Valete - Roy Boyne

A hard act to follow

Roy Boyne can be justly proud of his achievements as Principal of St Cuthbert’s Society between June 2003 and December 2008. In the last five and a half years he has successfully overseen some of the most dramatic changes in the Society’s chequered history.

When Roy took over in June 2003, he knew that as successor to Bernard Robertson he had a particularly hard act to follow. Bernard had been first a student in the Society and then, after decades of experience as one of its tutors and later Vice-Principal, had twice served as Principal. Roy, by contrast, came as an outsider from the post of Vice-Provost of Queen’s Campus in Stockton.

In addition to swiftly assimilating the distinctive ethos of Cuth’s, he straightaway had to set about implementing development plans the University had already approved - plans agreed in response to many years of pleading and agitation by previous principals to provide the Society’s students with material facilities comparable to those long taken for granted in the colleges. With student numbers of around 1200, those improvements could no longer be delayed.

Roy had the good sense to establish excellent working relations with the Dean of Colleges and with members of the University administration whose decisions could benefit the Society. He was also good at delegating to able members of his own staff. This approach paid dividends and the building development proceeded to the formal opening in 2006 of purpose-built accommodation for 355 students. Roy regarded this as the high point of his term of office. In honour of Leslie Brooks, the Society’s longest serving principal, he had the building named Brooks House. With rooms for over three times more students than the Society has in South Bailey, this development at Parsons Field added not only to the number of rooms but also to the variety of accommodation packages for which our students could opt. Despite the difficulties inherent in a split-site operation, Roy subsequently ensured that the Society adapted cheerfully to this new situation.

Ever mindful of the welfare of all students in the Society, Roy did not shrink from unpopular decisions if these were in the best interests of everyone concerned. When the latest scientific research convinced him that the excessive consumption of alcohol by some of the less mature students on formal occasions could pose a serious threat to their own health and was on occasion creating an uncongenial atmosphere for others, he imposed restraints. These were resented by students too young to realise that they themselves would be the main beneficiaries and it was their own behaviour that made the restraints necessary. Roy remained true to his convictions.

Under Roy’s leadership, Cuth’s preserved its reputation as the natural home for mature students within the University. Despite the large increase in overall student numbers, however, there were far fewer mature students applying for university places; student fees proved a powerful deterrent. The growing preponderance of school leavers joining the Society inevitably made the influence of the less mature majority more marked. It also made necessary a somewhat firmer guidance than had previously been the tradition in the Society. Roy was willing to provide this.

He took great pride in proclaiming the achievements of the Society’s students in whatever activity they excelled. As ever, their quite remarkable achievements in so many varied activities gave him frequent occasions to rejoice. He gave enthusiastic backing to the Society choir and to other performers and found opportunities to bring them to the notice of a wider audience.

He created one new audience eager to hear of achievements and developments in the Society. He hosted a dinner for our former presidents and principals. This proved such a success that it was decided to repeat the event every two years. The occasion draws together presidents spanning many years of the Society’s history. As well as providing opportunities for pleasant reminiscing, it fosters goodwill and continued interest and support.

He demonstrated his love of cinema by organising an annual film night for SCR members. At these, he revealed a talent for finding people to give expert and informative introductions. They included the Dean of Durham, a mountaineering Pro-Vice Chancellor, the former Director of the Washington Air and Space Museum, and a member of the Spanish Department, all apt choices for the films they discussed. This wide range of individuals was drawn from the far wider range of representatives from the arts, social and educational organisations he brought into the Society.

Another of Roy’s initiatives was the institution of an Annual Fellows’ Lecture open to all members of the University and the public at large. The first lecture, “Nuclear in the North,” given by Norman Askew, a former student member of the Society and later Chief Executive of British Nuclear Fuels, set an enviable standard. The whole series has reflected credit upon the Society and helped raise its academic profile. Roy’s further initiatives with regard to the Society’s Fellows included the introduction of “Distinguished Fellow” status to bestow upon individuals of exceptional merit, and lectures in the Society from its Visiting Fellows. These innovations have all been very well received.

In early 2006, he spent a sabbatical term as Visiting Research Professor in the School of International Studies at Strasbourg University, during which he gave lectures and conducted seminars in French and interviewed French and German civil servants and museum directors at regional and national level to discuss their cultural policies and the policy history upon which they were based.

A marked feature of Roy’s term of office was the large number of people who enjoyed the hospitality he and his wife Nicola so generously extended. Visiting alumni who left Durham years before Roy arrived as well as current staff and students received a genuinely warm welcome. Roy was the first principal of the Society to be given an official residence: Dun Cow Cottage. Time and again that house buzzed with guests’ lively conversation and laughter. Nicola and he made a point of having the whole of the JCR Executive to dinner every year, with Roy doing the cooking for as many as 22 people! Similarly, the smiling welcome from Roy and Nicola at social functions in 12 South Bailey set a cheerful tone for the event that followed.

At many of those events Roy was urged to make a speech. These speeches, delivered in a quiet voice, replete with erudite digressions and philosophical speculation, conferred upon Roy a rare mystique. Many were the discussions they prompted among puzzled members of his audience. Few were those bold enough to declare they understood them. But these Delphic utterances remained a talking point long after their delivery.

By contrast, when expressing his gratitude to staff and students for their support, Roy’s voice was clear and unmistakeable. In his final address, he paid particular tribute to Joyce Elliott, his Secretary, to Tim Hughes, who became Acting Principal when Roy was away on his sabbatical term, and to his Senior Tutor and Bursar for their support in early 2008 when he was recovering after an urgent and serious operation.

Roy was eager to resume his duties as Principal as soon as possible after his operation, and one of the major tasks then falling to him was preparing a response to the Review of St Cuthbert’s Society. This Review was produced by a team headed by the new Dean of Colleges set up by the University to examine every college, comment on its performance and make recommendations for changes that would ensure they were all operating in ways approved by the University. The recommendations were detailed and, in part, controversial. The response to them demanded long and patient consultation with all the interest groups concerned. Reconciling conflicting interests and opinions, especially when some of those passionately held opinions were founded upon erroneous accounts of the Society’s history and customs, proved no easy task.

But eventually an agreed response was submitted. In line with the majority view in the Society and against the Review recommendation, Roy won the fight to keep the Society’s name unchanged. Before he handed over, he had set in motion the actions required to implement accepted recommendations. He did so in a way that acknowledged both the importance of the Society’s history and also its need to present itself unequivocally to the world outside as one of Durham University’s leading colleges.

Unsurprisingly, Roy’s medical consultants advised that the double burden of his work as Principal and his academic duties as a professor in the School of Applied Social Sciences was too much for someone whose colon they had removed. To avoid a recurrence of the condition that had caused the original problem, they stated that Roy should lighten his load without delay. As his academic department was eager to have Roy’s services as a full-time professor, the Vice-Chancellor accepted that this solution should be adopted. Accordingly, it was arranged that Roy, on relinquishing the post of Principal of St. Cuthbert’s Society, would lead a research group, finish his book on government-led cultural strategies, and develop new teaching on the role of spectacle in the 21st century.

With more time to reflect, Roy may look back with satisfaction at his work as Principal. In recent years, the University’s central administration has exercised an ever tighter control over colleges. Principals have to operate within close restraints. Nevertheless, Roy, with the constant support of his wife Nicola, made his own very successful mark upon the Society. The Society has reason to be grateful to him for that success and for his dedication to St. Cuthbert’s throughout his time at the head of the Society. His will now be another hard act to follow.

John Norton, Principal, St Cuthbert’s Society 1985 - 1990