As part of our 20th anniversary celebrations, we are sharing 20 interviews with leaders in philanthropy and the nonprofit sector. Here Nick Jaffer, President and CEO of Global Philanthropic (Asia Pacific), interviews Professor Frances Corner OBE, Warden of Goldsmiths, University of London.

In this interview, Professor Corner talks about the role of education in transforming peoples lives, Goldsmiths’ commitment to diversity and community, and its initiative around art for social good.

Nick Jaffer 0:00 Hello, I’m Nick Jaffer of Global Philanthropic. As part of our 20th anniversary celebrations, Global Philanthropic is proud to be speaking with 20 leaders on the power and potential of philanthropy to change the world for good. Today, I’m pleased to welcome Professor Frances Corner OBE as our guest for #Global 20. Professor Corner is the Warden or Vice Chancellor for Goldsmiths University. The first woman to take on the role, Professor Corner has a distinguished career in higher education leadership, including serving as head of London College of Fashion, and Pro Vice Chancellor of the University of Arts London previously. As a campaigner, she has championed the role of fashion as a force for innovation and change, particularly in the areas of sustainability, health, and well being. Professor Corner is currently a trustee at Centrepoint and also sits on the British Fashion Council industry advisory board. In 2018, she was named in the Business of Fashion 500, a professional index of key people shaping the global fashion industry. Please join me in welcoming Professor Corner.

Prof Frances Corner OBE 1:11

Thank you very much. Thank you, Nick. It’s always a bit strange when you hear things being read out about yourself.

Nick Jaffer 1:20

I think they were quite accurate. It’s interesting, I did a bit of research on Goldsmiths and I found the institution really quite compelling. I’m not sure that certainly my Australian colleagues or my Canadian counterparts would have a sense of the institution but I do think it is a very unique place. Can you tell me more about Goldsmiths, particularly in the areas of social justice and how it may differ from other universities?

Prof Frances Corner OBE 1:51

I think what I’ll do is, I just sort of say a little bit about why I really wanted to become Warden, and it absolutely ties into the issues of social justice. So throughout my career, which has been very much supporting and promoting creative education, I’ve got a doctorate from Oxford, which looked at growth of higher education and what that meant for a subject discipline, like Fine Art. And as part of that, I became very interested in the role of universities as anchor institutions for their local communities. And so I’d also gone on to do a lot of work, for example, with prisons, with widening participation. I’ve always believed passionately, in the role of education for transforming people’s lives and for the opportunity for all to have that given to them, as a chance to develop and to grow, and so on. As you highlighted in your introduction, I was head at London College of Fashion, where I’d done a lot to set up the Centre for Sustainable Fashion, developed a whole programme around prisons, and a lot of work with charities. The idea that, you know, education really can transform you as an individual and as a community and play a really key role. And then when Goldsmiths came up, I wasn’t looking to go, but I was really compelled, as you said, it is a compelling institution because it was set up in South London in 1891. It was set up to really help educate people within the local community, to give them the opportunity for training and skills and to really grow and develop. And that’s always been part of its DNA.

And the other thing I thought was particularly interesting about Goldsmiths was the fact that it’s a challenging institution, it’s one that likes to challenge the norms. It’s one that likes to question. And all of its subjects, like its reputation within the arts, within design, within computing technology, within the social sciences, within the humanities, but also some of its new disciplines that are developing like law, which is based around human rights, is this idea about the need to transform, the need to really grow, the need for opportunity, the need for social mobility, the need for social justice. And so in a way for me being at Goldsmiths, because it’s got this history, that is part of its DNA, it continues to be part of its DNA. And it really is such an important institution for the 21st century. And I feel very privileged and I feel very lucky to be to be its Warden, its Vice Chancellor, at this particular point in time, where I think we all agree the world has got many challenges and needs to have that sort of commitment that Goldsmiths has for the individual and for the community and for society more broadly.

Nick Jaffer 4:50

You mentioned that it’s a complex time right now and besides the issue, obviously, of economics, we’ve got diversity, inclusion, equity which are very prominent, obviously, in today’s time, do you think with those kinds of issues facing the world, that the awareness or the relevance of Goldsmiths is more widely understood by the community?

Prof Frances Corner OBE 5:14

I think that’s a really interesting question. Goldsmiths has a very strong reputation, particularly around its creative subjects. It’s got alumni ranging from somebody like, you know, Bridget Riley, Antony Gormley, Damien Hirst, and so on. But it also has a reputation, globally, for its media. So Media and Communications, its fourth in the country for its research in terms of its influence and impact. I mentioned law. So although that’s a very new department, it’s begun to immediately have an impact within the community of human rights lawyers. Our students, or graduates in July have gone on to really successful placements and so on. We contribute to the University of London’s Refugee Law Clinic, for example, we’ve set up a well being clinic in the community, which is to support our Social Work students gain experience, but obviously looking and supporting the community. So I think it’s reputation. And this is where it comes back to the reason why I think Goldsmiths is so important is because it’s committed to its roots, it’s committed to South London, it’s committed to its communities, but it has this global influence and global reach. And I think that it has a reputation for what it does. We have a lot of students on distance learning programmes, Computer science for example, because people know that our computing is world leading, it’s not necessarily always understood. So I think that sometimes Goldsmiths, because it’s so focused on doing what it does, on making these things happen, that it doesn’t always promote itself as much as it could. And that’s one of the things that I’m very keen to do because I think it does have a role. I think there are, in terms of the interview today, there are a lot of philanthropists who are really interested, not just in our subject areas, but also in this mission that we have for social justice and the need to make change. And I think one of the other things that I would add around the sort of context is, is the issue of the environment. And we know that a lot of our students that come to us have been studying the impact of climate change since they were at primary school. When I came to Goldsmiths, because of all the work that I’d done on sustainability, I declared a climate emergency because that was to support the work that staff and students had been doing. They were very keen to have a Green New Deal. And one of the things that I think is really important about this, it’s not just about what you can do as an institution, as individuals, within our curriculum within our research to, to further the understanding and to make a difference on that. It’s also to understand the global implications, because as climate change has its impact, so we will have more and more migration, more and more refugees, because parts of the world will become inhospitable, and people will be wanting to move and find new opportunities and so on. Which then raises all sorts of issues around migration, immigration, social justice, and so on. The great thing about Lewisham, where Goldsmiths is based, is we do an awful lot within the communities to support the homeless, to support refugees, to be engaged with the issues around migration. So for me, everything sort of joins up, you know, you can’t just look at some of these things if you’re really engaged in social justice and really committed to it and think, “oh, well, I’ll just go and deal with that little bit over there”. You have to recognise that it has an international dimension, it has an obviously a national dimension, and also very much a local community dimension. And if you’re committed to that, then I think you can really begin to make a difference.

Nick Jaffer 9:09

Very powerful. And just thinking a bit broadly about the role of philanthropy, when you look at the messaging around it, what do you think is the narrative that allows you to tell your story in an urgent way, in a compelling way for for potential supporters?

Prof Frances Corner OBE 9:30

I think it’s really interesting. I’ve met one or two philanthropists and I’ve always been really impressed and moved by their personal commitment to particular causes. And that sense that their personal wealth needs to be directed to help change the lives of others, that governments and foundations can’t do it on their own. You need that sort of overall support. And I think for somewhere like Goldsmiths, we have this range of opportunities to be able to play in successfully to what philanthropists are after. We have, for example, our Centre for Contemporary Art where again, philanthropists were extremely generous and helped raise £4.6 million to have this wonderful gallery where we have absolutely cutting edge international shows in Lewisham, alongside younger graduates, alongside community based projects, alongside links into school. So I think one of the key messages that I’m trying to get across today is that whatever you’re engaged with, with an education institution, if you’re engaged with social justice, you have to work at a range of levels and pull a range of different levers. And so I think the message really, for philanthropists is if you are committed to these issues around race, around inequality, around the environment, then Goldsmiths has a whole range of staff and students and research going on in those areas. And there is a real passion and commitment to deliver on this and a real track record. And that, I think, is a powerful message because in the end, that’s what I would imagine experienced philanthropists want to hear. They want to know that if you’re going to support it’s actually going to do good, of course. But it’s also that you’re working with an organisation that is going to keep you informed and keep you abreast, that you’re going to have the chance to meet some of the people or the projects that are making the difference. And I feel Goldsmiths, in my experience, is doing that really well.

Nick Jaffer 11:43

Yeah, I think certainly when I when I looked at the background on the programmes and projects, and certainly as you mentioned, the Lewisham community, the southeast community, there’s a very strong connection to to helping those that might be disadvantaged or those of colour. Just following on that, I understand that you have a programme or a campaign called The Equalities Campaign. Can you tell me a bit more about that?

Prof Frances Corner OBE 12:08

Yeah, I’ll be delighted. So again, coming back to that point about South London and Lewisham, we have as you referred to, a community with really a great proportion of black and people of colour, something that we’re really proud to be engaged with. We’ve had the history there of Lewisham, for example, the Battle of Lewisham, in 1977, which was all about the community rising up against the march of the fascists and so on. So it’s got that sort of sense of wanting to be a real part of the community and reflect that and of course, we draw on students from the community. So 48% of our students are black or students of colour, and they tend to come from from South London. But as we know, as all higher education institutions know, there is a disjunct between the achievements in terms of 2:1 and Firsts of white students and those who are black, or students of colour. And very often, there are a whole range of factors within that, of course, but one of them is the fact that if you’re coming from a community where you are in a family where you’re perhaps the first generation student going to higher education, as an individual student you don’t necessarily have the family members with an experience of higher education, they don’t necessarily have the money. So what could we do? So what we did was develop this equity awards programme, whereby students are given a scholarship of £3000 for three years of their undergraduate study. It doesn’t sound a lot, but it is in the sense that it means that they don’t necessarily have to have a part time job, they can really focus on the on their course, like many other more middle class or wealthier students are able to. So that gives it sort of levels the playing field in a way.

And the other thing that’s also really important about it is that now we’re getting into the second year of the programme, we have a community of scholars, and we bring them together. We have a key member of staff who helps look after them in the sense of you know, if there any particular issues they’ve got. They’ve got a group that they’re able to talk and share with, which comes back to that sense that very often, you know, other students have got a brother or a sister or whatever cousin or other family member who’s gone to higher education and they can ring up and say, “What on earth does this mean? I’ve never done this” and so on. So it’s not just about the money. It’s also about the community and the support that it gives. Having run that programme for now going into your second year, what advice would you give to other institutional leaders who may be considering a similar programme? I think it’s absolutely essential. For the reasons that I’ve said, it’s not just about the money. When it was set up, our Director of Development, Alison Wolley worked really closely with students and with staff to really understand what the need. You could see there was a need, but it’s no good in just saying, “Oh, well, we think you should have that”, you know, “or we think that’s going to work”. She worked really closely with staff, with students, to understand what sort of programme would be right. What level of funding would be right, what sort of other support package would be, would be right. So, that, I think, is one of the reasons why it’s really compelling. It’s one of the reasons why I think people are really happy to donate to this. And that’s why I think it’s successful. I think it is a need. I think, considering the financial basis of a lot of institutions, not just in the UK, but I’m sure will be the same globally, this sort of sense of putting in programmes that have real meaning. And that certainly those students who are on the programme are extremely proud because again, it goes on their CV, they were recipients, they can talk about what sort of ambassadorial role they played in due course. So I think it’s a really exciting programme, and I’m sure there are variations on it in some institutions. But for me it feels quite Goldsmiths, having been involved in developing scholarships in other institutions. It feels like it’s really embedded and has grown out of what the concerns and the opportunities are from staff and students.

Nick Jaffer 16:52

It reminds me, one of our other interviewees, Lord Simon Woolley spoke about a sense of belonging, or a place of belonging. And it sounds like to me that this kind of programme definitely fosters that sense of belonging. Particularly, it fosters that pride, which I think is certainly very, very important if the institution is looking to create a long term relationship with its graduates as well as with its supporters. So I think that makes a lot of sense.

Prof Frances Corner OBE 17:26

I was just going to very quickly add, if that’s okay, you reference Lord Woolley and obviously he’s so instrumental in terms of raising all the issues around diversity. One of the things that I’ve also really committed to, and people are within Goldsmiths, is how do we diversify our academic staff? And clearly, what we’re working on is a pipeline. So obviously, supporting the students to succeed is the first step of that pipeline. The next one is how do we support students to go on to do masters, and what we’ve just instituted are some scholarships for students, black or students of colour, to have scholarships for postgraduate research students. And then from that, to move on to being postdocs. Because all the evidence suggests that at every stage, the numbers of staff move on to become academics drops off, who are those staff who are black or people of colour, because the lack of opportunity, because of obviously, the sort of racism, the bias that there is within institutions. And so what we’re looking at and discussing is, how do we really work hard on that whole programme all the way along the line? So we really build the pipeline. So our commitment isn’t just for undergraduate, it’s to go all the way through and to really help diversify our staff body in due course. It’s a long term project, of course, but I think it’s one that again, people get really interested in and really keen to support.

Nick Jaffer 19:00

Tell me about the role for philanthropy in advancing that programme. I certainly see it in terms of the potential, but tell me about your vision for that.

Prof Frances Corner OBE 19:08

I think again, it’s about philanthropists making the difference, because that is social justice. That is the fact that, you might be a kid who’s who’s really inspired from South London, wants to go to university, all the way, you know, the opportunity to put the support in, it’s a long term project. It’s a long term way of philanthropists making the difference, particularly because we’re involved in arts, humanities and social sciences. Inevitably there’s a range of disciplines that will be supported. For us, as I was talking about earlier, we have these big commitments, we have great reputation in our disciplines. So you’re also contributing to the development of the subject. At the moment we’re debating about setting up an institute for the study of refugees So that will make a difference. As I was indicating before, the opportunity to put that support is going to become more and more pressing, because there are going to be more and more refugees coming forward. How do we better look at that? So philanthropists can be involved in a project in the sense of a particular research project. They can be involved in supporting the individual and that sense of someone at Goldsmiths, that money is really making a difference to addressing social issues around social justice and issues around social mobility.

Nick Jaffer 20:36

Also, I understand you have an initiative around art for social good. Is that correct?

Prof Frances Corner OBE 20:42

Yes, it is and I think this is a really interesting one. So obviously, Goldsmiths is not a wealthy institution, but it is very wealthy in terms of its ideas and its impact in terms of the arts. So the idea is, how can we actually look at the sort of funding that comes out of the ownership of works of art? And how can that be a lever to then fund more projects around social good. So the idea that we get donated, or we begin to acquire works of art, don’t necessarily have to come into the institution, but they’re gifted by artists, that then obviously goes on to our balance sheet, which allows us to then give funding for the sorts of projects, the sorts of scholarships, the sorts of issues that we’re committed to dealing with. So I think it’s, again, like I’ve been saying, it’s never just about the money is it? It’s really what you do with it and how you activate it. And I think that’s something which, again, philanthropists, and others can get behind because that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?

Nick Jaffer 21:53

Looking to the future, tell me a bit about the plans. I understand, you may have plans for an endowment. To what extent is your timeframe for that? I know, certainly, from the inquiries we receive here in Australia, questions around endowment seem to be growing more and more. Is that the case in the UK as well?

Prof Frances Corner OBE 22:17

Yeah, I think it is really important. As I mentioned, Goldsmiths isn’t a wealthy institution. It has a wealth of ideas and graduates and opportunities, but in financial terms, it’s not like some of the well endowed and supported universities. And so what we’re doing is setting ourselves targets. Ben Morton-Wright, Head of Global Philanthropic has set us a challenge. He’s on our Council, he said we need £100 million in terms of an endowment. That’s what we should be aiming for, which is inspiring, because like a big idea, everybody goes, “Oh, no, how are we going to get that?”. But then you start to think, well, there are these opportunities around the donation of all the gifting of works of art, there are, again, the sorts of programmes that we’re engaged with where people are donating money and we’re saying this will be endowed. And I think unless you put that stake in the ground, unless you set that ambition, it’s never going to happen. And I do feel, coming back to all the things that I’ve been saying about the significance and importance of Goldsmiths, the fact that we do what we say we’re going to do, that we are committed to social justice, that we do make a difference to people’s lives, that’s a sort of thing that people can get behind and think “actually, I want to endow this institution. I want to make sure that it is there for the future”. That we are not as board members and executives and heads of the various areas, worrying all the time about whether we’re going to have sufficient funding to keep, for example, the project going on the funding of postgraduate research students. We should know, of course, you’ve got to have a budget, of course there isn’t the idea of some sort of limitless pot of money, but actually you can really plan and really make sure that we are there into the future. So that’s the challenge. It’s one that I’m really excited about. I enjoy a challenge, always. And I think we need a sense of purpose, all of us right now, don’t we? A sense of where we’re going. And I think that’s just as important when it comes to raising money, as it is in terms of how we’re supporting our students and how we’re developing our curricula and how we’re developing our research.

Nick Jaffer 24:47

That’s extremely well said. I think that’s a lovely way to to finish this conversation. Professor Frances Corner, thank you so much for joining me today for our Talking Philanthropy, #Global 20 series. It’s been a delight to hear about Goldsmiths and to hear about your leadership for the institution. Thank you.

Prof Frances Corner OBE 25:06

No, thank you.