Alan Ryan

December 8, 2006

To begin with an obvious but improper question: was Oxford's rejection of the changes in governance proposed by the vice-chancellor a vote of no confidence? Not exactly. It was a vote of no confidence in a managerial style that has relied too much on trying to give orders to persons who are under no obligation to obey them, a vote against some strikingly inept attempts to play political hardball and a rather wistful expression of a preference for Alison Richard over Larry Summers.

I have never been opposed to most of the proposed changes to Oxford's governance, narrowly speaking. A majority of external members on a new supervisory board is fine, and I don't want to preserve the existing council. But I'm against some important details: the nomination process for external members gives too much scope to ensure that the external members are drawn from the vice-chancellor's best mates; I think ex officio members should attend without a vote; the chancellor shouldn't be on it, let alone chair it; and transparency should be in the legislation, not offered by the vice-chancellor's grace and favour. But the council will be elected by the rank and file, and that beats anything you'd find in the US, the Antipodes and the rest of the UK.

The senior management alienated the workforce by playing fast and loose with the case for change, and by setting half the university against the other half. What they proposed was to give control over budget, finance, audit and scrutiny to a council with an external majority, but they accused their opponents of refusing to accept advice. Most of us can tell the difference between the two. And when they were slaughtered by a near two-thirds majority of the permanent faculty, they decided democracy would be better served by trying to recruit the temporary staff who hadn't shown up by organising a postal vote in the hope that department heads could lean on vulnerable staff to rally support. Win or lose, it's management from the Larry Summers song book.

And they were bad at simple logic: they relied on the Higher Education Funding Council for England's statement that best practice requires a majority of external members on any such council, and then welcomed an amendment that would allow Congregation to restore an internal majority as though they'd already forgotten what Hefce actually said. Fishing about for any old device to recruit support while hiding obvious problems insults the rank and file; it looks as though management thinks they have no brains.

The same goes for the flood of glossy pamphlets management put out: bad arguments are no better on shiny paper.

The large objection to obsessing about governance is that it doesn't solve real problems. Oxford decision-making is sclerotic because we are swamped with overlapping committees; the proposals would add more. We are slowed by a mania for confidentiality, and the council has been ineffective because it has been secretive. It watched for four years while the finance division self-destructed, and it never forced the previous vice-chancellor to bring before it problems its own audit committee had unearthed. If it had had to publish its minutes, it could have been made to do its job. Talk of transparency and contestability is unpersuasive from people who have resisted both for six years. But they are worth having, and the new council is more likely to provide them than the present one.

Supporters of the legislation claimed it would usher in a new era of co-operation between colleges and the central university. That is doubly unpersuasive; Oxford's problems have almost nothing to do with co-ordination between colleges and university and almost everything to do with the ways in which the demands of the sciences, and of medicine in particular, threaten the financial stability of serious research institutions. Oxford has the same problems as University College London, Imperial College London and Cambridge University; colleges are mere bystanders. Arguing about half a million more or less on the colleges'

share of public funding while you run deficits of 50 times that in your research activities is a waste of time. Conversely, it's daft to believe that you can usher in the millennium by sticking half a dozen college heads, most of whom have never taught a student or worked in a university, on what is in essence the senate of any provincial university.

In short, the vote was a rebuke to the amateurishness of the institutional design on offer and to the misguided belief of the central administration that the way to run Oxford is to turn discussions of institutional design into a battle of wills. Nothing very terrible is going to happen but, because the legislation was a clunker, we shall have to come back and get it right. Institutional design is a slow, complex and boring business.

That's how it should be kept.

Alan Ryan is warden of New College, Oxford.

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