The Proctor who treasures her role in upholding Cambridge’s age-old traditions

Karen Ottewell outside the Senate House (Nick Saffell)

I’ve lost count of the times that complete strangers have congratulated me. When tourists spot me in the street dressed as a Proctor, they assume I’ve just graduated. If I’m in a rush, I simply smile and thank them. If I’ve got time, I explain that I’m one of Cambridge’s Proctors, a role that dates back to the 13th century.

What is a Proctor? I didn’t know the answer to that question until I came to Cambridge in 1994 for my MPhil and subsequently my PhD in German Literature. Essentially, a Proctor carries out ceremonial and disciplinary duties. In the past Proctors patrolled the streets after dark with our Constables to keep good order among the students, but those days are long gone.

We’re an important part of traditions. Some of the University’s key events, including Congregations of the Regent House and Discussions, can’t take place without the presence of the Proctors. There are six of us — two Pro-Proctors, two Proctors in Office, and two Deputy Proctors.

Our disciplinary role comes into play during exams. During the exam period it’s our job to investigate any allegations of the use of unfair means and also to ‘walk the exams’ to ensure that appropriate exam conditions are upheld.

The Proctor’s uniform is quite something. We have three dress codes — the defining features of which are dark suits, wing collars, white Proctors’ bands, square caps — and on ceremonial occasions, cassocks.

Cambridge has a history that stretches back more than 800 years. I seized the chance to become a Proctor as an opportunity to contribute to a rich tradition. At present I’m a Pro-Proctor — a proctor-in-training. Next year I’ll become the Junior Proctor.

I didn’t have an interview as such. The Statutes and Ordinances go into considerable detail as to how the Proctors are elected. But basically, two Proctors are elected each year from the Colleges according to the rotational Cycle prescribed in a Special Ordinance. I was fortunate enough to be elected by Lucy Cavendish and will be the College’s first Proctor.

Proctors also serve on several of the University’s committees. For example, we serve on the Board of Scrutiny and the Societies’ Syndicate, and we attend as observers at meetings of the University Council. We also maintain the right to free speech in the University.

The Proctors are based in the same office as the Marshal in the Old Schools. The Marshal administers the University Constabulary. With a current team of 26, they’re the smallest police force in the country. For the first time in history the Marshal is a woman, Lucy Lewis. I’m one of two female Proctors. The other is Dr Gemma Burgess, the current Junior Proctor.

I come from Derbyshire. After leaving school, my dad apprenticed and became a master bricklayer. My mum gave up her job when I came along as their only child. I went to the comprehensive in Heanor and then to the local sixth form college. I was the first in the family to go to university, something I couldn’t have done without the unwavering support of my parents.

My German teacher changed my life. Alasdair McClure, who sadly died some years ago, came from Glasgow. He was an old-style teacher: quite strict. I enjoyed French but I came to love German. There weren’t enough of us to make up a class to take German GCSE at my school so my parents paid for me to have private lessons with Alasdair, whom I came to know as Jock.

I went to St Andrew’s University. There I was taught German by Michael Loughridge, who’d taught Alasdair McClure when he was at St Andrew’s. When Michael suggested that I applied to Oxbridge to do my PhD I was taken aback — I’d never thought of myself as Oxbridge material. I chose to apply to Emmanuel College because it’s on St Andrew’s Street.

My day job has a long title. Being a Proctor takes up roughly half a day a week, often at weekends. As a permanent member of staff at Cambridge’s Language Centre, I’m Director of Academic Development and Training for International Students. We support the University’s some 7,000 students who come from overseas.

I’m full of admiration for our overseas students. Our flagship course is a pre-sessional progamme for incoming international graduates. The course helps them to find their feet — practically and academically — in an environment often very different to the one they’ve come from.

Graduations are joyous occasions. To be an active part of them as a Proctor, and to read the Latin addresses, Supplicant or the Iam placuit, is a phenomenal privilege. Events like this don’t just happen. They’re the outcome of meticulous organisation and dedication to getting things right. You see the pride shining on the faces of the graduates and their families.

This profile is part of our This Cambridge Life series.



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