Democracy and the Teddy Hall affair

June 26, 1998

I HAVE just completed ten years as head of one of the larger Oxford colleges; I am not a professional academic; I have a good deal of experience in the running, funding and governing of institutions in the "outside world", and I am bound to tell you that your article about the governing of Oxford colleges - like many articles published elsewhere on the same subject during the preceding week - is seriously misleading. Were it not part of an apparent campaign to push a rather interfering government into further invasive measures against Oxbridge one could dismiss it as funny.

The colleges are self-governing entities consisting of fellows who simultaneously (most of them) hold posts within a parallel university structure that is similarly self-governing. It looks complicated at first but in fact is hardly more so than the internal structure of any other largish institution.

The openness of the Oxbridge system means that all its internal managerial rows and dilemmas (where to build the business school, how to cope with the loss of the college fee, how to house the students, etc) are fought out in a quasi-public arena and are subject, these days, to constant press attention.

The collegiate system is certainly very different and brings with it different kinds of but no greater frustrations. But I have found the collegiate method of governance to be an extremely efficient mechanism with which it is much easier to bring about change and development than in any other I have known.

For one thing the college is relatively free of bureaucracy since the main managerial tasks are shared among the fellows and seldom held for long. But the most important benefit is the fact that it unlocks the energies of a large number of highly intelligent people who feel individually and collectively responsible for the care of their institutions.

The head of a college is not a managing director but none the less, though in different ways, is perfectly able to take initiatives and press his or her own favoured policies. But it is the collectivity that acts as the chief executive and can act, as I know from experience, with great managerial verve and also very great financial acumen. (It can also move slowly when it feels that the wrong decision is about to be taken.) Look at the speed with which Oxford has responded over the past five years to the student housing problem. The same combination of collaboration and self-protection is presently being brought to bear upon the appalling problems arising from the government's decision to cut the college fee. Sometimes, of course, things can go wrong. Our system prevents us, even if we wanted to, covering them up. But do people call for a royal commission on the press when an editor gets fired?

Anthony Smith, president Magdalen College, Oxford

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