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Magistri: Hodgson of Newnham and Stewart of Lowell

[Arms of Newnham College] — The tone of a residential college is set by its master and its dean. While all the members make important contributions and add their distinctiveness to the society as a whole, it is the master and the dean, simply by virtue of their durable presence, who have the greatest impact.

Profiles of two residential college masters appeared in the press this week, one of Patricia Hodgson, the current principal of Newnham College at Cambridge University, in the Guardian, and the other of Zeph Stewart, the longtime master of Lowell House at Harvard, who passed away earlier this month, in the Globe. (Thanks to Margaret Soltan’s University Diaries for pointing me to the Stewart obituary.)

In preparing to post those two profiles here, I had first thought to edit them down into college-related chunks, but that would have done violence to an integral idea: that good college masters and deans are, and must be, interesting, dedicated, and learned human beings in full. And so I encourage you to read their stories in full as they are appended below.

A college mastership is the opposite of a sinecure: it is a call to active service through all aspects of community life. In considering the current work of Hodgson, for example, take note of how personally and directly she is involved in recruitment for her college. (Stephen Toulmin, as master of North College at USC, was similarly involved in a personal and direct way in getting his university’s administration to fix broken furniture and provide better service to students in the college dining hall.)

On her working visits to schools, Hodgson has to labor to combat prejudice against her university on the part of teachers as well as students, a problem often faced in parallel fashion by residential college advocates at large. She can testify from her own experience, as someone who came from a family without strong educational traditions, that hard-working students deserve a chance to do their work in the best educational environment available. As an undergraduate herself at Newnham many years before, Hodgson found a place where “I could study without apology. The lights had come on in the world.”

[Arms of Lowell House]Zeph Stewart, distinguished Classicist and for twelve years the master of Lowell House at Harvard University, was by all accounts, including the one below, a gentleman as well as a scholar. I crossed his path a few times casually when I was in graduate school, and I could always see that he was widely admired.

One of Stewart’s professional duties during his career was to breathe life back into the Loeb Classical Library, that venerable collection of (green) Greek and (red) Latin volumes that offer texts and parallel translations of all the important authors of the Classical world. A complete set of Loebs is an ideal anchor for any residential college library. We had such a set in the Dudley House library where I spent many hours as a graduate student, and once when I saw our Loeb volume of Xenophon being put to an unexpected use, I knew I had an illustration in search of a sermon that would someday have to appear. The sermon turned out to be the opening paragraph of a book review on molecular phylogeny—I like to think Xenophon would have been amused. For having successfully kept the Loeb series alive, Zeph Stewart earned my gratitude.

It is fashionable nowadays to deride the old doctrine of in loco parentis. And certainly no one I’ve ever encountered in the residential college world would wish to return to the era of curfews and gated dormitories. But to deride the literal rather than the legal meaning of in loco parentis is to have a terribly impoverished view, and one might even say an immature view, of the role of parents in education. What smart young person would not wish—and what parents of a smart young person would not wish for their child—to spend a few years in the daily company of people like Patricia Hodgson and Zeph Stewart.

Brideshead re-evaluated

Patricia Hodgson tells Jessica Shepherd why we should think of Cambridge as ‘the good local university for north-east London’

Tuesday December 11, 2007, The Guardian

Dame Patricia Hodgson remembers her life as a teenager. “I used to tag along with my friends who were trying to pick up the milkmen,” she says. It’s hard to imagine. Today Hodgson is in her large, airy office overlooking the garden of Cambridge University’s Newnham College, wearing an Armani suit.

She was made principal of Newnham, her alma mater, in August last year after 30 years at the BBC, first as producer and journalist, then head of policy, then board director in charge of policy and planning. Between 2000 and 2003 she was chief executive of the now-defunct TV regulator, the Independent Television Commission.

But it was Newnham rather than the Beeb that made her, she says. Although she had her doubts at the start. “I burst into tears when I was offered a place at Cambridge,” she recalls. “I was an Essex schoolgirl who thought Oxbridge too posh, too challenging and too expensive to contemplate. No one in my family had been to university, and my school did not really ‘do’ Oxbridge entrance. I thought I’d be a fish out of water. I thought I’d fail. I’d swallowed the whole Brideshead myth.”

Evelyn Waugh’s 1945 novel Brideshead Revisited depicted Oxford, and by implication Cambridge, colleges as elitist, decadent places full of foppish public school types. The image was reinforced by the 1980s television mini-series. But Hodgson’s parents (her mother was a part-time secretary and her father a company secretary) believed in the “best education”. They and a new teacher at Brentford high school suggested that she “give Oxbridge a go”.

“Within three weeks of coming to Newnham to study history, the rest of my life had started,” she says. “I made friends. I could study without apology. The lights had come on in the world.”

Government pressure

The cynical observer would say Hodgson is just the ticket to be at the helm of a Cambridge college in today’s times. Widening participation – making sure that clever economically disadvantaged teenagers apply – is the university’s watchword.

Currently 57% of Cambridge undergraduates are from the state sector; across the UK, 87.9% of full-time undergraduates were educated in state schools. All British universities, but particularly Oxbridge, are under pressure from the government to improve their socio-economic mix. And anyway, universities want the best students to apply, regardless of their background.

Hodgson can tell students her success story when she visits schools, sixth-form colleges and further education colleges to help widen participation at her college and at Cambridge as a whole. In her 16 months as principal, she has visited more than 30 schools and colleges. She has also devised ways to widen the socio-economic pool of applicants. One of these is the student ambassador scheme, a version of which other colleges use, too. Newnhamites in their first and second years contact their schools to see if they can come back to talk about Cambridge and the college. So far 80 have volunteered to do so.

“Each year more students in schools see those who went to Cambridge and were happy, and so they think about applying too,” she says. “We don’t expect to get a sudden payback. It’s about forming relationships with schools so that they have confidence in you and in Cambridge. We can support the schools in supporting their students and help them feel at ease.”

Hodgson is keen to link up with schools in north-east London, where she was brought up. “Cambridge is the good local university for students in north-east London. It’s here that they should be thinking about applying. It only takes 50 minutes by train.” Her husband, George Donaldson, a retired deputy headteacher at Latymer school, a grammar in Edmonton, north London, knows the schools in the area and works with Newnham’s admissions tutors.

But for all the effort, those Brideshead myths persist. “I’ve found, to my horror, that youthful ignorance about Oxbridge is, if anything, worse in many places than it was in my day,” she says. “The real shock is, despite so many government initiatives to encourage ambition, there are still too many teachers who do not consider Oxbridge for their brightest pupils, male or female. I know how busy the teachers are and how stretched they are by their daily demands. And they are trying to do their very best. So unless you help teachers by adding to their understanding about Oxbridge, through no fault of their own students who are capable of getting in may be pushed to the side of a teacher’s consciousness.”

Cambridge colleges are poor, says Hodgson. There is just £6m each year to run Newnham, which has 620 students and staff. A BBC policy department might have a budget of £10m. “I think of all the millions of students we are not reaching. But all we can do is focus on spending the resources we’ve got in the best way possible. How do you compete with re-runs of Brideshead Revisited on the TV?” she asks, taking a perhaps accidental swipe at her former industry.

Another challenge is that the culture at Cambridge is a tad different from the BBC’s. “It’s more collaborative at Cambridge. The BBC is very competitive,” she explains. “But both are full of very interesting, exciting people. Both are about creativity and ideas and freedom of speech. Newnham’s traditional aims are freedom of thought and opinion, education, learning and research, and fairness. So there are many things that are similar.”

One difference, however, surfaced at her first meeting as principal. Hodgson showed academics a piece of paper on which she had written: “What are our priorities?” It had three headings – students, fellows and the wider Newnham community. She was teased for it at the time. Why? “Because they thought it was management-speak. I brought with me some BBC management-speak that I deserved to be teased about.”

They knew what they were getting by appointing her, though. “I was the only non-academic on the shortlist for the job. I think they thought, ‘now is the time to try a more outward-looking approach for Newnham’.” She wants to bring a more businesslike approach too, and speaks highly of how Imperial College and Edge Hill University meld the academic with a “business-like approach”. “I am not frightened of saying what we want to do and how we are going to do it. I am able to bring some of my experience of business to making things work.”

(This hasn’t always been seen to work by others, though. Hodgson was once accused by an anonymous BBC executive of “spending millions on useless projects”.)

Does she worry that not being a professional academic will count against her? “The whole point of the collegiate system in Cambridge is that the academic side can be supported in different colleges,” she says.

‘Convent’ myth

And what of the accusation that an all-female college, of which this is one of three at Cambridge, is a laughable idea or tantamount to a convent? “There is this challenge of demolishing the myth that we are a convent,” she replies. “Teaching and lectures occur in the mixed university. It is just that you come home to your girlfriends and can ask the boyfriend to leave if the idyll is over. Your study is directed by a woman who understands the values of the female mind and the range of choices women make. Young women are sometimes more thoughtful than young men of the same age and do not simply want to go into the City or be masters of the universe. Their choices, too, will be valued and encouraged.”

In fact the need for an all-female college is greater than ever, Hodgson argues. “One of the things that has struck me is the lack of confidence among young women generally nowadays. Perhaps it is the academic treadmill at school that drives out those things that build confidence, or a popular culture that often presents thoughtfulness and an academic interest as matters for derision. It seems that in spite of a streetwise veneer, young women’s confidence is worse than it was in my day.”

Still, there’s hope for these insecure girls who are following their friends trying to pick up the milkmen – if Hodgson is anything to go by.

And from Hodgson of Newnham we turn to Stewart of Lowell, “a calm, always gentle, but strong and righteous man.”

Zeph Stewart; taught lessons of classics, humanity at Harvard

Just a few years after becoming a classics professor, Zeph Stewart sent a letter to Harvard’s student newspaper in 1957 praising a colleague who would soon retire. It was not a mash note crafted to curry favor with the lords of the academic manor.

“I need not dwell on his years of service in this community, but prefer to speak of the good fortune of the University in having in its janitorial staff a person who has contributed so much to the Harvard education of so many young men,” Mr. Stewart wrote in the Harvard Crimson of David Germaine, a custodian whose example “taught countless undergraduates the value of gentlemanly conduct and of directness and integrity for living a good life.”

Hailing contributions by the least-noticed “was part of the fabric of his life—what he, in his little quiet way, paid attention to,” said Mr. Stewart’s daughter Sarah of Cambridge.

A longtime master of Lowell House, Mr. Stewart also had a deft touch with administration that helped right the finances of Harvard’s Loeb Classical Library and the American Philological Association. He died of complications from pneumonia Dec. 1 in his Watertown home after a few years of illnesses and declining health. Mr. Stewart was 86.

“Zeph cared about every part of Harvard, and every part of classics in particular,” said Richard Thomas, a professor of Greek and Latin at the university. “He was brilliant in a very quiet way. He knew a great deal, but he wasn’t ostentatious about his knowledge, and he had an aesthetic sensibility that it was wonderful to be touched by.”

Jeffrey Henderson, former dean of arts and sciences at Boston University and now a professor of Greek, had been one of Mr. Stewart’s students.

“He didn’t always get credit for what he did. I don’t think there’s anyone in the field who doesn’t owe something to Zeph Stewart, directly or indirectly,” Henderson said. “He was a person of great dignity, but also openness and warmth. He was a friend you always respected and could come to with things. Sometimes Zeph was the only person I could come to with a question. Academics is a gossipy lot, but you could trust Zeph completely.”

Born in Michigan, Mr. Stewart grew up in Cincinnati, where his father was mayor and also served on the state’s Supreme Court. His older brother Potter became a US Supreme Court justice. Mr. Stewart followed his brother to Connecticut through prep school and college at the Hotchkiss School and Yale, but the family’s finances suffered during the Depression and he graduated from each as a scholarship student.

His skill with languages led to Army intelligence assignments during and after World War II, first in Washington, D.C., then in London and Paris.

He began his graduate work at Harvard in 1947, becoming a junior fellow in the Society of Fellows. That allowed him to pursue his studies without formal requirements. By doing so he did not receive a doctorate and in 1953 became an assistant professor in the classics department, which he later served as chairman.

In 1963, he and his wife, Diana, moved into Lowell House, where Mr. Stewart became the third master, the administrative head of that residence community.

“He was a person who was very interested in other people,” said his wife, who married Mr. Stewart nearly 48 years ago. “I think the main characteristics in the way he looked at other people was he looked at their good qualities first. That didn’t mean he didn’t see the warts, but it was the good qualities that mattered.”

The dozen years when the Stewarts were surrogate parents to class after class of Harvard students brought many changes. In 1965, Mr. Stewart announced that Harvard’s residence houses would extend until midnight the hours for gatherings after home football games, telling the Crimson that “the character of the student body has gradually changed and that students are less likely to become disorderly at after-game parties than they were a couple of decades ago.”

The Stewarts also kept peace at Lowell during the tumult of Vietnam War protests and volunteered their house when Harvard began experimenting with coeducational accommodations in the 1970s.

“Both Diana and Zeph were not only welcoming and very supportive, but downright delighted that this change was taking place,” said Diana Eck, a professor of comparative religion and Indian studies and current co-master of Lowell House.

Composure and leadership in turbulent times were traits Mr. Stewart brought to bear on all his activities, colleagues said.

“This was a calm, always gentle, but strong and righteous man,” said Adam Blistein, executive director of the American Philological Association, which Mr. Stewart served as president and financial trustee. “This was a man who knew what was right and would stand up for it without beating you over the head with it.”

Said Sarah Stewart: “He had that true humility where no one even notices that you’re humble. My dad was an incredibly good man, by all standards of what that means. I just don’t know that many people like that. It’s really quite amazing to have been raised by him and love him.”

As a scholar, Mr. Stewart took a keen interest in the work of Arthur Darby Nock, editing a collection of the classicist’s essays. Mr. Stewart, the Andrew W. Mellon professor of humanities, became professor emeritus in 1992.

Decades ago, he began vacationing in rural Wyoming. Mr. Stewart stayed in cabins with no electricity or running water near the tiny town of Cora, which his wife said had once posted a sign announcing a population of three. Environmentally conscious long before it was fashionable, Mr. Stewart liked to walk and read in the shadow of the state’s western mountains.

“He sometimes said rather wistfully, ‘It would be nice if Widener Library were dumped down in Wyoming,’ “ his wife said.

In addition to his wife and daughter, Mr. Stewart leaves another daughter, Mary of Berkeley, Calif.; a son, Christopher of San Francisco; and two granddaughters.

A service will be held at 2 p.m. on March 7 in Memorial Church in Harvard Yard.

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© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2014