Ten years ago next month, the Ertegun Graduate Scholarship Programme in the Humanities was officially opened by the Chancellor. But to trace its inception we need to look back a further five years, to a Led Zeppelin concert in the O2 arena in December 2007. The band had been fostered by the legendary Turkish-born founder of Atlantic Records, Ahmet Ertegun, and when he died suddenly at the end of 2006, they reformed to hold this hugely-successful concert as a tribute to him. Led Zeppelin then very generously made a substantial donation from the profits to establish the Ahmet Ertegun Education Fund, under the direction of Mica Ertegun, Ahmet’s Romanian-born widow and a successful New York interior designer, thereby providing a scholarship for a Turkish student to study at Oxford. In this way a relationship was formed between Mica Ertegun and the University and with the then Vice-Chancellor, John Hood. Over the next five years, this led to Mica’s foundation of the Ertegun Programme, funding in her name and Ahmet’s not just one scholarship, but up to twenty at a time, specifically in the Humanities (which Mica and her husband had always passionately supported).
Twenty graduate scholarships for the cash-strapped Humanities is cause enough for major celebration, but the Ertegun Programme is very much more than financial support for individual scholars, crucial though that is for the young people starting off along this path. Mica Ertegun wanted to create a community of learning, and to this end funded the refurbishment of 37a St Giles’, an elegant stone-fronted Georgian House, now aptly named ‘Ertegun House’. Within it the scholars have all that a graduate student can wish for: a spacious central Oxford desk in a stylish and beautifully-appointed building with 24-hour access every day of the year; a large and flexible seminar-room where they can organise and host academic events; a kitchen-common room for less formal interaction, as well as an elegant courtyard and garden. On the ground floor, with their doors always open to all, there are two members of staff whose job it is to support the students in every way they can: a senior academic of the University, seconded for a number of years to serve as the ‘Senior Scholar in Residence’; and a full-time Administrator, ensuring the smooth running of the institution and able to help with any problem that emerges. On top of this there is a budget for events, which might be a group-visit to an exhibition, or the funding of a one-day workshop in a scholar’s specialist subject.
Ten years on, can we confidently say that the programme has worked? I am as well qualified as anyone to judge, as I was the first ‘Senior Scholar’ in Ertegun House, serving in that role for four years, and I have subsequently remained closely involved with the programme. I can say, hand on heart, that it has succeeded magnificently. The basic facts alone are impressive: the programme has supported, or is still supporting, 141 scholars from all the continents of the globe, studying for a variety of degrees between the MSt and the DPhil, and across the full range of Humanities subjects, from formal Logic to Egyptology. And Ertegun House really does work as a community, and in many different ways: offering scholars invaluable peer-support, as well as encouragement from above, in their research (which is often a lonely business); breaking down the barriers of hyper-specialisation that are one of the curses of modern academic life; and encouraging ambition and interdisciplinary thought. A high point of every week is the Wednesday lunchtime seminar, that all scholars must attend, where each in turn explains their research to their colleagues, and then fields comments and questions. It was fascinating and hugely pleasurable to work as the Senior Scholar at Ertegun House, interacting with bright young minds from across the world, in an environment that is perfectly suited to support and encourage research and debate. I benefitted greatly from my four years at Ertegun House, in terms of being intellectually stretched and tested, but always in a positive environment. I can say with confidence that the same is true of all who pass through the Programme.