Woolf code no panacea

December 8, 2011

The Woolf report recommends that the London School of Economics should have an "embedded code of ethics and reputational risk" ("LSE's 'mistakes were legion' in Libyan dealings, Woolf finds", 1 December).

The University of Cambridge created one of these codes a decade ago, but ensuring it is followed in a fully transparent way hasn't been easy.

The vice-chancellor formally accepts major benefactions on the advice of an executive committee that reports to the council. Earlier this year, I made a Freedom of Information request for its minutes relating to this advice. The minutes show that few questions were asked and in almost every case acceptance was recommended.

The committee received "briefings" from the Development Office, which are usually recorded as confidential. In many instances the identity of the proposed benefactor is redacted so it is impossible to know what donation is being accepted or on what advice.

A request for information about the way the Development Office creates its briefings and on what authority they are approved produced this email of 5 May: "The process for preparing [committee] briefings falls outside the scope of the FoI as it is not held in recorded form, but I can confirm...that the briefings are prepared under the supervision of the director of development and alumni relations". There is no committee to discuss or approve these briefings within the office.

Cambridge seems to have been lucky so far, and there has been no high-profile disaster over the acceptance of a benefaction. But its procedures suggest that a code is not enough to ensure that a watertight and transparent process is followed.

G.R. Evans, University of Cambridge

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