Professor David Harper, outgoing principal of Van Mildert College, a position he has held since 2011, reflects on his time at Durham University. He has enjoyed his decade-long tenure; however, he stresses that a “change in culture” at Durham is necessary. In an exclusive interview, Palatinate speaks to Harper about the wider student experience, environmentalism, and inclusivity at Durham University.
Journey to Durham
Before coming to Durham in 2011, Professor Harper had an extensive academic career, holding positions in seven different universities. His first teaching job was at University College Galway in the West of Ireland, where he stayed for fourteen years.
Determined to develop his research career, Harper headed to Denmark, accepting a professorship at the University of Copenhagen, where he enjoyed “getting up to Greenland [and] getting up to the Arctic every summer [and] leading expeditions there.”
However, he was pushed towards Durham University once he reached a position in Copenhagen, which offered less opportunity for both research and seeing students. After a colleague mentioned a number of exciting jobs at Durham, Harper submitted his application for college principal soon after.
When asked why he chose Van Mildert as his preference, Harper reflected that Mildert “stood out for me, as the moment you walked into the college there was a tremendous buzz of activity: things were happening there.”
The Wider Student Experience
Upon assuming his role, a colleague gave Harper a gloomy and mundane verdict of the college system: “colleges are where students eat, where they sleep, and where they socialise; they don’t do much else.”
However, during his time as principal, Professor Harper has noticed significant change in the role colleges play in university life.
“I’ve seen quite rapidly in ten years the whole role of colleges changing quite dramatically [and] changing for the better.”
He suggests that the reason for this is twofold, but is broadly a consequence of the University putting greater emphasis on the wider student experience, something he welcomes.
Firstly, the embracing of a wider student experience strategy by the University, by colleges, and by the Students’ Union has caused the college community to transform. This strategy encompasses “all sorts of areas of contribution to the community, which we do very well at Mildert.”
Harper argues that this strategy has contributed towards a greater “sense of belonging for students in Mildert and in the [other] colleges.” It has helped to foster “intellectual enquiry, curiosity, these really important things that can be developed through college events and college interactions.”
Secondly, the establishment of the wider student experience committee in the University has changed the college environment. This committee means that the wider student experience “is on an equal footing to the education and research committees” at the University Senate.
“I don’t think anybody would now think that colleges are where students eat, sleep, and socialise” he remarks. “We’re dealing with a very different landscape now.”
Part of this changing landscape is the growth of Outreach projects, six of which flourish at Van Mildert. Professor Harper is very proud that around 200 students are involved in these projects at Van Mildert, who clock up 6500 hours of volunteering each year.
“To see our students grow, develop, and come out the other end as good citizens is really what I’m most proud of.”
These projects are particularly inspiring because they are all student-led, and staff take a backseat when organising the projects: “It’s what you do, it’s what the students do, it’s not what necessarily the staff do. We’re here to inspire you, we’re here to support you but our activities in Mildert are very much student-led activities and that’s the way it should be”
Accessibility and Inclusivity
Professor Harper reflects on the issue of accessibility for state-educated students at Durham University, as highlighted previously by Palatinate. While showing concern for these issues at a University level, Harper comments that Van Mildert College has “some of the best statistics.
“We have some of the best balance between state and private public schools… I think we’re a very inclusive community in college and we welcome anybody. I like to think we are open to the winds of the world.”
Part of the college’s success, he suggests, is the Outreach project, the Young Person’s Project (YPP). YPP, set up by former principal, George Patterson, has been running since 2000 and aims to raise the aspirations of high school pupils in disadvantaged areas of the North East through student-led school sessions and a residential trip to the college in Easter.
“It is a really tremendous project and it’s wonderful for the school kids but its also an incredible piece of development for yourselves to be part of.”
Nevertheless, he acknowledges that there is a deeper issue across the University, which deserves significantly more attention: “We definitely need a lot more serious work in this area… we need the tools to be able to do it properly and also maintain the high standards of the university as well.”
He expands further, arguing that a “necessary change in culture [is required], and there are a number of groups working very hard in this area… in the areas of racism… and sexual violence… in the areas of inclusion to make sure that everybody is welcome, and we develop a much better culture to relate to a very diverse population, which we should have at this university”.
One student, Lauren White, who studies Philosophy and Politics at Van Mildert College, has recently raised awareness about the struggles Northern students face at the University: “She has really shone a light on this really important area.”
The outgoing principal is proud that Van Mildert has “advanced quite a lot in getting rid of single-use plastic… we were one of the first colleges with all sorts of things like reusable meal-boxes and the whole project grew”.
He also explains how the college has spread “a greater awareness [of environmental issues] through the environmental Outreach project, in tree planting and educating kids in primary school.”
However, he reflects, the greatest achievement for Van Mildert was when the college attended the international Green Gown Awards in 2017 in Marseilles after winning both the North East and national competitions earlier that year. The Green Gown Awards recognise sustainability achievements at colleges and universities across the globe.
Van Mildert came second in the competition to the University of Tasmania, however, Harper views this positively: “What an achievement even to get there and then be beaten by a whole university. I think we did extremely well.”
Looking to future environmental endeavours in Durham, Professor Harper expresses his hopes that “Mildert college and various other parts of the University will start using green, clean energy”.
Encouraged by the Students’ Union’s aim to decarbonise the University, Professor Harper believes “mine water is a definite possibility for us because we have a coal seam under college which could be tapped into for a low carbon, low temperature source of heart for our buildings”.
He hopes this exciting endeavour will be taken up by the incoming principal, Professor Tom Mole.
Professor Harper’s final year at Van Mildert College has been a frustrating one because of the coronavirus pandemic. He suggests that the pandemic has forced his persona in college to change into one he finds unnatural.
“[The staff] love to talk to students [and] that’s not been possible and in some cases the students have started to view us as policemen rather than friends and colleagues and that’s not been a very nice experience for me.
“I really miss popping into the bar of an evening and moving round the tables and chatting to students and finding out how they’re getting on and what their plans are for the summer and for the future.
“I’ve really missed that interaction with the student body which is so valuable.”
However, Professor Harper is impressed by the way the college has readjusted itself: “I always like to think Van Mildert College is characterised by diversity, energy, and opportunity. I’m a palaeontologist, I look at the history of life and I’ve seen organisms go through crises in deep times and they adapt, or they go extinct, and I think we as a college, we’ve adapted extremely well”.
When asked what he will miss most about his role as college principal, Harper’s response is warm and sentimental: “I will miss the chance conversations, some of the wild ideas thrown about… just that huge buzz of some of the brightest young people I’ve ever met.”
“It is a wonderful job; it has been a wonderful job.”
His only regret is that “there hasn’t been lots and lots of time for research” which he was promised by the board who appointed him.
In the future, Harper intends to continue his “curiosity-driven” research that has been put partly on pause for a decade: “I am hoping to get back to travelling when restrictions end [and] do a lot more geological fieldwork, visit a few places I haven’t been to.” He has applied for an Emeritus position in Earth Sciences to help support this.
With his wife, Maureen, Harper is relocating to Coldstream on the other side of the Scottish border. He is very excited by this: Coldstream is “very close to some super geology… it’s near to some great coastal scenery.” Staying in touch with his geological academic background, he will live close to Hutton’s Unconformity at Siccar Point where “James Hutton in the late 1700s demonstrated that the world must be really, really old!”
Professor Harper gives the incoming principal a few words of wisdom: “the most important thing is be yourself, just be yourself.”
Image: Dr Victoria Brown