A keen cricket fan, Blyth’s academic background is in statistics and he has noted, jovially, that he shares the status as 3rd Wrangler in Cambridge University’s Mathematics Tripos with the acknowledged father of statistics, Karl Pearson (1879), ‘3rd Wrangler’ meaning that he came third in his year among other first-class mathematics degrees.
An academic career in statistics turned into a stint in banking, but he truly hit his stride in 2006 when he moved to Harvard University to work for and subsequently lead the Harvard Management Company.
At the same time, Stephen was able to teach statistics to undergraduates, something he enjoyed immensely, and which he says allowed him to see up close how transformational great universities can be to their students, in every sense and not just teaching and research.
He won awards for his teaching and was known for breaking up long lectures with ‘random information’ about something unconnected, a trick he had learned about when himself an undergraduate years earlier in the UK. Students in his classes might suddenly find themselves learning about Bayes theorem or discussing the history of Cadbury’s, the chocolate maker, or exploring Salman Rushdie’s early career.
Seeing how Harvard could offer financial support to any student with talent, Stephen is deeply focused on inclusion, and on finding a way to provide full bursaries or scholarships for talented students from low-income backgrounds.
In this context, the LMH Foundation Year was a huge draw for Stephen when choosing to apply for the Principalship at LMH, because he is firmly committed to finding ways to level the playing field for talented students from all backgrounds to achieve their educational goals and to be able to attend top universities, which is now a hugely expensive endeavour that leaves students saddled with huge debts or, in some cases, puts low-income students off applying altogether.
Blyth says his view is that the Foundation Year ‘tackled access in a way that is really impactful.’
Imbued with plenty of the US can-do attitude, he speaks extensively about how investing in education leads to ‘compound returns’, and how higher education can ‘really shift the landscape.’
In short, he says that he would dearly love to see more of the US philanthropic culture of giving in the UK, where many of us – both Blyth and the author of this feature for example – benefited from full student grants for teaching and maintenance, today long gone.
Since their introduction in 1998, student fees in the UK have, argues Blyth, blunted access to Higher Education for poor and moderate-income students. The statistical evidence for this statement is emerging but Blyth is insistent that ‘anecdotally, it’s a huge hurdle.’ In short, there are many young aspiring students who are deciding to take their chances in paid work directly from school, rather than incur student debt.
Others struggle through their college years trying to hold down paying jobs to keep the debt at a minimal level, greatly interfering with the idea of three years of devoted study and all the other benefits of growing as a young adult.
Blyth also wonders why student debt is structured as a graduate tax yet gets written off after forty years. ‘The write-off mechanism tells me that it might be better structured as a grant.’ It’s an oddly British fudge, one could argue.
At Harvard, he says, if you are poor but talented you pay nothing. If you are rich but talented you pay. No fudge.
He wonders whether LMH could find a way to build on its Foundation Year, created by his predecessor Alan Rusbridger in 2016, so that any applicant who makes the grade but can’t pay is fully funded by the college.
In fact, the Foundation Year has been more broadly staged at Oxford as the Astrophoria Foundation Year, which supports up to 35 students a year from disadvantaged backgrounds to study a fully funded preliminary year at Oxford, leading typically to their acceptance into a normal degree programme. Ten colleges are taking part in the first year, and in October 2023 LMH will welcome students from the first Astrophoria intake.
Professor Blyth worries that it’s not enough. The broader bursary scheme now called Crankstart, following a £75 million donation from billionaire investor Michael Moritz, ‘is brilliant but it offers a maximum of £5,500 leaving students typically still incurring a net debt of £13-14,000 per year’ he says.
What he loves about LMH is its ‘broad church,’ and the fact that as a pioneering women’s college it has always defined itself as progressive, as ‘open-minded and unpompous.’
Blyth also praises how supportive LMH feels when you are there. Moving into the Principal’s Lodgings on Fyfield Road last October meant that he was able to see the world through an LMH ‘bubble,’ ‘and a very good bubble it is,’ he says.
When he led Harvard’s endowment, then as now the largest university endowment in the world at over £30 billion, he had a team of 280 people, many of them hand-picked by Blyth. It leads to the obvious question whether he has an explicit mandate to make LMH richer by building up the endowment.
His reply is straightforwardly that his job is to be Principal of the college, so while yes, he chairs the investment committee for the LMH endowment, it is not his primary focus.
Of course, he would dearly love to see the endowment rise. One reason is that LMH punches well above its weight as regards impact within the collegiate University, but because its endowment draw-down is smaller compared to wealthier colleges, it cannot subsidise student rents as much as it would like to.
One of the highlights of his 2023 so far was his visit to Pakistan with the Oxford Pakistan Programme. ‘It was a remarkable trip,’ Stephen says. ‘We experienced an overwhelming sense of partnership and a great willingness and appetite for connectivity. One thing this partnership can do is bring different perspectives and expertise to the table, enabling and equipping the finest minds to address complex challenges – because these are the people who will be our future leaders.’
Back in Oxford, meanwhile, Stephen has been enjoying settling into LMH life. ‘The community here is distinctively supportive and distinctively open- minded,’ he says, recalling how many times those words came up when he met with every new undergraduate during Michaelmas term. ‘That translates into my impression of the staff, too. I’ve seen a level of respect, of valuing what we do here, from our Fellows and from our non-academic staff. People seem very motivated to be here.’
He describes the joy it gives him to celebrate the work of LMH’s Fellows, including by recently hosting a series of book launches in College. ‘This is a place for being open to new ideas,’ he says. ‘Now we need to keep on increasing access and keep welcoming new thinking – in LMH and across the wider university too.’
Professor Stephen Blyth: at a glance
- Graduated from Christ's College Cambridge in the Mathematical Tripos
Obtained a PhD in Statistics at Harvard University
Began his career in the Department of Mathematics at Imperial College London
Moved to the financial industry, holding senior positions at Morgan Stanley and Deutsche Bank
Returned to Harvard, becoming Chief Executive of the Harvard Management Company, the world’s largest university endowment, and Professor of the Practice of Statistics
Cricket Faculty advisor and member 1st XI, Harvard University Cricket Club.
Harvard University Senior Class Favourite Professor, 2011, 2019 and 2023.
Joined LMH as Principal in Michaelmas Term 2022