Karen O’Brien

Vice-Chancellor & Warden at Durham University

Karen joined Durham University in January 2022 after leading the Humanities Division at the University of Oxford with great success where she was jointly responsible for the financial oversight, research strategy and equalities and access priorities of the University.

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.

Karen 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, Karen 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.


  • Vice-Chancellor & Warden

    Current role

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