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In Conversation: Black TCSU Presidents then and now

Join three black Presidents of Trinity College Students’ Union (TCSU) to hear about their time at Trinity in the 1960s, 1990s and the present day, as well as to discuss how to improve the black student experience at Cambridge.

Clem McCalla, Gary Pryce and Serena Cole will join this unique In Conversation, chaired by Trinity’s Admissions Tutor Dr Glen Rangwala, on Thursday 1 July, 6pm-7.15pm via Zoom. The event is open to all members of the University of Cambridge (please see below for more details including how to sign up.)

Serena Cole. Photo: Simon Warrener

Current TCSU President Serena Cole, who is in her second year studying Medicine, said she was delighted to join the conversation, which she hopes will generate ideas both to encourage more black students to apply to Cambridge and improve their experience here.

It will be fascinating to hear first-hand from Dr McCalla, who was here in the late 1960s and Gary Pryce, at Trinity in the early 1990s. They have had such rich experiences and it will be a pleasure to discuss how Trinity has changed and think about what more can be done to ensure that this is a space where black people feel safe and heard.

Clem McCalla studied Mathematics at Trinity from 1965, going onto a PhD at MIT and a career at AT&T.

He was President of TCSU, 1968-1969, at a time when there were few black students in Cambridge … ‘that was 50 years ago at the end of the colonial era when I was a student from the ex-colonies, not a Black resident of the UK,’ he recalls.

Trinity did not accept women, there was no College Bar, and students had to observe ‘gate hours.’ Lord ‘Rab’ Butler was Master and Dr John Bradfield (later Sir John) was Senior Bursar; they and many of the Fellows with whom Clem engaged as TCSU President, including the Senior Tutor Dr Denis Marrian and the Junior Bursar Dr Richard Glauert, have passed away.

Clem McCalla. Photo: Irene Wenkel, Visual Masters

Clem McCalla has kept much of the correspondence from his time as President, which captures the formality of the era.

I thought that tremendous changes had taken place during my tenure as President of the Trinity Union (initial consideration of the admission of women as members of the College, admission of women into the Dining Hall, introduction of the College Bar, elimination of Gate Hours and other proposals of the Working Party). Accordingly, I wrote a thank-you letter to the College Council expressing my appreciation.

In his letter of 7 March 1969 thanking the Council for its ‘very kind cooperation and understanding’ in bringing about improvements to student life, Clem wrote: ‘These would include the magazine rack, the additional telephones, the proposed laundromat, the installation of central heating in certain parts of the College and the College bar. The College bar has certainly been a great success and I think that the expense involved will yield a high rate of return – economically and otherwise.’

Clem’s letter also describes a change to the rules pertaining to dining in Hall.

‘The admittance of women into Hall for dinner has certainly made the institution of Hall a more glamorous proposition and as a result of this change it is now possible for Fellows to take their wives and lady guests in Hall, thereby enjoying the same rights and privileges as junior members.’

Clem has also kept a copy of a speech by then Dr Keith Moffat, of 25 February 1969, who was Senior Treasurer of TCSU at the time. In his speech to a College Meeting in Hall, which was packed with students and Fellows, including the Master, Dr Moffatt proposed to end the ‘unfair, arbitrary, illogical, unnecessary, invidious, vexatious, odious, offensive, obnoxious – and very unpopular ‘gate hours.’’ He said to the assembled members:

Our rules regarding gate restrictions are totally archaic. Men at the moment are required to return to College every night at the intolerably early hour of 2am. If they wish to stay out later than that, they must go through the humiliating and time consuming process of signing their names as they come in and they are allowed to do this only 5 times each term without special permission.

He went on to describe the additional constraints on students living in Whewell’s Court.

As if these men are not adequately discriminated against already, they must suffer the additional inconvenience of being unable to escape from the court for a breath of fresh air after 12 midnight. There a man is imprisoned for the whole night long – he can’t slip out to visit a friend, he can’t even get out for a quick supervision. And yet we talk of freedom.

The issue of gate hours was one of many debated that evening and as the night wore on Dr Moffatt chose to use the humorous version of the two speeches he had prepared. Speaking today, Professor Moffatt recalls this seminal event:

There has never been another such meeting to my knowledge, either before or since. This was the period of continuing unrest following the 1968 student uprisings, of which Cambridge had its share. The Trinity students had demanded a meeting at which all grievances could be aired.

It is historically significant that the admission of women to the College was for the first time debated at this meeting, although a further 10 years would elapse before women undergraduates were actually admitted for the first time.

 

Varsity’s coverage of the seminal meeting at Trinity in 1969.

Clem McCalla remembers that, among the many debates of this period, the criteria for admission were changed so that the College became ‘a place of place of serious academic study for all.’

Nearly 30 years later, when Gary Pryce came to study Law in 1992, Trinity had changed further. The College was co-educational – women had been admitted for the first time in 1978 and female Fellows were increasing in number; and gate hours were long gone, due to the combined efforts of TCSU under Clem’s presidency and Professor Moffatt.

Gary Pryce. Photo: New Square Chambers

The student body though was not very diverse, as Gary recalls. Now a barrister, Gary was Target Schools Officer of TCSU and then President 1994-1995. He remembers the union organised an annual sixth form conference which helped to encourage students from backgrounds under-represented at the College to apply. He said:

I am conscious that the space for Trinity undergraduates is very different now – we had no mobile phones, almost nobody used their email accounts because we couldn’t see the point of them, apparently there were just about a baker’s dozen black British undergraduates at the University in my matriculation year, and we were free of public health emergencies.

The 1 July In Conversation will look back to earlier eras while also considering contemporary Cambridge life for black students.

Serena played a pivotal role in the first Black History Month celebrations at Trinity in 2020, and heads a diverse TCSU Committee that is committed to outreach. She said:

In contrast to the handful of black students that we here in the 1990s, we are now 12 undergrads at Trinity. The College environment has also been changing with debates about the portraits displayed and the first Black History Month celebration this academic year. Meanwhile we are piloting an access initiative for 10 black Year 12 pupils to be mentored by Trinity PhDs and current students.

 

In Conversation: Black TCSU Presidents then and now will take place on Thursday 1 July 2021 6pm-7.15pm UK time, via Zoom webinar. The event is open to all members of the University of Cambridge.

To book a place please email: communications@trin.cam.ac.uk

Prior to the event by 5pm on Wednesday 30 June you will receive a link for the webinar. Please note, the event will be recorded.

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