Jennifer Brook – Churchill College’s first female Bursar

This article was published in the Churchill Review, Vol 59. Jennifer Brook became Churchill College’s first woman Bursar in December 1998 

When I took up the post of Bursar of Churchill College in December 1998, I was thrilled by the opportunity. I had not had a lifelong ambition to be a Bursar or work in an academic institution. It was one of only very few jobs that I have applied for in my career. I was impressed by the appointment process. Thinking that I was the token woman on the shortlist, I was determined to enjoy the experience. I had enough contacts to know that operationally it could be a challenge in terms of the financial, estate and even academic performance of the College at that time. So, I was pleasantly surprised to be offered the job. 

Warm welcome 

I did not anticipate the warmth of my welcome, particularly from Sir John and Julia Boyd, the fellowship, staff and students. I was very lucky to have Paula Halson, the Registrar, as a key member of the Bursarial team and the advice and support of Rex Thorpe, Andrew Tristram and Hywell George, who had all taken responsibility for holding the fort during the previous year when Michael Allen was on leave before retiring. Early conversations with Fellows at lunchtime, usually began with them asking me about the College’s finances. Since these were completely opaque and prepared annually in arrears, this was not an easy one to answer. But I seemed to reassure them even when my instinct told me that the figures were pretty disastrous. Luckily there were some obvious, if not easy-to-implement – solutions.  

Spending time talking to everyone  

The advantage of not coming directly from an academic environment was that I could ask about anything and everything. This was, probably, an even greater advantage than being a woman. Having read Chemistry as an Undergraduate at Oxford and done my MBA in my mid-twenties, as well as working in large companies for the best part of twenty years, I was used to being a minority female. I was told that my management style was very different. I spent a lot of time talking to the student officers and staff as well as Fellows. I enjoyed the intellectual stimulation which comes from working with very bright people – even when I sometimes lost a debate. 

Building the systems  

There was no Domestic Bursar for the first ten years in post so I had a very large number of direct reports. A number of long-serving HoDs retired in the first few years that I was Bursar and we were able to bring down the age and broaden the experience of those coming in but I had to delegate. As many of my HoDs will confirm, that does not come easily to me.  

The systems in place were fairly limited and it was a time when legacy systems (many of which had been developed by Fellows in their own time) were only just beginning to be able to be replaced by off-the-shelf software. IT literacy in the staff was pretty poor and few had experience of other employments where systems were widely deployed. The other major gap was in financial management knowledge and experience at every level. Finding an accountant who could tackle this from a technical point of view and carry it through was a great challenge. The eventual appointment of Sue McMeekin was the most significant breakthrough.  

The discipline of managing the governance of the College and the multiple committees exercised the scientist side of my brain. I did not find it hard to produce endless papers advocating courses of action. On the other side, I found the art, design, music, gardens and buildings of the College a constant joy. I can say honestly that I did not feel that my input was any less welcome because I was a woman. That is not to say that I always got my own way!  

Working with students  

The female students were particularly welcoming. I would address their open meetings on rents and other charges. I had the JCR and MCR officers to supper in my Sheppard Flat initially and then at home. I learned only later that this had been the norm for tutors in the early years of the College. On one memorable evening, my elder daughter drew cartoons of all the JCR officers which they then published in Winston. 

Juggling work and home  

Having three young children at the time, and no husband in tow, evening meetings were a bit of a pain but I had a wonderfully flexible childminder and my secretaries, starting with Rachel Arnold, were adept at dealing with panic phone calls which occasionally came into the office. The timing of meetings – generally running from 5.30 pm to 7.30 pm was probably the most difficult thing for a mother. It is no accident that the current and past women’s colleges tend to have their formal meetings at 9 am.  

Social life  

The other joy of being the Bursar of Churchill College was the built-in social life, particularly for a single mother. Aside from the need for babysitters, it was very easy to attend events and formal dinners on my own. I did not experience any difficulty in talking to the older Fellows and their wives (and a few husbands). The number of female Fellows actually fell over the first 8 years I was in post. With the appointment of Richard Partington there was a concerted effort to bring in more, on more flexible terms, and the balance improved drastically. The post-doctoral By-Fellowships launched by Ken Siddle also improved that.  

Lunch in the Fellows Dining Room generally involved talking to more of the younger Fellows and By-Fellows, and visiting Fellows. Evening events and set piece social functions brought in more of the retired Fellows and their wives or partners. Twenty years ago, partners were not invited into social functions in many colleges and it was another very positive aspect of life in Churchill.  

Cooperating with Bursars across the University 

Another aspect of being a Bursar is working with colleagues in the same role in other colleges. This was very important for sharing experiences, expertise and laughter. The female Bursars were a formidable group and very supportive but all the Bursars worked together to avoid duplication of effort. They also socialised regularly. The Bursars’ Committee which is a statutory committee of the University of Cambridge, had at least three female chairs in my time and more since. I chaired at least three sub-committees and never felt unwelcome or ignored.  

Accepting the post of Bursar in Churchill College was definitely the best decision I made in my career.