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Interview with Sophie Marnette

21 December 2016

Professor Sophie Marnette

Professor Sophie Marnette was born in Liège and raised in Brussels. She studied ‘Philologie Romane’ at the Université Libre de Bruxelles and went on to do a PhD in French Linguistics at the University of California (Berkeley). Recently, Professor Marnette became Head of the French Department at the University of Oxford (officially entitled “Chair of the Sub-Faculty of French” in Oxford Speech) a position no other Belgian has ever held before.

What made you decide to pursue a career in the French language in an English-speaking world?

Some of the greatest specialists in my field of Medieval French happened to work at the University of California (Berkeley), so I set out to do a PhD under their supervision. From the very first moment, I have thoroughly enjoyed the academic freedom and meritocratic atmosphere I found in American and British universities. The study of the French Language takes a very prestigious place among Anglo-Saxon academia, so I never felt that my field of studies limited me, on the contrary.

Your academic career has enabled you to live in various parts of the world. How did this experience help shape you as a person with, I guess, a multicultural mind-set?

I left Belgium for Berkeley when I was 21 and lived in a wonderfully diverse place called the International House, with 600 students from all over the world. This is where I met Ted, my husband, who is American and Dutch, and where I made other great friends too. Everybody who lived there was passionate about their studies, curious about the world, constantly learning about other people’s views and cultures. It is this openness for dialogue - which also takes a certain amount of patience and tolerant understanding - that I have relished all along my journey, studying, working, and doing research at international universities such as UC Berkeley, UCLA, St Andrews, Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard, MIT or Princeton. This is also how we are raising our 13-year old son Garry.

Can you tell our readers what your recent appointment at Oxford University entails?

Being Head of the Oxford Sub-Faculty of French is both stimulating and challenging. We are the biggest French Department in the UK, with more than 30 permanent members of staff covering a very broad range of Francophone language, literatures and culture across the centuries, and with an intake of about 200 undergraduate and 35 postgraduate students a year. So it takes a lot of energy to offer the best possible environment to a thriving community of scholars and students. This means both making sure that our great tradition of teaching and research continues despite budgetary constraints while also constantly opening up to new perspectives on the world in terms of interdisciplinary and theoretical frameworks. We are also very keen to develop our impact on the wider society and to further our commitment to recruiting students from the broadest range of backgrounds. To make all this financially possible, fundraising is becoming crucial to ensure the continuity of our university posts, to provide institutional scholarships and bursaries for students approaching graduate study in a climate of diminishing public funding support and to fund innovative research initiatives. So the job entails an interesting mix of administrative tasks, blue sky thinking and community building and advocacy.

There have been reports of a considerable drop in EU students’ applications to UK universities following the referendum in June. Is this trend also noticeable at Oxford University?

Oxford’s EU picture remains more or less steady on last year. We have seen a rise of about 1% in applications from EU students and 4% overall. The University has made clear statements to reassure prospective students from around the world that they are as warmly welcome as ever and we are “determined to remain a thriving, cosmopolitan community of scholars and students.” The fees will also remain unchanged for EU students starting next year.

In what ways do you think Brexit might affect you as a lecturer at Oxford University and more generally as an EU citizen living in the UK?

While I feel that my University is very supportive, there is no doubt that there will be a substantial financial drop for academic research since UK scholars will lose access to EU research funding. EU Students’ applications will undoubtedly be impacted after the UK officially exits the EU as they will then be charged higher fees. Unfortunately, successful exchange programmes like Erasmus might be severely impacted if not disappear. As an EU citizen, I have serious administrative worries: the UK is already imposing severe administrative and financial burdens on foreigners who are not EU citizens and it is very likely that this will be extended to EU citizens (expensive and lengthy applications for visas or UK resident cards, etc.) and there are also uncertainties about pensions. More than that, I am very anxious about how the atmosphere is changing around us both in the press and day to day life.

Are you in contact with other Belgians in the UK?

Not really. My friends and acquaintances come from all over the world, including but not limited to Britain and Belgium.

Do you often travel to Belgium?

Yes my husband, my son and I visit my Belgian family two or three times a year: the Eurostar makes it very easy. I also love travelling to Belgium for academic events.

What are your long term plans? Can you envisage yourself returning to and working in Belgium?

Not for the moment. It is absolutely wonderful to work for one of the top universities in the world and I have very much enjoyed my life in the US and in the UK so far. Belgium will always be close to my heart but my professional and family life is now anchored in the wider world. That said, I am sure it will be very nice to spend more time in Belgium after my retirement.