Professor James Stirling FRS, the first ever Provost of Imperial College London, has received an honorary degree.
Professor Stirling’s honorary doctorate of science was conferred during Commemoration Day on Wednesday 17 October. He received Imperial’s highest honour for his outstanding contributions to physics and to the College, following his retirement in the summer.
He was joined at the ceremony in the Royal Albert Hall by his wife Paula and son Tom - and the event was watched live online by his daughter Helena and grandchildren.
James defined the role of Provost, not only for Imperial, but for the world. Professor Alice Gast President
During his tenure at Imperial, Professor Stirling was responsible for Imperial’s core academic mission of education, research and innovation. His work on the College’s institutional culture, gender equality, valuing all staff, animal research processes, reforming tech transfer and enhancing research grant mechanisms is widely regarded as transformational.
Professor James Stirling said: "Being Imperial’s first Provost was an immense privilege, and I could not imagine a better or more fulfilling way to end my professional career. Thank you to all the colleagues and friends I have worked with over the past five years who made the experience of being Provost so enjoyable."
Professor Alice Gast, Imperial's President, said: "James defined the role of Provost, not only for Imperial, but for the world. It was a privilege to learn from his graceful and insightful approach to leadership. I also immensely enjoyed working with him on opportunities like the Invention Rooms and challenges like the pension dispute. We will always remember his exceptional work furthering academic excellence, gender equality, mental health and animal care. His perpetual wonder and enthusiasm for all aspects of discovery and learning is infectious. James inspires all who work with him with his wisdom, character and warmth."
James McSean, who spent five years working as the Provost's Executive Officer, said: "James embodies the values that he promoted across the institution: fairness, decency and generosity. He led by example in the way he treated people: unfailingly polite and with the same level of respect and dignity, regardless of background or status."
Professor Stirling renewed Imperial’s focus on multidisciplinary research, implementing cross-Faculty reforms including new processes for joint research bids and helping establish internationally recognised networks, such as the Machine Learning Initiative and Antimicrobial Resistance Collaborative, as well as the Dyson School of Design Engineering, and global challenge institutes like the Data Science Institute and the Institute for Molecular Science and Engineering.
Inclusion and excellence
Along with Professor Simone Buitendijk, he led the development of Imperial’s Learning and Teaching Strategy, including an £8 million investment for improving the College’s curriculum, student experience and online education. The College was recognised with a Gold award in the first Teaching Excellence Framework in 2017.
The first Provost invested significant resource and personal time into changing Imperial’s institutional culture – reforms that are ongoing today. An independent Provost-commissioned research report, published in 2016, had a major impact across the sector, and continues to be cited as an exemplar of a university taking positive steps to address equality and inclusion while changing its culture.
Writing in Times Higher Education about institutional culture, Professor Stirling said: “We have plenty of other things on our ‘to do’ lists. But we also know that ultimately the culture and values of our own institution, reflected in the attitudes and behaviour of our community, are as important a part of ‘excellence’ as successes in the laboratory, examination room or on the sports field.”
Calm, intelligence and humour
His support for the student experience, including bringing together previously fragmented services, was praised by Hannah Bannister, Director of Student Services, who said: “I was immediately struck by his obvious support for both staff and students and by his utter approachability. Since then, we have worked together on some of the most difficult matters that can arise when looking after students and I will always remember his unstinting support. Also memorable is James’s calm, measured, hugely intelligent and humorous handling of so many extraordinarily complex issues.”
The Provost became known for championing the development and wellbeing of staff throughout the community, with a particular focus on marginalised and underrepresented groups. Imperial’s Postdoc and Fellows Development Centre now provides substantial resource for young researchers, as well as a mentoring network of 'Postdoc Champions'.
In 2017, Imperial became a founding signatory of the Science Council’s Technicians Commitment to promote the visibility and opportunities for technicians.
One beneficiary of Professor Stirling’s support, Paul Brown, received an MBE in recognition of his work as a Mechanical Instrumentation Workshop Manager. Mr Brown said: “James has given me many opportunities and support during his time as Provost. The technician apprenticeship scheme is vital for maintaining the skills base to underpin research and teaching and his support for the scheme has been unwavering. A personal memory which will stay with me is James personally calling me to congratulate me on receiving my MBE in June 2017.”
Professor Stirling established the Provost’s Awards for Excellence in Animal Research and for Excellence in Health and Safety, creating new means for recognising excellence at an institutional level.
Mental health and wellbeing became a top priority under Professor Stirling, as concerns arose including from the 2014 staff survey. The Provost implemented a series of changes including a network of 350 Mental Health First Aiders and 45 staff supporters, as well as a series of high-profile events for Mental Health Awareness Week.
Reflecting on the huge variety of tasks involved with the job, Professor Stirling said: “During my time here we have been honoured by visits from the Presidents of China, South Korea and Singapore. This is one the many elements that make my job so varied and interesting – one minute I’m meeting some of the most powerful people on the planet, the next I’m dealing with a complaint about blocked toilets!”
Inspiring the very best
Professor Stirling championed gender equality at Imperial, even before he joined the College in 2013. Emeritus Professor Dot Griffiths said: “James came to see me twice when he was considering the job at Imperial… on both occasions we got diverted onto gender, Athena SWAN and other diversity and inclusion themes.” The College renewed its Athena SWAN silver award in 2016.
Professor Griffiths added: “His interest in all of this delighted me and has continued to delight me throughout his tenure at the College. He has shown what can be achieved when the leadership at the top is truly committed to these issues.”
As Professor Stirling received his honorary award, his successor as Provost Professor Ian Walmsley said: “Professor James Stirling is a leader who inspires the very best and has defined the role of Provost for Imperial with integrity and vision. The high esteem in which he is held by everyone in the Imperial community cannot be underestimated. It is a privilege to honour him here today.”
Article text (excluding photos or graphics) © Imperial College London.
Photos and graphics subject to third party copyright used with permission or © Imperial College London.
Leave a comment
Your comment may be published, displaying your name as you provide it, unless you request otherwise. Your contact details will never be published.