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‘Gradual evolution rather than grand strategic plans’: Dr Rod Pullen reflects on his time at Trinity

As he joins the ranks of Trinity’s retired Fellows, we asked Dr Rod Pullen about his 10 years as Junior Bursar.

What does the Junior Bursar of Trinity actually do?

The title is historic but the role is very hands on. The Junior Bursar at Trinity is part of the senior management of the College and an ex-officio member of the College Council. I was responsible for all the non-academic management and administration of the physical College, except catering, so I oversaw the work of the Accommodation Office, internal accounts, Housekeeping, Personnel, Porters, and the Works Department, as well as part oversight of the Gardeners and the IT Department. The scope and pace of the work can change rapidly; the JB can be discussing long-term building strategy one moment and dealing with a student’s crisis the next.

What attracted you to the role?

After 30 years in the Diplomatic Service I was looking for a fresh challenge that built upon my experience and skills. I wanted to remain in the public sector. Trinity was attractive as a centre of academic excellence with the resources to do things well, a refreshing change from the penny pinching in government.

What skills did you bring as a former diplomat?

On the College Council, only the Senior and Junior Bursars have non-academic backgrounds. Thus the two Bursars bring a wider perspective to the discussion and decision making at the most senior levels. The College is not a pyramid with a chief executive; the Master chairs the Council but his role is more nuanced – the Fellowship in its entirety takes an interest in the work of the Council, and has a broad spectrum of views on most issues.

Perhaps my most important contribution was the management of staff. Unlike much of the wider world, in Cambridge colleges there is almost no career progression among staff. No member of staff, even at the most senior level, can ever ‘reach the top’ (i.e. become a Fellow). Instead, the sense of a community of Fellows, students and staff is important: everyone is proud of Trinity. The challenge is to reinforce the perception that everyone’s role is important within that community and that all are appreciated. This was very similar in Britain’s embassies. Before Trinity, I had spent 12 years in Africa, building that sense of partnership among multi-ethnic, multicultural teams of staff in four very different countries.

What has changed in your 10 years at Trinity?  

A great deal, within the College and beyond, in particular the expectations of students and Fellows, and the regulatory environment in which the College operates. This has meant increased training and coordination between departments, and continuous effort to ensure that the College complies with all aspects of increasingly demanding legislation.

A particular challenge is ensuring that the College’s historic buildings, many Grade I Listed, can be adapted to remain ‘fit for purpose’ as good quality student accommodation and work space. During my time there were major refurbishments of the College kitchens, the interior of the Chapel, the remodelling of the Porters’ Lodge at Great Gate and many smaller projects such as refurbishment of the Fountain in Great Court. The biggest project was the complete renovation of New Court. This remains controversial within the College, but beyond is increasingly cited as an exemplar of what can be achieved to make a listed building more ‘green’.

I am proud of what I have achieved but it would not have been possible without the support of many excellent staff.

What challenges lie ahead for the College?

Change is a constant in our modern world and there will be fresh opportunities and challenges for the Junior Bursar. I am fond of sayings from two very different people: Elvis sang that ‘Wise men say that only fools rush in’; and the German Field Marshal Helmuth Graf von Moltke said that ‘No plan survives contact with the enemy.’

They seem to me to encapsulate the College’s approach to new circumstances over the centuries. It has followed a path of gradual evolution rather than grand strategic plans or sudden change. As a result the College remains at the cutting edge of academic thought and research worldwide while maintaining its uniqueness. Its approach has stood the test of time.


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