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One For The Master

In a quaint Trinity College ritual, Professor Amartya Sen gets one to cap it all

One For The Master
Knock, knock, knock, went Professor Amartya Sen on the centuries-old door of Trinity College at Cambridge with a stone kindly handed to him by a porter. The door was opened by the head porter, who looked like he could go back a few centuries himself. "Who are you, sir?" the head porter asked, his voice loud and demanding enough to send titters among a few hundred who had gathered to watch Sen take over as the 36th Master of Trinity College.

 "I have been appointed Master of the college, I have here the paper from the Queen," Sen replied, and handed the head porter his appointment letter from the Queen wrapped in red cloth. "Please wait, I will take this to the fellows for authentication," the head porter replied, and promptly shut the door on the new Master. The tradition parallels the medieval enthroning of a bishop and means that all new fellows have to be duly approved by the other fellows, and then ordained.

And so Prof Sen, the first Indian to be invited as Master of Trinity College, waited outside the door a good five minutes while the crowd watched the enactment of this centuries-old ritual with amusement. Someone suggested he could have spoken differently. "Tell him you are Master of Trinity College, and who are you."

Cambridge has a way of sticking to traditions, but not seriously. On the archway above the entrance where Sen waited stands a statue of its founder Henry VIII, with the leg of a chair in his hand. Over generations college porters took that leg away and students climbed up to put in another one. The porters finally gave up, of course. Now Sen stood below at the centre of another of those quaint Cambridge shows. Dressed in a black and red gown and a very Henry VIII-ish cap with its two golden plumes hanging to a side, he waited his turn to be ordained as Master of Trinity College in some controlled amusement.

The fellows within evidently decided the letter from the Queen was authentic, that Amartya Sen was okay, and so the main doors opened to let him in. The fellows in their own red-and-blacks lined up in a procession behind him as he walked to the chapel for a service, and then followed him to his lodge. The new Master raised his cap to each as they passed by outside his lodge, though to be honest he did miss a don or two. He then stepped into the lodge to become Master of Trinity College in just the same way as the first Master back in 1546.

Sen has moved into the Master's Lodge with wife Emma Rothschild, a fellow at King's College next door. It was an academic homecoming with a difference. Trinity had first opened its doors to make Amartya Sen a fellow of the college 40 years ago. He became honorary fellow of the college in 1991. He was professor at Delhi University, the London School of Economics and then at both Oxford and Cambridge before moving on to Harvard. He returns to Trinity taking a cut in salary; but it is for possibly one of the most distinguished academic appointments in Britain.

Sen returned to Cambridge from his position as professor of economics and philosophy at Harvard University. At Harvard he was also president of the International Economic Association, the Indian Association and the American Economic Association. He has worn several hats, but nothing to match the cap he now has. He heads a college that has produced the likes of Isaac Newton, Lord Rutherford (who first split the atom), Byron and Tennyson. His Indian predecessors have included the mathematician Srinivas Ramanujan and the better known but less distinguished Rajiv Gandhi, of whom Trinity has no records because he failed to qualify.

 "He will be a titular head, not the administrative head," A.P. Simm, junior bursar of Trinity College, told Outlook. "He will be chairman of the college council and his role will be to represent the college, to be the recognisable focal point for the college." Sen's first academic venture at Trinity will be to complete a book on rationalism. Sen, now 64, will be Master of Trinity up to the age of 70. Masters at Trinity have long spells, which is why the last 450 years have produced only the 36th.

It is not an appointment that comes easily. The 150 fellows at the college were consulted by John Holroyd, the appointments secretary at Downing Street. He put up the name to prime minister Tony Blair and the Queen then issued the letter of appointment. It is an academic appointment but through a political process that involves the British prime minister directly. Trinity is unusual in having the Master appointed by the prime minister rather than the other fellows directly.

Sen succeeds Sir Michael Atiyah who retires in September. "He is a very distinguished economist and philosopher," Sir Michael said. "He is an excellent choice and I hope the college will appreciate having him." So does Prof Amartya Sen.

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