Imperial College London

Celebrating Imperial’s first Provost as James Stirling receives honorary degree

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Professor James Stirling receiving his honorary doctorate from President Alice Gast

Professor James Stirling receiving his honorary doctorate from President Alice Gast in the Royal Albert Hall

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.

James and Paula Stirling
James and Paula Stirling

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.

James Stirling at the October 2018 Commemoration Day ceremony
Professor James Stirling at the October 2018 Commemoration Day ceremony

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 Stirling with Imperial's scientific glassblower Steve Ramsey, who also retired this year
Professor Stirling with Imperial's scientific glassblower Steve Ramsey, who also retired this year

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."

Alice Gast and James Stirling
President Alice Gast and Provost James Stirling take a ride in 118 year old Imperial mascot Bo

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 with Executive Assistant Kathryn Clark and Executive Officer James McSean
Team Provost: Professor Stirling with Executive Assistant Kathryn Clark and Executive Officer James McSean

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

James Stirling cutting cake
Marking the College's institution-wide Athena SWAN Silver Award

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.

James Stirling with postdocs and fellows
Professor Stirling helped develop new support for postdoctoral and early career researchers

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.”

Collecting a Guardian University Award
Collecting a Guardian University Award for the Graduate School's Researching Well Together project

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'.

Professor Stirling with Royal Academy of Dance President Darcey Bussell (centre)
Professor Stirling with Royal Academy of Dance (RAD) President Darcey Bussell (centre), ahead of RAD's annual awards held at Imperial

In 2017, Imperial became a founding signatory of the Science Council’s Technicians Commitment to promote the visibility and opportunities for technicians.

Professor Stirling with Imperial colleague and Britain's first astronaut Helen Sharman
Professor Stirling with Imperial colleague and Britain's first astronaut Helen Sharman

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.”

Celebrating student Olympic success
Celebrating student Olympic success with Rio silver medalists Mel Lee and Zoe Wilson

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.

Presenting hockey awards at Varsity 2016
Presenting hockey awards at Varsity 2016

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.

Meeting alumni with Professor Yike Guo (right) in Shanghai
Meeting alumni with Professor Yike Guo (right) in Shanghai

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!” 

Discussing blast injury research with Prince Harry
Discussing blast injury research with Prince Harry

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 Stirling with Professor Dot Griffiths, the Provost’s Envoy for Gender Equality
Professor Stirling with Professor Dot Griffiths, the Provost’s Envoy for Gender Equality

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.”

Professor Stirling opening new animal research facilities
Professor Stirling oversaw investment in new research and teaching facilities across Imperial's campuses, including a new £9 million animal research facility.

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.”

Professor Stirling receiving his honorary degree last week
Professor Stirling receiving his honorary degree last week

Reporter

Andrew Scheuber

Andrew Scheuber
Communications and Public Affairs

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Contact details

Tel: +44 (0)20 7594 8197
Email: a.scheuber@imperial.ac.uk

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