There's comfort in hanging on to your head

March 14, 2003

As Oxford elects a new chancellor this weekend, Claire Sanders looks at a job that has cost some their lives but is now extreme only in its vagueness.

In the 16th century, five of Cambridge University's nine chancellors were executed. Among them was the great Bishop John Fisher, who helped found Christ's and St John's colleges, who lost his head in 1535 at Henry VIII's command.

As Lord Bingham, Lord Neill, Chris Patten and Sandi Toksvig wait to hear if they have been elected chancellor of Oxford University, they can draw comfort from the fact that no Oxford chancellor has as yet come to an untimely end. This is despite the fact that Oxford has had more contested elections than Cambridge and was on the losing side in the civil war.

The new chancellor, to be announced on Monday, may be keen for guidance on his or her new job. In the 15th century, the fiery Thomas Gascoigne was in no doubt that he had to combat the "great and absurd evils of Oxford".

These evils included "the multitude of fruitless congregations, useless and unworthy graces for degrees", as well as loose women, who caused "enormous crimes and perturbations of the peace".

Gascoigne was one of the last domestic chancellors, a resident acting head who was also a doctor of divinity (canon law). In the 15th century a more modern definition of chancellor emerged, in essence that of a non-resident patron chosen for his position in the outside world.

Today, the role is open to further redefinition. In a memorial address for Lord Jenkins, Oxford vice-chancellor Sir Colin Lucas said: "The chancellorship is, within limits, what an individual chancellor chooses to make of it. Those limits are that the chancellor has no power within the universityI But if the chancellor is without power, he is not without function."

This is far from a problem, says Paul Temple, an expert in higher education management at the Institute of Education, London. "The vagueness of the chancellor's role is its strength," he says. "The range of roles runs from the highly ceremonial to the working chancellor."

At the ceremonial end come members of the royal family. The Duke of Edinburgh is chancellor of Cambridge and Edinburgh universities, the Princess Royal beat Nelson Mandela to become chancellor of the University of London, and the Prince of Wales is chancellor of the University of Wales.

Mike Smithson, director of development at Oxford and previously at Cambridge, has worked with Jenkins and with the duke, and he appreciates that both played an active role. "It is increasingly important for a chancellor to fundraise, not directly but more through their presence at events. A good chancellor is someone people want to sit next to at a dinner. At Cambridge, the Duke of Edinburgh takes the role very seriously and people will always come to a dinner attended by royalty."

Jenkins recognised the fundraising role when he set up the chancellor's court of benefactors for those who had donated more than £1 million to Oxford. He was also president of the Oxford Society. He did, however, express ambivalence about the role: "There is a difficult balance to be struck. It is not desirable that the modern interpretation of Newman's immortal phrase 'the idea of a university' should become that of finding the nearest rich man and squeezing him until the pips squeak."

The Prince of Wales, since his election at the University of Wales in 1976, has largely been a figurehead, the university says. But he has made a point of visiting all eight member universities and particularly enjoys meeting students and parents.

Baroness Boothroyd is typical of the mid-spectrum chancellor. "Betty is ceremonial and has to be because she is so busy," says Brenda Gourley, vice-chancellor of the Open University. "She cannot attend all graduation ceremonies - at the OU there are 30 - and was chosen more because she embodies the qualities that typify the OU. She left school young and has not had the normal route to success. The OU is all about second chances, and she personifies that."

Chancellors such as Sir William Stubbs are much more hands on. After his appointment as chancellor of Thames Valley University in July 2001, Stubbs was seen as an extremely able administrator who would help steer the university back to success after its poor quality assessments in the 1990s and the loss of its vice-chancellor.

Kenneth Baker, the new vice-chancellor, declared Stubbs' appointment an important milestone in the progress of the university. "He will bring to the role enormous expertise and an unrivalled knowledge of higher education. We are especially delighted that Sir William intends to play an active part in the life of the university." TVU has since enjoyed a period of steady recovery.

Working chancellors also often sit in the House of Lords, where their role in representing higher education is seen as crucial. Universities UK recently hosted a reception for chancellors in the Lords, and it frequently briefs members on the progress of bills.

As Lucas pointed out in his memorial address for Jenkins: "It was Lord Jenkins who inserted into the last education act in its passage through the Lords the clause that prevents public funding from being subject to criteria for the admission of students. This was not and is not a parochial concern of this university but a cause for all universities."

Perhaps the last word on what a chancellor does should go to Jenkins'

predecessor, Harold Macmillan, the first commoner since Richard Cromwell to be chancellor of Oxford, who said: "The reason you need a chancellor is that if you did not have one you could not have a vice-chancellor, and if you did not have a vice-chancellor you would have no one to run the university."

What a big name brings

Cherie Booth and Liverpool John Moores

Cherie Booth QC was installed as Liverpool John Moores University's third chancellor in 1999. "I was very much attracted to JMU's mission to widen access and its emphasis on the Merseyside area," she says.

"As a local girl who came from a working-class home, I feel strongly about the need to encourage people from such backgrounds to go into higher education."

Booth was introduced to higher education in Merseyside through romance. "At the time I went to university, I had a boyfriend who was at Liverpool. So although I went to the London School of Economics, I experienced through him life in Liverpool as well."

These local roots were crucial when choosing the university chancellor. A spokesman says: "Ms Booth was elected after an overwhelming number of staff and students suggested her as a good role model."

She sees her role as "a mixture of raising awareness of the work of JMU, acting as an ambassador and trying to involve myself in as many of (the university's) activities as I can". Fundraising is crucial. "I was delighted to host a fundraising event for the new hardship scheme we have for students."

Does she lobby ministers on behalf of the university? "I leave that to the experts such as our vice-chancellor."

Jon Snow and Oxford Brookes

"When Oxford Brookes University asked me to be its chancellor, my first thought was what a nice thing to be asked to do, and my second was what am I being asked to do?" says Jon Snow, the Channel 4 newsreader.

His role has evolved since his inauguration in 2001. "I obviously do the degree ceremonies and also give an annual lecture, a tradition set in place by the previous chancellor Helena Kennedy," he says.

Snow has also made a point of visiting departments and different campuses of the university, and he leads a small group looking into how the ethnic composition of the student body at Oxford Brookes can be made more diverse.

He has taken the opportunity to talk to education secretaries about issues that concern the university. "I've talked about top-up fees to (education secretary) Charles Clarke and certainly believe that grants should be higher for poorer students."

Vice-chancellor Graham Upton says: "Jon has an extraordinary ability to make staff feel positive about their work and to inspire them. It is also very helpful that students recognise him as he walks about the campus - he is very approachable. He is very much a figurehead able to engage outside and inside Oxford."

Baroness Lockwood and Bradford

Betty Lockwood, a miner's daughter who was born and brought up in Dewsbury, has had links with Bradford University since joining its council in 1983. She was appointed chancellor in 1997.

A life peer since 1978, she is co-chair of the parliamentary university group. Only ill health prevents her participating in higher education debates.

"I helped to found the parliamentary group as we needed to raise the profile of universities among MPs. There were already a number of former vice-chancellors in the Lords, and we decided we needed to work more with the Commons," she says.

She has made a personal representation to the education secretary on top-up fees. "I am not really in favour of them. And I certainly think grants are too low." She sees the ceremonial role as important. "It is wonderful to meet students and parents," she says.

Nick Andrew, registrar and secretary at Bradford, says the university has been well served by Lockwood.

"We do not see the role as essentially fundraising, but if you take the mantra 'friends before funds', she has created a lot of friends for the university."

He adds: "Our first chancellor was Harold Wilson - we have been extremely well served by our chancellors."


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