New Hall is a college of Cambridge University.  It is now the one of only two University colleges (both at Cambridge) in the United Kingdom that continues to admit only women undergraduates.  It was set up as recently as 1954 but has acquired a formidable reputation in its short history so that now it leads the way in science.  Women have found its all-female environment a shelter,  particularly when studying subjects traditionally seen as male.

It was “new” not just in terms of its youth, but because it adopted its own admission examination.  It did not chose students on their “A” level results – results which often reflect the ability of an expensive school to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse – but instead attempted to test the innate intelligence of candidates.  Now it usually requires AAA at “A” level but still says “Very occasionally we will make a rather lower offer to a student who clearly has considerable potential but is currently disadvantaged (perhaps through weaker schooling or illness).”

A graduate of the college phoned me last night in high dudgeon.  “Soon I will be a graduate of Nowhere” she complained.  That was better than being a graduate of Oxford Polytechnic, I (half-)joked, but she then explained that the college had just announced the receipt of a large gift of £30 million, in recognition of which the college had decided to change its name to honour the donor.  This is the largest gift ever received by the University from a British couple.  But the name sounds very American.

From today it will no longer be called New Hall.  Instead it will be called Murray Edwards College.  Now, like me, you might be forgiven for wondering whether it was appropriate that a college with a fierce feminist tradition should adopt a name that sounds suspiciously male.  It seems an extraordinary thing to do, almost as if men have finally got their revenge on this thorn in their side.  Women have been given men’s names throughout history, either the name of their father, or the name of their husband in marriage, and feminists have often rebelled against this appropriation and retained their own names (which, of course, were often only their father’s names) in marriage.  My graduate friend has, at least some of the time.  So, it sticks in the gullet that the college has capitulated to a donor’s demand and sold out its tradition.  On Tuesday night in Cambridge there will be a demonstration against the renaming outside the college.

The renaming becomes all the more bizarre when you learn that Murray Edwards is not actually a person.  He is in fact two people.  One half of him is Rosemary Murray who was the founder President of the college.  The other half of him is Steve Edwards.  Steve Edwards is a man and cannot, short of a sex change, have ever been at New Hall.  His wife, however, is an alumnus, or whatever the female form of that is.  She is Ros Smith, a woman who together with her husband made a fortune in the high tech industry with a company called Geneva Technology which was sold in 2001 for $700 million.  How nice then that Ros should choose to honour her husband’s name with their bequest.  How unfortunate that the combination of Murray and Edwards should conjure up a man. 

Ros Smith came to Cambridge from a comprehensive school in Keighley in West Yorkshire.  The first President, Rosemary Murray, apparently only ever saw New Hall as a temporary name, and proposed that a sufficiently sizeable gift should entitle the benefactor to name the college. 

New Hall will not actually be legally re-named until next year, after the University has signalled no objection and the Privy Council has given consent to a change in its Statutes.

Until 1st May 2009, Murray Edwards will be the College’s trading name.  My friend will be brandishing a placard next Tuesday.

Steve Edwards, Ros Smith, and the current President of the college

Matthew, Ch 6

 1 Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven.

 2 Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.

 3 But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth:

 4 That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly.