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Durham University Intranet

About Durham University

Professor Karen O’Brien, Vice-Chancellor and Warden

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 oversaw the University’s preparations for operating safely during the ensuing academic year.

Prior to joining Oxford, she was Vice-Principal (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 and of St Cross College, University of Oxford, 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 was until recently a member of the editorial board of The Conversation.

During her time at Oxford, the Humanities Division increased its position at or near the top of the global and national league tables, enjoyed an unprecedented period of research grant success, and secured funding for major new interdisciplinary initiatives in areas such as digital scholarship and the ethics of Artificial Intelligence.

Professor O’Brien has a strong track record of promoting equity in staffing, and 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 led the way in establishing Masters and doctoral scholarships for black and other ethnic minority students.

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

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