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Sir Timothy O’Shea


The internet is an enormous resource for the researcher of lives and preparer of orations. But it has its pitfalls. For the internet makes it clear there are very few of us who do not have namesakes or shadowy doppelgangers. There are to my knowledge several Steven Connors going about the world, and I still occasionally get alarming communications meant for Steven Connor the urologist. One of the great fears I have as College Orator in these days of universal access to the blessings of electronic knowledge, is that I might one day prepare an oration about altogether the wrong subject. No real danger of that today. I am unlikely to confuse the Tim O'Shea whom we honour and who by his presence honours us today with, for example the Tim O Shea who works the cabaret circuit in Denver, whose website informs us that he specialises in 'Commercials, Improv and Stand-Up Comedy'. Mind you, the problem with this Tim O'Shea is that you never quite know. After all, he has done his fair share of improv and stand-up comedy, much of it standing on the very spot I now occupy.

Tim O'Shea's academic career began with a BSc in Mathematics and Experimental Psychology from the University of Sussex, which he followed with a PhD in Computer Science from the University of Leeds. When he joined the Open University in 1978, his interest in computer-mediated learning, the subject that arises so naturally from the intersection of these three subjects, was already well established. Tim O'Shea's academic reputation grew in parallel with his pioneering work in this rapidly developing field. After a number of years working on a range of different projects investigating the uses of technology in education, he was appointed as a visiting scientist at Xerox Research Centre in Palo Alto, where he worked on virtual learning environments. He has written, co-written and contributed to many books, including Learning and Teaching with Computers, co-authored with John Self in 1983, which was a landmark in the field and has been widely translated, The Computer Revolution in Education (1987) and Educational Computing: A Reader (1987).

He has served as Chair of AISB, the Artificial Intelligence Society, and President of the Psychology section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. All this work was recognised by the conferment of a Personal Chair in Information Technology and Education in 1987 at the Open University and, in 1992, by the award of the prestigious CAPIRE prize for innovation in science education. He has been an indefatigable promoter of innovation in teaching, especially via computing technology. Tim O'Shea was not only the right research at the right time, his research has helped to make his time one of the richest and most exciting for higher education, as universities explore ways to use the information technologies that have been their gift to the world to enhance their own activities of teaching and learning

During the 1990s, his interests turned to academic management, and he was appointed the OU's Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Quality Assurance and Research in 1994. Three years later, he became Master of Birkbeck.

Birkbeck College is a difficult place for an newcomer to adjust to. It is intensely aware of its uniqueness, and there are always a large number of members of staff with long memories and a strongly defensive urge about their institution. When he came to us in 1997, Tim O'Shea found a marvellous way of getting under our skins at Birkbeck. He threw himself into our history and rapidly got himself into a position where he knew more about it than we did. I used to think that every time he raised his glass to propose the toast to the founder of the college that is customary at college dinners, he looked a little more like George Birkbeck himself.

Tim O'Shea knows a great deal about the need to find resources for the future in the past. That can sometimes extend to what directors who set Shakespeare plays on the planet Venus call creative reworking of inherited tradition. You will perhaps allow me to bring forward an example from my personal experience. At about 4.00 on the afternoon of December 23rd, at the end of Tim O'Shea's first term, I was in my room, squeezing in a last supervision meeting with a PhD student, before the College closed its doors for the Christmas break. There was a knock, and when I answered the door, there stood the Master.

I should explain that, like the Duke in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, the Master had from early on showed a certain relish in going abroad incognito to inspect his dominions. Departmental secretaries were soon warning each other that the enquirer on the end of the line politely persisting in wanting to know why we did not offer courses in cosmology might turn to be the Master, checking up for himself on the kind of service we were giving.

On this occasion, he was not exactly in disguise, but was certainly caparisoned in an unorthodox way for a Head of School, with two large satchels or saddlebags worn crosswise. One was reminded irresistibly of some bandalero, as might perhaps have been personated by Anthony Quinn in his prime. 'Merry Christmas, Professor Connor', he beamed, 'Would you care for a mince pie?' Under such circumstances, one does not say 'Not today thank you', or direct the Master to the tradesman's entrance. Before I knew it, he had stepped across the threshold, introduced himself to my gently gobsmacked student, and was reaching deep into one of these bags to produce mince pies all round. As the munching began, he continued: 'Some sherry to wash that down with, perhaps?' A dive into the other bag produced the requisite bottle, along, astonishingly, with three glasses. Thus was born in a twinkling the tradition (subsequently of course found to have been sanctified by centuries of usage) that, once a year, as Christmas approaches, the Master of Birkbeck should set out into the swirling snow, to make the rounds of his grateful staff, dispensing comestibles from his magic bags. (I'm sure the new Master has already had this tradition outlined to him.)

The Master had an instinct for the power and meaningfulness of ceremony, as a way of making the acknowledgement of students' achievements on occasions such as this one the more memorable. He certainly took this occasion extremely seriously, regarding the day on which friends, relatives and teachers alike gathered to celebrate the achievements of Birkbeck graduates as the most important in the college calendar. Unimpressed by flummery, he would not allow any diminution of the dignity earned by and owed to the hard work of graduating students. He exuded relaxed cordiality himself on these occasions, but knew too that formality contributed importantly to the dignity of the occasion. 'A certain amount of high-wire business is always important for any ceremony to come off', he once confided to me. Those of you regretting the choice of those vertiginous high heels as you contemplate the expanse of stage you have to traverse may be able to appreciate what he means.

As a head of this college, Tim O'Shea gathered enormous respect in a very short time. His analytic powers are superb and unerring. He has a genial but granite unshakeability when it came to securing Birkbeck's future. At the same time, he knew the importance of keeping on the move. 'The only way for an institution to survive is for it to grow', he was once heard to say, and, under his leadership, the college grew vigorously on every front, student enrolment, staff recruitment, research income and standing. The imposing new physical face of Birkbeck that is taking shape was his inspiration. He was always ready to applaud and encourage innovation and knew that never to take a risk was itself a high-risk strategy. I remember him once responding to a senior colleague who was preening himself on being a 'prudent Scot' with the remark that in that case he had better get used to having a 'reckless Irishman' in charge of the place. Not the least of his successes was his buccaneering scheme to appoint to Birkbeck a raft of distinguished Professors and Readers to celebrate Birkbeck's 175th anniversary. There was plenty of sucking of teeth and shaking of heads, but the conspicuous improvement of our research ratings as a result of the last Research Assessment Exercise in 2001 vindicated him triumphantly.

Within a few months of arriving in London, he had made himself indispensable to the Federation of the University - the somewhat grandiose name of which always amused him, making him feel like a Starfleet Commander. He was appointed a Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the University. He was speedily seized on to act as Provost of Gresham College a post he held concurrently with his Mastership of Birkbeck and relished the opportunity it gave him to appoint Professors of Divinity, Physic and Rhetoric. He has become ever more in demand as a public figure in higher education. In all the offices he has occupied, he has offered leadership and shrewd guidance and tenaciously defended his democratising educational ideals.

Despite his rising public profile, Tim O'Shea diffused throughout Birkbeck an atmosphere of good-humoured resolve, and knitted the college together in common purpose. He was a superb motivator, who was a shrewd judge of people's capacities and potential and knew the art of giving people good ideas in such a way that they thought they were their own.

It is not clear what achievements yet lie in store for Tim O'Shea in his new role. We can be sure that there will be many. When in my research for today I turned up the headline, 'Tim O'Shea Named Ohio's Head Basketball Coach', I must admit I was given pause. For, in truth, who can be sure how many Tim O'Sheas there may yet be in the offing? Whatever lies in store for him, we will follow his career with a kind of proprietary pride, having today set our grateful seal upon him, as we welcome him as Fellow of Birkbeck College.