Our new Chancellor: an interview with Dawn French


Hermione Blomfield-Smith

In March 2015, many students were excited to hear of the announcement that Dawn French was to become the new chancellor of Falmouth University. In an interview with Ms French, I discovered she had some initial apprehension about becoming chancellor, having never fulfilled such a role before. Ms French describes herself as ‘innately shy, contrary to popular belief’ and was daunted by the prospect of such an important role: she is not very fond of pomp and ceremony, which she realises is a big part of this role with the University. However, her mind was changed when she discovered she would wear a hand-made gown made by Falmouth University students and could (as she insisted) wear a crown! Being raised in the county, she has always felt it wrong that there wasn’t a university and is now ‘absolutely gagging to be part of it.’

Having never been a chancellor before, Ms French says she will find out what it really means as time goes by. Noting that she is a figurehead for the university with a small number of specific roles, she believes the role ‘can be anything’: she needs to find out where she is going to fit in by walking around and getting to know the University over the next couple of years to ‘understand how it works and where I can best be effective’.

Now, as the leading arts institution, Ms French feels that people will look to Falmouth University students to be the leading exponents of excellence in the arts. She also feels that Falmouth University shows how much an arts-based university with multi-arts scheduling was desperately needed in the UK. In the future, Ms French feels, when all the current alumni have graduated and are acting as leading exponents in their field, they will be able to look back on their time at Falmouth as ‘game changing’. Ms French also notes what a huge change has occurred to Falmouth since the University has been established here. Although the school has been here since 1902,  Ms French reiterates the beneficial effects of its establishment on housing, businesses and jobs in the county. She follows on to talk about the people it brings into Cornwall: the families and young people, who ‘will never forget Cornwall, who may even settle here’. Often in the past, she says, kids from Cornwall would leave and the University provides a ‘thrusting artery of creative interest’ in the county.

Ms French has spent more of her life in Cornwall than anywhere else. Not born here, as her father was with the RAF, she was bred and raised in Cornwall and ‘my heart is here’. Having been away for so long with work and travel, she has always wanted to move back. She decided she would ‘find a creative outlet that would enable me to be at home in Cornwall’, and has now been living and working in Cornwall as a writer for eight years.

As an English teacher in London, she fell into her career in comedy when she met Jennifer Saunders and joined The Comic Strip, a group that performed six nights a week and ‘absolutely loved it’. She cites herself as an example of someone who did not have a plan when it came to her career. A tour for The Comic Strip group to Australia was put forward and she had to make a difficult choice between a secure teaching job or ‘jump off the ledge into performing’ by going on tour with little idea of what would happen and whether she could make a living out of it, but she knew she had to follow her heart into what she felt was her calling. She believes that, if you are creative, you have to follow you heart. So she left teaching and her career kicked off.

Accepting the role of Chancellor, she says, offers her the opportunity to ‘return into education in a way I’d always wanted to; to teach more’ and feels there’s no better place to do so. When asked about the prospect of being Chancellor, French says that every new project frightens her; ‘I don’t ever want to repeat something so often that I’m relaxed’: every new project is a change and is terrifying ‘but utterly thrilling at the same time’.

Enthusiastic throughout the interview and in her reflections on Falmouth becoming a University, Ms French says that ‘the world would have been my oyster’ if she had had the amazing teaching and resources that are available here. If this University had been in existence in her own county, she would have never left Cornwall to seek an arts education and thinks she’d would have had the chance to get going earlier with and have a wider choice of career.