think that the name a woman gets from her husband is any more male than the one she gets from her father. The Edwards', in considering their philanthropy, wanted to make one major family gift, and they chose to give it to her college, rather than his college, in Oxford, even though that is also not very well off."

To celebrate, the students printed T-shirts proclaiming "It's all about ME!" – standing for Murray Edwards, the initials of the college's new name. However, protesters have claimed that as well as making a rebranding error, the college will lose money from the change. They say that it will alienate graduates and also lose of some of the subsidy it gets from a Cambridge-wide fund that supports poorer colleges. But Anne Lonsdale points out that only two standing orders to the college have been cancelled since the name change was announced, while 40 new gifts worth £140,000 have come in. "And any money we might lose from the Colleges Fund will be peanuts compared to the £1.2m a year we will have from the new endowment," she says.

New Hall was founded when Cambridge had a smaller proportion of female undergraduates than any other university, and has always struggled financially and sometimes academically. Most applicants to Cambridge apply for co-ed institutions, and the women's colleges take a high proportion of applicants from "the pool" of good candidates who fail to get their first choice.

However, it is consistently high on the "value-added" table, which measures how graduates' attainments improve during their years at Cambridge, and the college's 1960s white buildings and flourishing women's art collection reflect a vibrant culture that has always been a long way from the Victorian roots of other Oxbridge women's colleges. It has a fierce commitment to educating women from non-traditional university backgrounds, maintains a strong global outlook, and has been carving an increasingly prominent place in the cultural and intellectual life of the university with events such as an exhibition of Iranian women's film and photography, and a series of major lectures on climate change.

Among its graduates are Barbara Stocking, director of Oxfam, the novelist Maggie O'Farrell, and the head of the Courtauld Institute, Deborah Swallow.

"New Hall breeds alumnae who are confident, forceful and opinionated so it's not surprising that views vary about the new name," says Joy Richardson, chair of the committee of the New Hall Society, the alumnae body. "But the essence of the College will remain unchanged. Alumnae are proud of all that the College has achieved, often against the odds, and it is a special pleasure that it is one of our own alumnae who is making this gift, and who will support and inspire future generations of students."

Protesters pay tribute to the generosity of the new donors, but say they would prefer to see them acknowledged in a foundation, or in the naming of a building. "No one wants to upset them," says Liz Colvin. "And we'd also love to find a way of using all this emotion that has been stirred up to do something of benefit to New Hall in the future."

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