In the news: Onora O'Neill

April 12, 2002

Some of Cambridge University's more mischievous dons have noted that Newnham College principal Onora O'Neill is well qualified to give this year's Reith lectures on the subject of accountability and the cynicism that is damaging trust in Britain's public professions.

Baroness O'Neill of Bengrave has been on the receiving end of such cynicism as a member of Cambridge's governing council during the Capsa fiasco, when the university wasted millions on the bungled implementation of a new financial accounting system. The blame was laid at the feet of the council, as the university's primary governing authority with responsibility for administration and managing resources.

In the first of the BBC lecture series, which began last week, she argued that a general reverence for public accountability and transparency, and the accompanying deluge of inspectors, auditors and regulators so beloved of new Labour, had fostered a climate of suspicion that risked destroying trust in public professions such as university managers.

Nevertheless, her lectures are winning her fans among university staff suffering under league tables, performance indicators and audits. She even won acclaim in the Sun , which "welcomed this debate on cynicism in public life".

She was born in Northern Ireland in 1941 and educated in Germany, where her father was a diplomat, before going to St Paul's girls school in London. She studied philosophy on a scholarship at Somerville College, Oxford, and gained her doctorate from Harvard, before teaching at Columbia University in New York. Returning to Britain in 1977, she took a post teaching philosophy at Essex University, where she held a chair before taking over as principal of Newnham in 1992.

She is a divorced mother with one child, and her hobbies are "walking and talking with companions".

Phil Baty

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