Analysis: When the dons awake...

August 30, 2002

Cambridge's ancient system of governance is ripe for change, but its academics fear their influence will be eroded by administrators and the governing council. Phil Baty listens to the rumblings of rebellion

Rebellion is brewing at Cambridge University on a scale rarely seen in its 800-year history.

Petitions by angry dons have halted progress on three key statutory changes, bringing the reform process to a near standstill as ballots of the entire academic community are organised for next term. Battle rages over proposed reform to the way the university governs itself - also subject to ballots - and the internal standards watchdog, the Board of Scrutiny, has just bitten senior managers harder than ever before in its seven-year history.

"You would have to go back to before 1926, to the votes on the admission of women to full membership, to see such ferment," said Anthony Edwards, professor of biometry and an expert on the university's history and constitution.

The Michaelmas term will be marked by a series of crucial debates at the Senate House (below) and by ballots over fundamental questions - such as who runs Cambridge and to what end, and how can Cambridge survive as a world leader in a rapidly changing higher education market?

The Regent House, the democratic community of more than 3,000 academics, is the university's ultimate executive authority. It takes a petition of just ten members to put any legislative changes proposed by Cambridge's administrators and governing council to a ballot of all dons. Such ballots can force the administrators back to the drawing board with reforms that have been months in the making or can delay implementation for months more. And some Regent House members are using this tactic - itself subject to planned reform - to full effect.

On one side, the rebels say they are exercising their democratic right and protecting Cambridge, and the unique environment that has fostered its academic excellence, from dangerous and autocratic managerialism.

On the other, modernisers say the rebels are using outrageous spoiling tactics - the very things that must be eradicated to allow Cambridge to join the modern world and continue to compete with the world's best universities.

The debate rages as the university seeks a new vice-chancellor, whose appointment is also likely to be put to a vote of the dons.

Professor Edwards said the Regent House had been awoken from its "slumber" by a combination of arrogance by senior managers and governing council; last year's disastrous implementation of a new financial system and the debate over governance it has prompted; a financial crisis; and, most important, a dawning realisation that the university's future direction hangs in the balance.

"The Regent House is emerging from its slumbers as more people come to realise that they do have the power to influence events and are not to be presumed upon over questions such as governance changes," Professor Edwards said.

A key complaint is that the governing council and senior administrators do not take seriously the Regent House's role as the ultimate executive body. Professor Edwards explained: "At Oxford, they have a better understanding of the political process so that their administrators see themselves more clearly as the university's civil servants. At Cambridge, one senses that the establishment complex of senior administrators and ad hoc committees resents the implications of the Regent House being the governing body. Far from ensuring that the constitution runs smoothly, the council is forever tempted to subvert or bypass it."

In an outspoken report earlier this month, the Board of Scrutiny attacked the "undesirable habit of implementing changes in the way that things are run first, and bringing the statutes and ordinances into line with the changes afterwards".

It cited moves to change the constitutional roles of the treasurer and the secretary general and to create new, similar positions of finance director and academic secretary, when dons have expressed alarm about the apparent wasteful and unconstitutional duplication of roles.

The Board of Scrutiny said the roles of the treasurer and secretary general, and their "position in the hierarchy of university government, appear to have been changed de facto , with moves to amend the statutes and ordinances afterwards. We urge the council to regularise the roles of the treasurer and secretary general expediently."

The council's attempt to do just that, by publishing a report on the changed roles for the Regent House to nod through, has fallen victim to the Regent House rebels. Dons have collected 11 signatures to challenge the plans.

Professor Edwards questioned the constitutional validity of the plans. "No governing body should contemplate changing the statutory functions of two of its most senior officers withoutI an analysis of what the consequences might beI It would be a grave dereliction of responsibility for the Regent House to proceed without a full understanding of the possible consequences."

After a petition to declare the plans " non placet ", they remain on hold - and the posts remain "irregular" - until a ballot in Michaelmas term.

Also likely to be scuppered or severely delayed by a petition of dons in the autumn are plans to modernise Cambridge's intellectual property policy. The university wants to tighten its ad hoc rules over the inventions and ideas of staff because it fears that millions of pounds could be slipping through its fingers as a result of poor deals for exploitation or of staff claiming all the spoils for themselves.

But the reform plans - which administrators and, reportedly, government ministers see as a crucial step to allow Cambridge to continue to compete internationally - put to the Regent House will also be seriously delayed by dons' rebellion.

Ross Anderson, a reader in security engineering, objected to the plan to ensure that Cambridge own "all intellectual property generated by its employees in the normal course of their duties". He has said that he has many more than the ten signatures needed to force a ballot on the plan, and that he would stop the changes "no matter what it takes".

Dons also want to scupper another planned change that strikes at the heart of their democratic role. The university wants to modernise the Regent House's formal forum for openly and publicly debating statutory changes, the Senate House Discussion (with a capital "D" at Cambridge to denote its constitutional status). But some dons see this as an attempt to censor dissent.

After concerns from senior administrators that the openly published Discussions were descending into a series of personal attacks or were being hijacked by a minority of vociferous academics - notably campaigning history don Gill Evans - the council said it planned to change the rules to allow whichever senior administrator is presiding over Discussions to declare certain remarks "out of order". This would mean that the speaker must curtail their remarks and that they would not reach the public domain by being published in the university's Reporter .

The Board of Scrutiny is among those worried by the plans. "Discussions have formed an important part of our system of government and can provide a uniquely valuable forum for lively and measured debate," it said. It warned that it was "unwise" for the governing council to change the rules for Discussion "without consultation".

"The board believes that any powers to rule comments out of order at Discussions is one that should be prescribed and limitedI Under current arrangements, the persons presiding at Discussions (usually a pro vice-chancellor) are frequently those who have been involved in making the proposals or decisions which are being discussed. The risk of a conflict of interest in such a case is obvious."

The Board of Scrutiny itself led a petition - and collected 11 signatures - to have the plans revised to reduce the powers of the chair to censor Discussions. A petition signed by 20 other dons calls for the entire plan to be dropped, with a declaration of non placet .

For Malcolm Grant, pro vice-chancellor in charge of governance reforms, the changes to the Discussions are not a question of censoring debate but of improving it. "The Discussions are arcane and outmoded," he said. "They are a series of pre-prepared monologues and are not proper engagement. They have often descended into personal abuse. The Cambridge model of democracy is a long way off the models of democracy that have evolved elsewhere. I am very keen to see a model in which the Senate House is used for regular discussion but in which the vice-chancellor or pro vice-chancellor is present, can engage and is able to be held accountable."

Another Michaelmas ballot, offered to the Regent House by the council, concerns the dons' right to demand ballots. As part of wider governance reforms including the powers of the vice-chancellor and the role of the governing council, Cambridge's administrators plan to make it more difficult for dons to call a ballot.

It has been proposed that the number of staff eligible for membership of the Regent House be expanded to include unestablished and academic-related staff, and that the number of signatures required to call a ballot on policy be increased from ten to 50.

The modernisers ask why it should take just ten staff to block plans that are often perfectly acceptable to the other 2,990 dons. But some dons see the move as the biggest affront so far to their right to self-government.

The proposal met with considerable resistance when dons discussed it last month. Law professor J. H. Baker said: "The change will effectively disenfranchise dons."

Malcolm Rutter, a physicist, said the change would "serve only one purpose: to restrict the power of the Regent House to call to account other parts of the university's governance".

Professor Edwards said it was bad enough to require ten names, as signatories are seen as "mere troublemakers, vexatious irritants whose intervention only delayed the smooth passage of university business already decided by wiser heads". This, he said, meant people were afraid to put their names forward.

Professor Grant said he had no interest in diminishing the democratic role of the Regent House. "From my perspective, it is rather attractive that Cambridge people do care. There are a number of universities where academics tend to let things wash over them. It shows a profound feeling among a number of Cambridge academics that they do own the institution and do wish to be part of the process of change."

He said the argument about the number of signatures was far less important than ensuring that the Regent House had the right structure for exercising its democratic voice more effectively.

Ballots and the disruption they cause came about "as a consequence of the difficulty we have engaging in proper discussion", he said, and were to the ultimate detriment of the university.

"As a collective institution, we do have to grapple with some extremely difficult decisions. But a democratic system that can challenge each individual decision without reference to the broader context will not serve the university's purpose properly overall. There is too much emphasis on formalism and not enough on the real substance and responsibility, and the system is not conducive to people owning the bigger set of problems and broader issues," Professor Grant said.

Please login or register to read this article.

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments