Dame Helen Ghosh is to leave her job as director general of the National Trust to become the first woman master of Balliol College, Oxford . She will join 11 other women who currently head Oxford colleges, under the leadership of the university’s first female vice-chancellor, Prof Louise Richardson.
The announcement came as a surprise to colleagues at the National Trust, where her tenure has not been without controversy. During her leadership, the trust found itself drawn into debates about fracking and windfarms . Earlier this year it also found itself at the centre of a row over the use of the word “Easter” in publicity for its egg hunt.
Critics have argued that the charity has become distracted from its main purpose of conservation, and in its efforts to be inclusive has been accused of dumbing down.
Ghosh’s supporters describe her as “a breath of fresh air” – she would regularly leave her office to go “back to the floor”, wiping down tables in a cafe or spending time clearing scrub on heathland.
In her move to the University of Oxford, Ghosh clearly intends to pursue an inclusive agenda. In a statement, she said: “The college has a remarkable tradition of outstanding scholarship, research and teaching, which I believe will be as important in helping society meet the challenges of the 21st century as it has been at any time in its 754-year history.
“I look forward to welcoming students from the widest possible range of backgrounds to the college and to helping create a supportive and stimulating environment in which they can fulfil their potential.”
Ghosh, who is returning to her alma mater, read modern history at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, and completed an MLitt in sixth-century Italian history at Hertford before joining the civil service, where she worked in a range of government departments over a 30-year career, including becoming the first female head of the Home Office.
She left in 2012 for her current job at the National Trust, which she will now leave next March. “There is never a good time to leave a job that you love, so the decision was a very tough one. But the trust is in a great place and in great hands, and 2018, which will be my sixth year here, seemed the right time to hand over to someone else.”
The trust will begin the process of looking for a replacement in the autumn. Chair Tim Parker said: “Helen has done an outstanding job as director general. She will be leaving the organisation in great shape – one clear of its future direction with ever growing levels of investment in conservation.”