Equalities activist first black man to be elected head of Oxbridge college

Sam Russell, PA
·3-min read

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

Lord Simon Woolley, founding director of campaign group Operation Black Vote, will be the next principal of Cambridge University’s Homerton College.

He is the third black person to be elected as head of a college at Oxford or Cambridge.

Lord Woolley
Lord Simon Woolley will succeed poet and author Professor Geoffrey Ward in the post (David Johnson/PA)

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

Lord Woolley of Woodford will succeed poet and author Professor Geoffrey Ward as head of Homerton, which has the largest student body of any Cambridge college, on October 1.

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

He left school without A-levels and later returned to formal study via an access course.

Lord Woolley gained a degree in Spanish and English Literature at Middlesex University and a master’s degree in Hispanic Studies at Queen Mary University of London.

Operation Black Vote, which Lord Woolley launched in 1996, works with ethnic minorities in the UK to increase understanding of civic society, participation in Parliament and public life, and to promote equality and human rights.

Formerly an Equality and Human Rights Commissioner, Lord Woolley was appointed by then-prime minister Theresa May in 2018 to create and lead the government’s Race Disparity Unit.

The unit collects, analyses and publishes data on how crime, education and health are affected by ethnicity.

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.

Lord Woolley said: “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.

“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.”

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.”

Dr Louise Joy, vice-principal of Homerton and leader of the search for the new principal, said: “We could not be more thrilled to have elected Simon Woolley as our next principal.

“Simon’s own inspiring story and his commitment to promoting social justice and nurturing talent across the social spectrum resonates with Homerton’s core values.

“Simon will be a standard-bearer for the aims of the college.”