Dons split over single council for Oxford

June 4, 1999

Oxford University dons have endorsed a modernisation drive with a vote in favour of a new "efficient and streamlined" management structure. But some academics fear the reforms will damage the ancient university's democratic foundations.

The reforms, said vice-chancellor Colin Lucas (right), will allow Oxford to "respond swiftly, clearly and appropriately to new opportunities and new issues". "Above all," he said, "they will allow us to innovate and put us in good shape for the future."

A new single governing council, replacing both the General Board of the Faculties and the Hebdominal Council, will be established under the stewardship of an executive-style vice-chancellor. The vice-chancellor, who for the first time could be appointed from outside the university, will have a term of office extended from four years to seven.

The reforms, finalised after a three-year commission of inquiry by former vice-chancellor Peter North, and a further year of wrangling, will wipe away not only the university's general board of the faculties, but also the 17 faculty boards. These will be replaced with five new academic divisions, with newly "devolved budgetary and financial authority".

The five academic divisions will be: life and environmental sciences; medical sciences; mathematics and physical sciences; humanities; and social sciences.

The "sovereign body" of the university, with power above the vice-chancellor, will remain the entire community of academics, the Congregation.

The university said the reforms would ensure more effective decision-making, devolve more power to subject areas and "provide an integrated approach to strategy in key areas such as planning, resource allocation and educational policy".

Some academics have expressed reservations about the reforms. Fergus Millar, professor of history at Brasenose College, said: "In a democratic system, the key positions must depend on election, not on selection from above." He said it was "unacceptable" that new pro vice-chancellors will be nominated by "the vice-chancellor of the day", without a "public procedure".

John Davis, warden of All Souls College, said the new terms for the vice-chancellorship will attract "single-minded managers", who would not understand the pluralist "civil society" of Oxford.

Vice-chancellor Lucas said the reforms "maintain the university's powerful traditions of democratic accountability".

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