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Sonita Alleyne, master at Jesus College, says historic double first ‘much better than I expected’





Most new masters, as they take up their responsibilities at the University of Cambridge, enjoy a period of grace to allow them to get their feet under the table – but for Sonita Alleyne, it was just weeks before Jesus College was in the national spotlight, at the epicentre of one of the most ferocious debates in the 600-year history of the university.

Sonita Alleyne has been master of Jesus College since 2019. Picture: Keith Heppell
Sonita Alleyne has been master of Jesus College since 2019. Picture: Keith Heppell

Taking the helm at the college in late 2019 had already been a double milestone: the first black master of an Oxbridge college, Sonita is Jesus’ 41st master, and the first woman to lead the college since its foundation in 1496.

Raised in Leytonstone, she attended the local comprehensive before coming up to Cambridge to read philosophy. After graduating from Fitzwilliam College, she founded Somethin’ Else, a hugely successful music production business and syndicator of radio programmes (second only to the BBC in the UK), and stepped down as CEO after 18 years in 2009. She is a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, an OBE, the chair of the British Board of Film Classification, a member of the BBC Trust, and founder and director of the Yes Programme, which supports careers information in early-school education.

What happened shortly after Sonita became Master of Jesus College remains such a contentious topic in a country riven – some might say sabotaged – by divisive culture wars that the topic was avoided for as long as possible during the 90 minutes I spent in the master’s study. It is, in any case, simply good manners to start a dialogue with someone you’ve never met by establishing some basis for congeniality before leaping into potentially difficult terrain, so I began by asking about International Women’s Day (March 8).

Wall of wisteria in the First Court at Jesus College. Picture: Geoff Robinson Photography
Wall of wisteria in the First Court at Jesus College. Picture: Geoff Robinson Photography

“It’s one of those days that has grown and grown in significance in the last 15 or 20 years,” Sonita said of the annual event, which this year is themed ‘DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality’.

“It plays a really important part in the general approach we take towards fairness: whether it’s women or LGBT+ or black history, it all helps focus our minds.”

The autumn 2022 intake at Jesus identified as 47 per cent female and 52 per cent male, which seems satisfactory?

“It’s a good position to be in,” Sonita agrees. “When I arrived at Jesus in 2019 one of the very first events was the milestone of 40 years of women at the college. This is a reminder that there has been progress across my lifetime, and a reminder to keep the conversation alive. The challenge is cross-generational, to keep in touch with younger generations and not lose touch with some of the issues they have, for instance the gender pay gap. Progress there has not been as fast as we’d like – there has been a period of change but it’s what we’re doing about it now.”

The ‘period of change’ has included addressing inbuilt disparities in the education system which result in low intakes of students from poorer backgrounds. This inequality has proved a challenge for all 24 of the Russell group of leading research universities in the UK.

Jesus College Chapel. Picture: Andrew Wilkinson
Jesus College Chapel. Picture: Andrew Wilkinson

“The university has a target for students with a state school background and we play our part in that at Jesus,” Sonita says. “We are definitely making some progress. We’re looking at social mobility. I’ve always said Cambridge is about excellence, not elitism, so what we’re saying is come and see what we have to offer! That’s paying dividends.”

Sonita’s concept of care isn’t a box-ticking exercise and extends from the intake of undergraduates to what happens after they graduate.

“I left Cambridge in 1988 and it can feel like you are coming to the end of a cliff and off you go,” she remarks, adding: “When I arrived at Jesus we had a link person but not much in terms of careers.” That changed profoundly in 2020, when the Jesus Connect initiative was set up.

“It was during the first summer of the pandemic that I started thinking about careers,” Sonita recalls. “I set up Jesus Connect in July 2020. It involves a whole variety of people. It’s a systematic platform which connects 1,700 members with 700 mentors, to talk, or link with other students. Lots of it is skills learning – how to speak powerfully, what areas to get into while they are at Cambridge, to build their narrative.

“Jesus Connect is there for alumni and for students. Lots of alumni come back to help and that’s really powerful. We’re quite meticulous about helping every single person. Careers is something I’m very passionate about. It’s a good model which hopefully will work for most Cambridge colleges.”

The new careers platform isn’t the only initiative Sonita has overseen since her tenure began. In 2021 Jesus College became the first institution to return a Benin Bronze to Nigeria. The objets d’art were taken by the British Army during the sacking of Benin in 1897.

“Jesus College had one Benin Bronze which was returned on October 27, 2021,” Sonita says, adding of the remaining 116 Benin Bronzes still at the university: “The others are not back yet, they’ll go back hopefully in a ceremony quite soon, but we were the first to do it.”

It was a groundbreaking decision.

The Benin Bronze which Jesus College returned in 2021
The Benin Bronze which Jesus College returned in 2021

“When it was announced someone called me from an art gallery in New York and said: ‘That single move was like the Berlin Wall coming down for museums’.”

The plan to return the bronze cockerel to Nigeria was first hatched early in 2019, Sonita points out.

“The college had launched its Legacy of Slavery Working Party in April 2019. One of the very first things I did was to look at this issue and the fellowship was convinced that the return of the bronze was the right thing to do. That was in November 2019, and it took a while to get it back.”

Between the decision to return the bronze and the handover, another issue hove into view: the Legacy of Slavery Working Party had also compiled a report into the Tobias Rustat memorial mounted on a wall in Jesus College Chapel, and the college decided it wanted to move the huge (self-penned) tribute from the chapel to an exhibition space elsewhere on college grounds. As the chapel is in the jurisdiction of the Diocese of Ely, a request was duly made to the Church of England, who put the consistory court wheels into motion.

Tobias Rustat was a courtier to King Charles II who, in 1667, gave the University Library its first endowment – £1,000. His subsequent largesse included establishing scholarships at Jesus for the sons of deceased clergy – but the money was tainted. Rustat had financial involvements in two early slave trading companies – the Company of Royal Adventurers and the Royal African Company. Between 1672 and 1731, the Royal African Company (for whom Rustat was an assistant) snatched 187,697 people from West Africa and transported them on company-owned ships in 653 voyages to English colonies in the Americas, where they became slaves. Rustat’s involvement in these companies lasted from 1662 to his death in 1694, into which window fell his donation to the college in 1671.

The controversial West Wall of Jesus College Chapel. Picture: Keith Heppell
The controversial West Wall of Jesus College Chapel. Picture: Keith Heppell

When the three-day consistory court hearing began in early February 2020 it was assumed by some that the process would be largely administrative, but what followed was shocking – even brutal. Unbeknownst to many of those present (I attended the hearing in the chapel for two out of the three days), 66 Jesus College alumni had spent £120,000 hiring one of the top legal firms in the land in a bid to keep the memorial in the chapel.

And they succeeded, though in doing so they triggered a set of questions about the legacy of slavery which is still being resolved by the Church of England, by Jesus College and the University of Cambridge, by historians, and by legal experts. The topic was and is also discussed by legions of social media commentators – currently one of England’s most popular pro bono activities – in the online domain.

So what was it like to witness and participate in this circus?

“It was a lot of drama from the get-go,” Sonita concedes. “We’re just in a position as a society, I think, where different views as to what is the best way forward are clashing. I do think people do come at things thinking they are doing the right thing, but maybe that’s the optimist in me.”

Did the process seem archaic?

“It wasn’t that it seemed archaic, it was just that there seemed to be a lack of understanding of race in it. We’re eternally grateful for our visitor, the Bishop of Ely, because unless he’d come along I’d have been there going ‘will someone please turn up to speak for God here?’. The fact that the Church is coming out with the exhibition at Lambeth Palace – it’s set up a £100m research fund – shows it is now clearly engaging in these issues.”

The free exhibition at Lambeth Palace, to atone for the Church’s ‘shameful past’, runs until April 4.

“The fact that the Church had itself owned branded slaves,” Sonita continues, “is quite shocking.”

Sonita Alleyne, master of Jesus College, in her study. Picture: Keith Heppell
Sonita Alleyne, master of Jesus College, in her study. Picture: Keith Heppell

Sonita describes how the church’s missionary organisation, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, branded its slaves on the chest with the word ‘SOCIETY’ to show who they belonged to.

“That was history, but you have to ask ‘well, what are they doing now?’. The court process led them to decide that the memorial should remain – and that’s an active statement. You’re basically saying that whilst we branded you in the past – as a Church we thought you were sub-human and you could be owned – fast forward however many years and we now think you can pray under the memorial to a slave trader. Am I being polite here?”

Indeed, I reply. But you must have thought ‘What on Earth have I got into, what’s my position here?’.

“I’m the master of the college,” Sonita replies after a moment’s pause. “And I’m a 55-year-old black woman. I do remember at one point during those proceedings thinking as a black person: ‘Why are we having to beg?’, like, really? We didn’t want reparations, we didn’t want any money – we just wanted some dignity of worship. I now only go into the chapel for memorial services and Remembrance Sunday, but otherwise no. I’m not saying I’m Rosa Parks but it’s like saying ‘Look, you’ve made a fuss, now get to the back of the bus’. It does matter, and it should matter to the Church, because that’s what the Church is meant to be about.”

But the fact is that 66 alumni paid a significant sum of money to keep the Rustat memorial in a church setting. Why? None of them has ever come forward to explain their position. Who were they?

“They are referred to as ‘the alumni of Jesus College’ but actually they are a very tiny percentage of the alumni of Jesus College and the majority were here 45 years ago,” replies Sonita. “I’ve talked about the changes in the demographic of students applying now, and they’re flourishing here. It doesn’t look the same.”

The self-penned memorial to Tobias Rustat had been moved twice before being mounted on the West Wall of Jesus College Chapel. Picture: Keith Heppell
The self-penned memorial to Tobias Rustat had been moved twice before being mounted on the West Wall of Jesus College Chapel. Picture: Keith Heppell

So the legal cabal – the 66 alumni – were people who were here more than 20 years ago?

“Yes – on average 45 years ago.”

Do you know that?

“Yes.”

What else do you know?

It turns out Sonita is as generous with a hearty guffaw as she is with every other aspect of her hospitality...

My time is up but it’s difficult to bring this topic to a conclusion because the issue of the memorial to Rustat in Jesus College Chapel remains unfinished business. Next up is the Legacy of Slavery Working Party’s July report, and in September the members of the United Nations Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent will also report after a delegation visited Jesus College Chapel in January. The UN group also held a discussion at the college to consider the ongoing impact of African chattel slavery, as well as exploring recommendations for reparatory justice.

“It’s important because they provide a worldwide link at the UN and their having a view will offer a different experience,” notes Sonita.

Members of the United Nations Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent at Jesus College in January, with master of Jesus College, Sonita Alleyne, fourth from left
Members of the United Nations Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent at Jesus College in January, with master of Jesus College, Sonita Alleyne, fourth from left

There’s been other aspects of Sonita’s groundbreaking tenure – the Jazz Festival dates at the college were a huge success, the college is up to speed with its strategy to divest from fossil fuel investments – “the deadline was last December” – and links to the community (Abbey People and Red Hen in particular) are up and running.

“It’s much better than I expected,” concludes Sonita. “I’m getting into my fourth year and just being a good leader of an Oxbridge college is what I’m looking to be. It’s a brilliant college with fantastic heritage, everyone here is fantastic and it always comes back to a simple question: ‘How can we help these young people be the best they can be?’”



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