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Durham University

About Durham University

Professor Karen O’Brien biography

Professor Karen O’Brien

For the last five years, Professor O’Brien has led the Humanities Division at the University of Oxford with great success. As a member of the University Council, she has been jointly responsible for the financial oversight, research strategy and equalities and access priorities of the University. During the first phase of the Covid-19 pandemic, she successfully managed the University’s preparations for operating safely during the current academic year.

Prior to joining Oxford, she was Vice-Principal for Education at King’s College London. She has held a number of national and international leadership roles, including serving on the international jury of the Institut Universitaire de France and as chair of the Russell Group Pro-Vice-Chancellors for Teaching and Learning.

A Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and Honorary Fellow of Peterhouse, University of Cambridge, she has published widely on the literature and intellectual history of the Enlightenment.

She is a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4, BBC World Service and other media networks. She is a Trustee of Chawton House, and a member of the editorial board of The Conversation.

Professor O’Brien has a strong track record of promoting social inclusion at undergraduate and postgraduate levels. At the University of Oxford she worked to implement ‘Opportunity Oxford’ bridging programmes and secured external funding for a new programme of activities designed to inspire and support young people in their interest in academic subjects. She has led the way in establishing Masters and doctoral scholarships for black and other ethnic minority students, and worked with colleagues to secure funding for numerous new postgraduate scholarships.

A committed internationalist, Professor O’Brien has played a key role in the University of Oxford’s global partnerships, including with the CNRS and the Humboldt and Freie Universities of Berlin. Earlier in her career she was a Harkness Fellow, spending time as a Visiting Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, USA.

Professor O’Brien has had huge success in fundraising, including being the driving force behind the securing of a £150 million gift for a new Humanities Building and Institute for Ethics in Artificial Intelligence at the University of Oxford. During her time at Oxford, she has worked to secure endowments for a number of academic posts and projects, including funding from the Dieter Schwarz Foundation to endow the Schwarz-Taylor Chair of German Language and Literature.