Hood faces new turmoil

February 3, 2006

Trouble is brewing at Oxford. Claire Sanders and Anna Fazackerley report

As he faces renewed rebellion, John Hood, Oxford University's vice-chancellor, will be only too aware that reaching a full consensus over the running of the institution is a near-impossible task.

The Times Higher has identified three camps in the university - those who oppose Dr Hood and his proposed management and governance reforms, those who support him, and those in the middle who are uneasy with his management style but who fear that to lose him would be disastrous for the university.

Dr Hood's appointment in 2003 raised eyebrows. As vice-chancellor of Auckland University and as a Rhodes scholar, he certainly had a strong academic record, but some wondered whether he could adjust to Oxford's collegiate and democratic style.

It had been assumed by many at Oxford that Dr Hood had weathered last year's storm over his proposed reforms, when he infuriated academics with plans to streamline university governance. In the face of accusations that he would destroy Oxford's centuries-old collegiate and democratic structures, Dr Hood was forced to revise his proposals.

When he presented his rejigged plans to the university's ruling Congregation in November last year, he appeared to allay some of the concerns.

Yet simmering discontent could come to the boil again as Dr Hood prepares to publish his governance white paper in the spring. It will go to the Congregation in autumn.

Alan Ryan, warden of New College, believes that the reforms could prove a flashpoint. "If he is defeated in Congregation or wins narrowly, then it is hard to see how conflict, such as we had last year, can be avoided," he said.

"People came back from the break determined that they were not going to have that kind of row again as it was so awful," he said. "But there are still big problems."

David Palfreyman, bursar of New College, said: "All this is not to be dismissed as just grumpy elderly dinosaur arts dons like me resisting the brave new world of corporatism. The unease is across all subjects and age groups, within colleges and departments - Oxford is close to being united on something."

For others, Dr Hood's reforms are vital if Oxford is to compete with the top institutions in the US.

Victor Blank, soon to be chairman of Lloyds TSB, member of Oxford's council and chair of the committee that appointed Dr Hood, believed that the vice-chancellor is on the right track.

"Dr Hood has brought much-needed change to Oxford. It is now better run financially, and his governance reforms, which will see a far more streamlined organisation with the input of external expertise, are essential," Sir Victor said.

He agreed that the changes had not made the vice-chancellor universally popular, but argued that Dr Hood has listened to critics and slowed the pace of reform. He described Dr Hood as "immensely open" and a "believer in transparency".

Dame Jessica Rawson, warden of Merton College, is another supporter.

"People are far less concerned about Hood this year than they have been.

There is a lot of very positive work going on behind the scenes," she said.

Adding to the mood of uncertainty at Oxford are major changes in personnel, with the top layer of central administration in a great deal of flux.

As Professor Ryan observed: "The top level has been replaced almost completely, and further down the turnover has been so great that it has been very hard for people to learn their jobs. The uncertainty seems to be badly affecting morale."

David Holmes, the registrar, will take early retirement this April; Anthony Weale, the academic registrar, retired at the end of last year; John Clements, the director of finance, left last January; Mike Smithson, the director of development, left for York University early last year; and Helen Carasso stood down as director of public relations last summer.

Late last year, it was announced that Nigel Thrift, pro vice-chancellor for research, was leaving to become vice-chancellor of Warwick University.

Yet some of Dr Hood's appointments have been widely welcomed - in particular that of Giles Kerr, who comes from Amersham, a FTSE 100 company, as director of finance.

Julie Maxton will take up the post of registrar later this month. She is currently dean of law at Auckland University.

With so much going on, many at Oxford have opted for the security of an "on the one hand, on the other hand" analysis.

Graham Richards, chairman of chemistry and one of Oxford's multimillionaire scientists, was also on the appointment committee. He agreed that the Hood reforms are taking Oxford in the right direction, and he argued that it would be "disastrous" for Oxford if they failed.

But he said that Dr Hood "played his cards badly" in his first year. "He acted too much like a chief executive; he did not listen enough."

Susan Cooper, a physicist at St Catherine's College and the author of a series of alternative governance papers, said: "I do not think a vote of no confidence is an appropriate action.

"We should be discussing issues, not personalities. Dr Hood himself has asked for rigorous testing of proposals, and I agree with him on that. We all need to discuss rationally together how to make this work," she said.

And finally, add into the turmoil at Oxford a personal note. Late last year Dr Hood sent a letter to heads of house announcing that he was separating from his wife, who was returning to New Zealand. He assured them of his continuing commitment to the university.

It now looks as if Oxford academics may be asked to decide whether they are committed to him.



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