Cambridge dilutes democratic governance

February 8, 2002

Cambridge University is to beef up the powers of its vice-chancellor and water down the traditional democratic role of its community of scholars as part of major constitutional reform.

"The university recognises it is time for a fundamental change to its culture of decision-making," said pro vice-chancellor Malcolm Grant, who launched a consultation on the reforms this week.

Critics warned that the university was wiping out 800 years of democratic self-governance by turning the vice-chancellor into a chief executive.

The consultation, "Changing Cambridge", follows an independent inquiry into the botched implementation of a financial system that led to the savaging of the university's accountability and governance. It comes amid criticism that Cambridge's ancient democratic systems are too slow to react to competition, especially from top US institutions.

The consultation paper says: "Although the university is by many measures very successful, it faces a number of organisational problems. Some of these result from chronic under-resourcing and failure to develop the university's administration. Others spring from the complexity and formalism of its decision-making.

"There is an apparent inability to adapt quickly to changing demands and circumstances, or to grapple with long-term problems of strategic importance. There is a perceived lack of transparency and therefore of accountability."

The paper proposes that the vice-chancellor be recognised in the statutes as the "principal academic and administrative officer, responsible for the direction and management of the university and its finances" and be given "authority to discharge these responsibilities directly or by delegation".

Beneath the vice-chancellor would be a layer of five pro vice-chancellors responsible for finance; planning and resource allocation; personnel; research; and education.

Gill Evans, a history don, said: "This is the most radical change to the governance ever. Giving the vice-chancellor executive power will kill off 800 years of democracy. You cannot have a king and democracy." 

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