Adding water to organic seeds of change

June 30, 2006


When Liora Lazarus stood up to speak in Oxford University's congregation last November she surprised many people.

The law lecturer from St Anne's College, who at 37 is younger than most speakers, was one of the few women to speak and was quite a contrast to many of the grandees who normally take centre stage in such debates.

Oxford's parliament of dons was assembled to discuss controversial governance proposals put forward by vice-chancellor John Hood.

Dr Lazarus gave a bold and supportive speech. Drawing on her experience in the admissions office at Oxford, she urged her colleagues, many of whom fiercely opposed Dr Hood's plans to have a majority of outside experts on the university council, to reconsider.

"Much of our administration rests on benign amateurism, mixed in with the occasional expert perspective," she told them. "This isn't enough."

Within weeks Dr Hood had appointed Dr Lazarus drafting secretary to the governance working party. She analysed the responses to the governance proposals to date and drafted the white paper. Since its publication last month she has taken an active role in explaining it to colleagues.

Dr Lazarus, German by nationality, was born and brought up in South Africa.

"My parents were Lithuanian Jews and my mother was an opera singer," she says. "So we were a fairly itinerant family that ended up in South Africa."

She began her academic career with a degree in African economic history at the University of Cape Town. She went on to read law at the London School of Economics before doing a DPhil in law - a comparison of the legal rights of German and English prisoners - at Balliol College, Oxford.

"My degree choice and early academic choices were very much conditioned by the politics of the time in South Africa," she says. "The mass democratic movement of the late 1980s was enormously exciting and I was keen to play an active part."

Her career path reveals her leanings towards activism. She was drawn to human rights. In the early 1990s she worked for the KTC Relief Fund, a legal resources centre in Cape Town, where she helped deal with the claims of 1,800 squatter residents against the South African Police. She took a post in the mid-1990s as a research fellow in criminal law in postcolonial Africa at the Max Planck Institute in Germany.

"That part of me that leans towards activism is perhaps the part that led me to stand up in congregation," she says. "I am not afraid to voice my views and I am happy to defend them."

She is keen to stress that as secretary to the working party she sees herself as a "servant" and not an activist. "I made my views clear in November, but in my role my perspective has inevitably shifted. My responsibility is to the university as a whole. My job has been to look carefully at all the responses and to draft the white paper in as clear a way as possible."

She stresses that she is profoundly committed to the democratic structures in Oxford and is quick to point out that the powers of congregation are in no way diminished in the white paper. She is also committed to the principle of college autonomy.

"Oxford has grown organically over centuries and its structures are founded on firm principles. The governance reforms build on these," she says.

Given the tensions surrounding governance reform at Oxford, being secretary of the group was not an easy task. But Dr Lazarus's South African experience has bred in her a determined and optimistic streak.

"I return to South Africa frequently and am filled with optimism and hope,"

she says. "Of course I see problems, of course I see the violence, but I also see the huge strides and progress that have been made and the overwhelming generosity of the black population."

But is she as positive about Oxford's governance reforms?

"I believe that the proposals are crucial to Oxford's continuing success.

Those of us on the governance working party are committed to communicating their importance," she says.


the University of Cape Town


Pulling a donkey onto the stage in the opera Cavelleria Rusticana when I was ten (my mother was a professional opera singer)


Apart from finding clothes that fit, finding the time to read and to write about things I care about


hope finally to be on the property ladder


I experience performance anxiety on behalf of the joke-tellers

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