Cambridge rebels hold up rejig

December 13, 2002

Cambridge University's attempts to modernise have been set back by a series of rebellions by academics.

The Regent House, Cambridge's ultimate executive authority of 3,000-plus scholars, gave the council a massive constitutional headache this week by:

* Throwing out plans to change the duties of the treasurer and secretary general, two of its most senior officers

* Tabling a series of wrecking amendments, which have forced the second delay to the timetable for reform

* Electing Ross Anderson, a vociferous anti-moderniser, to the governing council.

Dr Anderson, reader in security engineering at Cambridge, said the moves represented "a rejection of the attempt to streamline the administration as a means of turning us from a self-governing community of scholars into a corporation managed from the centre by a chief executive officer".

He vowed to fight changes to the rules on academics' intellectual property rights and to "defend our ancient right to govern ourselves against the official view that all universities should be run on the same lines".

The rejection of plans to alter the roles of treasurer and secretary general causes a constitutional problem. The council had all but replaced the roles with a new finance director and academic secretary. It would have relieved the treasurer and secretary general of key duties, making their posts "advisory".

Now the university has two senior officers with tenured jobs, high salaries and historical powers clearly defined in the statutes whose roles are all but duplicated by two new officers.

The dons' rebellion, sparked by a petition against the plans by ten academics, has been seen as a move to reassert the power of the Regent House against what it perceives as moves by the council and senior managers to bypass it in decision-making. The ballot result bodes ill for governance reforms due to be voted on next year.

Anthony Edwards, a professor of biometry and an expert on the university's constitution, said the academics were "annoyed at the way this council treats the Regent House".

The council confirmed this week that ballots of the Regent House on the governance reforms, due to begin on Monday, would not take place until next year.

The Regent House is to vote on plans to beef up the role and powers of the vice-chancellor, create more pro vice-chancellors, reduce the interventionist powers of the Regent House and bring external members onto the council.

The council wanted the votes to be a straight yes/no choice, but the dons have tabled a number of amendments to the plans, forcing the ballot to be delayed.

Malcolm Grant, the pro vice-chancellor spearheading modernisation, said he was "relaxed" about the implications of the council's ballot defeat, and said it was not linked to concern about the governance reforms.

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