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From council estate to Cambridge college head

From council estate to Cambridge college head: Activist becomes first black man to be elected chief of Oxbridge college

  • Lord Simon Woolley will be the next principal of Homerton College, Cambridge
  • He is the third black person to be elected as head of an Oxbridge college
  • Lord Woolley was adopted, growing up on a council estate in Leicester

An equalities activist has become the first black man to be elected head of an Oxbridge college.

Lord Simon Woolley, 59, founding director of Operation Black Vote, will be the next principal of Homerton College, Cambridge.

He is the third black person to be elected as head of an Oxbridge college. 

Sonita Alleyne, 53, was elected as head of Jesus College, Cambridge in 2019 and Baroness Amos, 67, at University College, Oxford in 2020.

Lord Woolley was fostered and then adopted as a small child, growing up on a council estate in Leicester.

He left school with no A-levels and returned to formal study via an access course, later gaining a degree in Spanish and English Literature at Middlesex University and a master’s in Hispanic Studies at Queen Mary University of London.

Lord Simon Woolley, 59, founding director of Operation Black Vote, will be the next principal of Homerton College, Cambridge

Formerly an Equality and Human Rights Commissioner, Lord Woolley was appointed by Theresa May in 2018 to lead the Government’s Race Disparity Unit. 

He said: ‘I’m excited to get to know the staff and students in Homerton and the wider University of Cambridge, and I’m excited for the next part of Homerton’s journey.’

Lord Woolley was knighted in the Queen’s Birthday Honours in 2019 and was created a life peer later that year.

He sits as a crossbencher in the House of Lords.

He added: ‘What a truly great honour to be appointed the next principal of Homerton College.

‘Its history, from its origins in the East End of London, and its values of inclusion, dynamism and integrity, along with its vision to be a beacon of hope and academic excellence, make this a must-have role.

‘It’s a great privilege to follow in the footsteps of Professor Geoff Ward, and I hope I can balance the college’s friendliness and warmth with ambition, as he has done so well.’

Professor Ward, congratulating Lord Woolley on his election, said: ‘Throughout my time as principal, I have taken great pleasure from the Homerton community, particularly our magnificent students, and I am sure he will get a warm welcome from them too.

‘One of the glories of Homerton is that it is never the same today as it was yesterday, and I wish Simon every success in leading the college to ever greater heights.’

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