An Oxford College has done something really offensive, and it doesn’t involve a statue of a white supremacist. Lady Margaret Hall has appointed Benedict Cumberbatch as a visiting fellow. It gets worse. It has elected Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys and Emma Watson from the Harry Potter films to the same post. Why they didn’t go the whole hog and appoint Giles Fraser as college dean and Jamie Oliver as steward I don’t know.
Oxbridge is gradually being drowned in celebrity appointments. The latest were the brainchild of one himself: former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, who became Principal of Lady Margaret Hall last September. Besides him, Bridget Kendall has just been appointed Master of Peterhouse, Cambridge, Guardian columnist Jackie Ashley has become President of Lucy Cavendish College, Lord Smith of Finsbury has been appointed Master of Pembroke College, Cambridge.
Is academia so starved of talent that Oxbridge Colleges have to look to the great and good of showbiz to take command of their high tables? Aren’t there any mathematicians, historians or astrophysicists more deserving of fellowships than someone from the Pet Shop Boys? Alan Rusbridger might think he is adding to the gaiety of his academic community, but really he is showing a lack of confidence in it. What he’s saying is that he finds academic conversations a tad dull and he needs the place enlivened by a bit of sparkle.
The conversion of Oxbridge Colleges into clubs for celebrities is the same sickness that led to David Cameron appointing Carol Vorderman as his maths champion and Kirstie Allsop as his housing policy adviser. Once you have been on telly, doors seem to open to positions of power. Ever since Tony Blair threw open the doors of 10 Downing Street to Cool Britannia, the country has gradually been taken over by the Order of Celebrity. You can spend a lifetime slogging away in laboratories or libraries but it won’t be your wisdom that is sought by government, it won’t be your experience that gets you an Oxbridge fellowship – the prize will go to someone with a good talent agent and a million Twitter followers. I can’t help thinking that Adele’s agent is already opening the bidding for colleges interested in taking her own to lead their choir.