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A living legacy (Nonesuch autumn 2014)

Professor Sir Eric Thomas

Professor Sir Eric Thomas (Hon LLD 2004) Ciara Phelan

Bill Ray

Bill Ray (BSc 1975) Ciara Phelan

Professor Alexander Bird and Professor Jeremy O'Brien

Professor Alexander Bird (top) and Professor Jeremy O'Brien Ciara Phelan

5 November 2014

Humans are hard-wired to care about what we leave behind. We want our lives, and our experiences, to benefit future generations. But what does it mean to leave a legacy – as an individual, or as a university?

If asked to define the term ‘legacy’, most of us instinctively start with the common dictionary definition: a gift of money or property bequeathed by will. But beyond the material, all of us will leave a far more subtle impression on our successors: the memory of who we are, and of what matters to us.

Our true legacy is the sum of everything we hand on to others: moments shared with family and friends, our professional accomplishments and, most of all, the things we do to better the
world around us. Every new experience and achievement has the potential to influence and shape our legacy, as we decide how we want to live in the present, and build for the future.

The idea of an ever-changing, real-time legacy is particularly apt for institutions, like universities, that have an indefinite lifespan. For more than 1,000 years, the purpose of universities has
remained unchanged, despite having to operate in a variety of political, economic and social climates.

Humans possess an innate intellectual curiosity that seizes on opportunities to enquire, to challenge and to create; and learning and discovery are as critical to our societies, our cultures and our economies as they’ve ever been.

But how can we begin to evaluate the impact of a university – on individuals, on society or on places? Here, staff and alumni share their thoughts.

Professor Sir Eric Thomas (Hon LLD 2004), Vice-Chancellor

The 21st century will be known for the rise and rise of the virtual world – where learning, working and socialising can all take place in front of a computer screen. But, of course, the virtual world has not yet supplanted the physical world. If anything, it has reinforced the vital importance of personal interaction and of place.

Across the globe, universities continue to expand their physical estates, while online-only higher education courses have not grown at anything like the rate predicted. Even the trend for creating ‘satellite campuses’ overseas seems to be slowing markedly now.

We all crave, and delight in, personal interaction; and we all become fond of places. For Bristol alumni, the University campus and its buildings – along with the glorious city itself – are inextricably bound up with their memories of learning and discovery as students.

Few of us can picture Bristol without the many glorious University buildings bequeathed by the Wills family, whose generosity and vision continue to shape our institution today. The Wills Memorial Building (commissioned to last at least 500 years), the gift of the historic Royal Fort House, the creation of the HH Wills Physics Laboratory, Wills Hall and Manor Hall – more than 100 years later, thousands of students continue to enjoy these inspiring spaces. The Wills family’s legacy is powerful indeed.

Our challenge today is to ensure all our historic buildings remain fit for the future,and that new study spaces preserve and enhance the character of our University. We’ve invested hundreds of millions of pounds in capital projects in recent decades, and will continue to do so to ensure that the physical legacy of Bristol University endures.

Bill Ray (BSc 1975), Chairman of Convocation and the Alumni Association

As alumni, we’re living examples of the impact our University has on people, on business, and on society. Many of the qualities we learn and develop as students – enquiry, challenge, leadership, risk-taking – are exactly the traits that help organisations, communities and cultures thrive and adapt over time.

University offers us a chance to explore, and ask questions of, the world around us, unrestricted by many of the responsibilities that come later in life. As such, our student years are often some of our most formative, and continue to inform both our professional and personal lives long after we graduate.

For more than 100 years, Bristol alumni have been leaders, inventors, and innovators. So many names spring to mind – among them, Jasmine Whitbread (BA 1986, Hon LLD 2014), CEO of Save the Children International; Dr Joseph Muscat (PhD 2007), Prime Minister of Malta; Anne McClain (MSc 2005), NASA astronaut. 

The currency of our degrees has held fast too: today’s graduates are in strong demand. Leading employers continue to look to our University for bright new talent, and ideas conceived on campus have taken shape as some of the UK’s most successful start-ups in recent years. Steph Croft-Simon (BSc 2010) set up Nom Foods after spotting a gap in the market for organic, nutritious snacks; popular fashion app, SnapFashion, is the brainchild of Jenny Griffiths (MEng 2009).

The sheer variety of ways in which alumni are making an ideological, and economic, impact around the world is astounding. From the concert hall to the trading floor, we all play a part in representing our University to the wider world, and perpetuating the distinctive qualities inherent to our Bristol education.

Professor Alexander Bird, Professor of Philosophy

We should all be conscious of and grateful for the generosity of our predecessors. They’ve enabled us to work and study in such a congenial environment, and one conducive to lively intellectual activity. Yet we must also be aware that it is this intellectual activity that is at the core of the character of our University. Both staff and students inherit a legacy of thought – a spiritual environment in addition to the physical one.

By inheriting this legacy, we have an opportunity, and a duty, to nurture and add to it. Our University is a product of evolution – of the input of many different people, whether financial, spiritual, or intellectual. Students and staff all contribute to the enduring character of our institution.

As academics, we hope to leave a legacy through both our research and our teaching. We want to gain recognition for our work in a particular field and, collectively, shape and build the reputation of the departments we work in. But we also want to pass on our enthusiasm for our subjects to our students, so that they in turn will make an impact on others.

Professor Jeremy O’Brien, Professor of Physics and Electrical and Electronic Engineering, Director of the Centre for Quantum Photonics and Royal Academy of Engineering Chair in Emerging Technologies

Bristol has been making its mark on science for more than 100 years. The University is recognised worldwide as the birthplace of significant breakthroughs in quantum mechanics, and can count Nobel Laureates Paul Dirac (BSc 1923), Nevill Mott and Cecil F Powell among its former staff and alumni. In the 1930s, the School of Physics also offered refuge to scientists fleeing from Nazi occupation. Hans Bethe, Max Delbrück and Gerhard Herzberg all went on to receive Nobel recognition in physics, medicine and chemistry respectively.

That legacy is crucial in inspiring young talented minds to come to Bristol to learn, research and ultimately create the technologies that will shape the future. When I arrived at Bristol as a Research Fellow in 2006, I was fortunate to work with two living legacies, Emeritus Professor Bob Evans FRS (PhD 1970) and Professor John Rarity, one of the founding fathers of quantum information. Their support and guidance helped me to build the Centre for Quantum Photonics (CQP) into the world-leading research group it is today. The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, through the Recognising Inspirational Scientists and Engineers programme has allowed me to pass on this legacy to the next generation; my rising star is former CQP PhD student, Peter Shadbolt.

We’re developing secure communication networks for consumers, corporations and government; precision sensors for security, biomedical technology and environmental monitoring; and quantum computers that could eventually outperform even the most powerful computers we have today. The impact of these systems will be profound and far-reaching, and will revolutionise the way we use technology. That will be the legacy of our generation. 

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