Democracy and the Teddy Hall affair

June 26, 1998

Your entertaining piece has a good go at the allegedly archaic college system in Oxford and Cambridge. That St Edmund Hall has fallen out with its recently appointed principal, and that there have been a couple of other such unfortunate incidents in the past decade or so, seems to be sufficient for your writers to encourage the scrapping of the college system that has served both universities rather well for the best part of a millennium. Given that there are some 50 institutions involved, it is not surprising that, now and again, the complex mix of human relationships required to make the place work simply do not come together and tears result.

If one were properly analysing problems of mismanagement and abuse of governance, then one would begin not with the oldest educational institutions in the country, but with the newest, where the track record of the statutory universities, supposedly so much better managed by the chief executive vice-chancellor and his/her hand-picked, full-time and permanent management team, has thrown up far more incidents than at the older chartered institutions (University College, Cardiff, being the disgraceful exception that proves the unpalatable rule).

Giving heads of house clear managerial and leadership-by-dictat powers would not make the Oxbridge colleges any more effective as they may already be under a system of governance based on collegiality, checks and balances, and consensus/participation.

As in any system of management and governance there will occasionally be incompetence, but at least collegiality on the whole guards fairly well against the sort of corruption that arises from managerially empowering certain individuals way beyond their personal levels of ability and their personal reserves of integrity.

A few tears over Tusa or Tumim no more proves that collegiality should be abandoned as a method of governance than do the allegations of mismanagement at Portsmouth, Bournemouth, Derby, Anglia Polytechnic University, Glasgow Caledonian, Middlesex and Thames Valley, demonstrate that statutory universities cannot be properly managed on the dirigiste, chief executive/board of governors model.

Both models can be made to work for their respective types of institution providing the culture is right and there are officers of the institution who behave with sufficient professionalism and integrity, and governors/members of council/fellows default to behaving according to the stricter fiduciary standards of charity trusteeship rather than the lesser standards of company directorship a la Maxwell.

David Palfreyman Bursar, New College, Oxford

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