Cambridge debate rages on

March 14, 2003

Questions about the direction of Cambridge University brought an unusually high turnout of 35 academics to a three-hour debate this week on the results of January's ballot on governance reforms.

The event even lured vice-chancellor Sir Alec Broers to the chair of Regent House for only the second time in his seven-year term.

Despite strong feelings being expressed, there was agreement on many issues: changes in governance were vital; the vice-chancellor needed powers to be able to make certain decisions; external members on the governing council would be a good idea; and the future of the university was at stake.

Many speakers harked back to the university's last attempt at constitutional reform, in 1989. That resulted in the setting-up of the Wass syndicate to address "the lack of efficient procedures for policy-making, which places the university at a disadvantage". But its proposals were largely ignored, resulting only in the appointment of a full-time vice-chancellor and the creation of a board of scrutiny.

In the January ballot, proposals to give more power to the vice-chancellor and to allow external members to the university's governing board were both defeated.

Sir Alec said this result damaged the credibility of the vice-chancellor and the standing of the university. He said he had never sought increased powers for the vice-chancellor but for the committees he or she chaired. He emphasised that the proposals had not been put forward by him alone. But he added that if neither the principal administrative officer nor the principal financial officer answered to him, "it is scarcely feasible to hold the vice-chancellor accountable for the management of the university if no one is accountable to the vice-chancellor".

John Spencer, chair of the board of scrutiny, said that the January ballot had taken place at a time when trust in the "management" was already damaged. The mounting deficit, the mismanaged procurement of the Capsa accounting system and efforts to pay for two posts "without any obviously useful duties" against the backdrop of a pay freeze had all contributed to this mistrust.

Gordon Johnson, architect of the reform proposals and pro vice-chancellor, said it was the reputation of Regent House as "a responsible body capable of managing its own affairs" that had been damaged.

Sir Alec listened patiently, but after two hours and a third speech by medieval historian Gillian Evans, he made his excuses.

Professor Johnson, minus mortarboard, took the chair and sat back to receive what was coming to him.

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

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
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments