Death of the ascetics: the rise of the v-c lifestyle

University leaders command huge salaries. Lincoln Allison examines how asceticism gave way to abundance

April 2, 2015

Source: Getty/Corbis/Rex

The asceticism that was normal to academic life was also tempered by aspects of abundance. Dons could eat or drink rather splendidly

Towards the end of last year, a former colleague of mine, Richard Higgott, resigned from his job as the vice-chancellor of Murdoch University in Australia. He didn’t have a lot of choice as he had been suspended by the Senate of the university and reported to the Corruption and Crime Commission. Many people were baffled and intrigued by the events, scanning the netwaves for further information, which was not forthcoming. (The CCC’s investigations are into unspecified allegations of “misconduct”.) How on earth could he be corrupt? His salary worked out to an eye-watering sum of some £400,000. His wife, whom I know much better than I know him, is a successful professor herself. They have no children. In June, a group of anonymous academics made claims about a “lack of restraint” in his credit card use, the way he dealt with his colleagues and the financial and academic performance of the university, although the Australian press said that it had no evidence that the claims were accurate. The first allegation seems more unlikely than those concerning politicians caught “cottaging” on London’s Clapham Common: politicians may have their urges to contend with, but it requires a deal of imagination to speculate as to why Higgott would sacrifice anything, let alone everything, for more money.

I immediately developed a hypothesis about what had actually happened. Higgott had an abrasive manner and a taste for conspicuous consumption. He liked to travel first class, where he might ask for a wine better than the one freely available. I learned the phrase “zoo class” from him. He would expect, if doing anything remotely connected with work, to eat in the best restaurants in town and to do it on expenses, preferably with an institutional credit card. This isn’t that different from what most CEOs of large companies would expect to do and, in better days for their trade, I know it is what most journalists did. On the other hand, given the various cuts and redundancies going on in universities, it’s never going to be popular. The message is that you don’t get a rise and your job may be on the line, but your boss gets a big rise and a big expense account with which to celebrate when he balances the budget by cutting you. Universities, unlike industry, still have the remnants of democratic procedures to invoke when resentment gets to boiling point.

In November 2014, Murdoch’s chancellor, David Flanagan, claimed that the university’s own investigation into senior staff had found evidence of misleading the CCC in relation to previous inquiries by the body; a lack of proper process with key appointments; destruction of documents; anomalies in relation to credit card use; evidence of bullying; and excessive termination payments. He would not say which allegations related to specific staff and the allegations are of unknown veracity. Two months ago, the university’s human-resources director, Karen Lamont, resigned too. Meanwhile, some colleagues in the Australian press have defended Higgott and others have analysed the incident in terms of a culture clash between the “collegial” and the “corporate” in academic life. To my mind, it seems likely that he was a corporate leader trying to modernise and upgrade a not very prestigious institution, and that he alienated too many people, crucially at high levels as well as low.

It is worth remembering that modern academic life has always had an important dimension of asceticism. At University College, Oxford, in the 1960s, I was taught and surrounded by fellows who were thoroughly successful academics, men who wrote books that are still in print and are read all over the world. They were also among the first “teledons”. Yet their personal style was invariably modest and there was nothing flash about any of them. Herbert Hart, for example, wrote The Concept of Law, which must be an all-time best-seller in several different fields. But he drove an ancient Morris Minor that usually had to be push-started. (He stands in sharp contrast to an academic who used to give a guest lecture to my students 30 years later. He had written a book on Britain’s urban problems that was well known for a short time; he was always keen to tell the students about his new BMW.) The pay of these dons was unspectacular, based on that of any lecturer, but with an additional 10 per cent and some generous allowances – the most important being a housing allowance intended to be equivalent to the right to rooms in college.

Yet, of course, the asceticism that was normal to academic life was also tempered by aspects of abundance. When you enter most Oxford or Cambridge colleges, you normally see a chapel and a refectory, inheritors of a monastic tradition. If the private life of the don was ascetic, there were also aspects of the collective that were opulent. Dons could eat or drink rather splendidly: even now, one feels a lot closer to the Palace of Versailles at a New College feast, with its multiple courses of exotica and its choir in the loft, than in any restaurant with three Michelin stars. The wine cellars could bear comparison, too. And, on the whole, if cars were downmarket, houses were not. The tradition of the housing allowance and the security of employment used to mean that academics owned some of the better houses in town – usually the older ones. Some of this tradition continued into the new universities: when I was first employed at the University of Warwick in the 1960s, such events as the examiners’ lunch and the graduands’ party were well worth looking forward to. They extended to everybody within the “collegiate” boundary. As vice-chancellors’ salaries rose, the amount of time and money spent on these events declined proportionately, although the causal link was an indirect one.

Businessman served food on airplane

I suspect most academic leaders are too preoccupied with their work to have even an average interest in spending money

The idea of a head of a university being paid eight or 10 times as much as his or her colleagues, or of his or her salary still rising while theirs were frozen, would have been unthinkable in the first four or five generations of modern academic life. I have to say I have heard more indignation about it from retired senior academics and administrators than from younger people – rather like old footballers getting in a lather about contemporary wages. But it is, of course, normal in other sectors. There used to be an interesting quiz question that asked who was the highest-paid person in a university. In the US, it was often the head football coach; in Britain it would be a senior medical professor exempted from normal constraints by the power of market forces. Only in polytechnics was it the boss. Vice-chancellors used to make something of a show of mucking in: for example, I remember one proudly telling me a quarter of a century ago that he had attended a meeting of vice-chancellors and the overnight accommodation had no en suite.

Things changed; a decade later I remember a vice-chancellor rather pompously telling me about his salary (in retrospect, a rather modest six-figure sum) and how it was a proper reward for his hard work and devotion to his career. I couldn’t help pointing out that one of my oldest and closest friends, working in the City, had just received a bonus of £1.6 million. It was a genuine Crocodile Dundee moment (“That’s not a knife…that’s a knife): “That ain’t a salary…this is a salary.”

To a gratifying and surprising extent, he became upset and expostulated about “people who add noughts on”. He was a highly intelligent man who knew at some level that neither he nor the job he was doing should be evaluated in monetary terms, but he had been talking as if his salary defined him.

The economist Thorstein Veblen’s theory of conspicuous consumption has generated an enormous amount of economic and sociological debate since he first introduced it in 1899. But there is no trace of a theory of conspicuous earning – Veblen wouldn’t have been interested in it, since his interest was in the leisured classes. I suspect that most academic leaders are far too preoccupied with their work to have even an average interest in spending money. It is salary as a source of self-esteem that concerns them. Note how private income is an embarrassing and almost unmentioned topic in academic life. I remember once assembling the contributors to a book that I was editing, inviting them to a meeting at my house. One of them, a moderately successful academic at a London college, appeared to arrive on foot; it was only later that I discovered that his car had been parked round the corner so that we couldn’t see what it was – or that it was driven by his chauffeur.

The belief in a rare and important talent for academic leadership is a relatively new one. In the academic world, as I was first introduced to it, the heads of institutions were either imported from outside or were “a safe pair of hands” drawn from the ranks of the competent who hadn’t done anything terribly exciting in the world of scholarship and weren’t really expected to. In a stable and prosperous university environment, people go about their business and the businesses are run by them. But that perception changed when I moved from Oxford, in what was still the 1960s, to the brand new University of Warwick. The vice-chancellor, “Jack” – later Lord – Butterworth (previously of New College, Oxford), spent 22 years there without publishing anything, and was by far the most prominent person on the campus – he took a particularly seigneurial view of his estate. Other vice-chancellors used to snigger about his pink Jaguar and his chauffeur. The political reality is that a new university is perforce a collective enterprise that requires strong leadership at the top. And Butterworth was better at it than many nicer and more scholarly men; Warwick benefited in many ways from his strategies, whether on having relatively few departments, a major arts centre or multi-storey car parks. It’s a grown-up lesson one has to learn – that the nice guys are not necessarily the effective ones. And, of course, the university that is trying to upgrade – such as the one that suspended my former colleague – is similar to the new one in this respect. Naturally, any form of research assessment that makes the perception of a university’s overall record important also concentrates power.

I am a conservative. Personally, since I never felt the slightest need or desire to be led, I always reacted with scorn to the idea that someone was getting paid a lot of money to lead me. I didn’t approve of the massive expansion of universities and I absolutely and immediately didn’t approve of research assessment (although it was instituted by the party that conservatives are supposed to support). I would have been happy for universities to remain monastic and ascetic, give or take a feast here or there. But since these things have happened, there is a need for CEOs – and there should be no surprise if the incumbents behave according to type.

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Reader's comments (1)

I challenge Dr Allison to speak out about the Vicechancellors of the University of Warwick. A man scared to name names nad eager to embrace the pwoerful may be a true conservative, but in 1940 he would have been labelled a collaborator.