Professor Rosemary Hollis - a tribute


I first encountered Rosemary when she was appointed the Director of the Olive Tree Scholarship Programme at City, University of London in 2008. Over the next five years I grew to know her quirky ways as we worked together with other City colleagues, funders and the young Israelis and Palestinians who were the heart of the Programme. It was through that lens that I occasionally caught a glimpse of what made Rosemary tick and the experiences and influences that shaped her thinking.


I cannot say that she was an easy person to work with, often irascible with a sharp tongue, but her passion, curiosity and sense of fun were contagious. Most who encountered her in her professional life met with a forthrightness that was both refreshing and disconcerting. In many ways a very typical Englishwoman, this rather un-English aspect of her character was honed during her decade in the United States, and deployed in a professional environment where she was often the only woman in the room. I remember asking her how those rooms full of ex-soldiers and other alpha males had affected her personally, and was met with pretty short shrift. It was clear, however, that working in almost exclusively male environments gave her a very clear sense of her identity as a woman and a pioneer whose task was to create room for those who were excluded.


After a distinguished career in the thinktank world, many were surprised that Rosemary opted to leave Chatham House for the job at City. It seemed that they had failed to comprehend that her passion lay in education, particularly those forms of education that empowered and transformed. Any opportunity to work with students from minority backgrounds was grasped with both hands and her particular concern to help Muslim women reach their potential was clear for all to see.


This passion was fuelled by a deep sense of social justice and a belief that education could level the playing field and allow for a fairer fight. She was relentless in her pursuit of knowledge and understanding and it was the clarity she always sought that made her a regular on the BBC and Channel 4 News. I remember one particular gathering in Belfast when Olive Tree scholars were meeting with two former paramilitaries. One in particular had an accent so thick you could cut it with a knife and it was clear that the students were struggling to understand. Step forward Rosemary the interpreter, translating from English into English! It was a bizarre sight that resulted in much ribbing later in the evening.


Part of the excitement (and sometimes frustration) of working with Rosemary was her willingness to throw everything up in the air and start from scratch. She was constantly listening for feedback in order to provide a programme that was as good as it could possibly be. She respected the expertise of others, though not unquestioningly, and sought to get others to offer their best. It meant, for those of us working alongside, a need to be constantly alert and willing to commit our all.


Only occasionally did Rosemary reveal anything beneath the surface and she had no capacity (or tolerance) for small talk. Aspects of her life were revealed in snapshots over a glass of white wine and a cigarette, easily missed by the inattentive. Pieced together, they painted a picture of a woman who has often been underestimated and not infrequently belittled. This she countered with a fierce determination, meaning that all her achievements were hard-earned and richly deserved. These experiences gave her a vocation as one prepared not only to open doors for others, but to kick them off their hinges!


We have lost a generous, caring, insightful and complex friend, a passionate educator, who pursued understanding as a way to build a more just, peaceful and equal world.




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