I was recently at the University of Manchester for the 2011 Social History Society conference. Looking for the venue I couldn’t help but notice the progress of the ‘Alan Gilbert Information Commons’, under construction on Lime Grove near the old Owens College. Named for the University’s former Vice-Chancellor who died shortly after leaving office in 2010, the building commemorates the man who oversaw the merger of UMIST with the old University of Manchester and who is credited with the institution’s meteoric rise up the league tables. Judging by the pictures surrounding the works it promises to be as sleek as the building that bears Gilbert’s name at the University of Melbourne, where he served as Vice-Chancellor before his tenure at Manchester.

The conference itself was held in the old Arts building, located directly opposite the construction site, and renamed in 2007 after the University’s renowned early Professor of Philosophy, Samuel Alexander. Dominating the foyer stands his bronze bust, commissioned by the University from Jacob Epstein in 1924.  Over the course of the conference it became a backdrop for book launches, a prop for publications, and a resting place for coffee mugs. But its quotidian presence did not quite explain the strange sense of familiarity I had every time I passed it.

I remained vaguely perplexed by this feeling until halfway through a session on the second day when suddenly it twigged: Samuel Alexander was also Australian. A quick, surreptitious search on my mobile phone confirmed it. Born in Sydney to Jewish parents, Alexander had studied at the University of Melbourne before leaving in 1877 for Oxford. There he took a first class degree and became a Fellow of Lincoln College, moving to Manchester in 1893. I had seen a cast of the same Epstein statue at Monash University in Melbourne.

It seems that in neighbouring buildings of stone and glass, two of Melbourne’s academic sons will be remembered at Manchester.

I don’t know if the University’s planners intended this symmetry or if anyone else has noted it, but in an age when the UK government is doing all it can to restrict academic mobility, the University of Manchester is creating an avenue that bears testimony to the intellectual ties that have long bound British universities with those abroad. David Willitts should pay a visit.

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