Interview: New Beginnings - First Term as Head of an Oxford College

Interview   –   18 March 2020

Professor Kersti Börjars was recently appointed Master of St Catherine’s College, Oxford (St Catz) and officially started work in January 2020. Having completed her first term at Oxford, Moloney Search checked in with Professor Börjars to see how she found the transition from distinguished linguistics scholar in a senior leadership role at the University of Manchester, to Head of House of an Oxford College!

Moloney Search: How was the move from the North West of England to Oxford?

Kersti Börjars: The move was fine. My husband still lives and works in Manchester so our weekends are spent roughly half in Oxford and half in Manchester. I have had to buy a few things so as not to have to take them back and forth, like a tennis racket and a pair of trainers for each house!

MSL: What were your priorities coming into the role and, having had a chance to settle in, have those priorities changed?

KB: My priorities aligned largely with the College’s existing priorities, like widening access to an Oxford education. I was also keen to quickly make sure that colleagues saw me as someone who is open and honest, and that students see me as a present and approachable Master. As for how well I have succeeded in doing that, you would have to ask my colleagues!

MSL: How do your thoughts about the role, the College and the University differ now you are in post?

KB: My thoughts on the system of governance and how it relates to the role of the Master have evolved since I started. Prior to this, the closest comparison I had would have been a Head of School or a Dean, but this is very different as all the Fellows on the Governing Body are trustees of the College and have a voice in all decision making. Being a Dean is more prescriptive and I would have been expected to take a plan and a strategy to the Policy and Resource Committee, whereas here it is more a question of developing ideas jointly. The Master has much less power than a Dean, and the Governing Body is more democratic than any committee I would have chaired as a Dean, but I think this is great as it really suits me.

MSL: What was the most surprising thing you encountered during your first term as Master?

KB: How well looked after I am! Both in terms of support from administrative offices and from the staff like cleaners, porters and catering staff. The respect for the Master also still takes me aback, people addressing me with ‘Good morning Master’ for instance.

MSL: Oxford Colleges have many quirks, what has caught your eye at St Catz?

KB: The committee system is very interesting. Members who have been here longer than me have a very clear idea about what should go to which committee before it goes to the Governing Body. Also, there are many traditions that it takes a while to get used to, many of them around food and drink! I keep a glossary and from time to time I sit down with our academic registrar to have new terms explained to me.

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