No profit in conflict

October 20, 2000

Vice-chancellors must steer clear of personal commercial involvement, argues Gillian Evans

When you become vice-chancellor of a high-profile university that has announced that it wants to build links with industry, you suddenly become very popular. You are seen about with Bill Gates. You are photographed with big cheeses in the business world. You appear on platforms with the ephemeral celebrities of the industrial and commercial world, and when you open your mouth you are taken to be speaking "for" Cambridge.

You are likely to find invitations to be on boards of companies in your in-tray. Cambridge's vice-chancellor has famously agreed to be a non-executive director of Vodafone. His fee over the past few months is more than one of our lecturers gets in a year. Good luck to him, you may say. Other vice-chancellors may even be envious.

Last week, the Cambridge Evening News ran a story about "free Vodafones for students". Our two student newspapers, The Cambridge Student and Varsity , asked questions.

On inquiry it transpired that the rumoured free mobiles would be available to research students working on a project "to develop applications for the next telecommunications revolution".

A strategy director with Vodafone spoke of "investment in Cambridge". So were there strings attached?

The vice-chancellor was quoted as having the "vision to use the best and freshest brains in the country to come up with new applications". But these minds belong to our students. Have their intellectual property rights been protected?

Perhaps the vice-chancellor could not have stopped Vodafone representatives standing in the street with red Vodafone balloons, handing out leaflets to our students, but he could have distanced himself.

He could have suggested they gave the "free" phones to the best and freshest brains somewhere else, anywhere but Cambridge. Or he could have resigned his vice-chancellorship and kept the directorship.

Vice-chancellors should, as a matter of common sense, keep clear of all personal commercial involvement while they are in office, and for an appropriate period afterwards. However innocently it is done, it sends the wrong signals.

Sophisticated operators in big business will take advantage. "Investors" wave cheques with a great many noughts in front of Cambridge a good deal. If the vice-chancellor does not set a clear professional lead, others in the university will not see why they should not accept money offered for the giver's benefit as well as ours.

According to the Cambridge Newsletter , Marshall Aerospace "has joined forces with the department of engineering". "International representatives from the aerospace industry will make up the board of patrons and guide the institute. Students will work with the companies that they represent," the report says. We have the GKN chair, with a GKN representative on the board of electors to the professorship, and similar arrangements for other chairs in the university funded by big business.

Cambridge stated in August the crude principle that "what is considered ethical by the UK government" is all right by the University of Cambridge, too. Thanks to student pressure we are at last to set up a working party to draw up ethical guidelines. Oxford (as so often in setting standards of good practice) is ahead of us.

Oxford's "code of ethics" explains that it is important to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest, or the possibility that an employee might have been "influenced in making a business decision" by generosity on the part of a commercial partner.

I do not see how we can be robust in the protection of the integrity of our research if there is even the slightest suspicion that we can be bought. It is surely the responsibility of vice-chancellors to set a standard, for they are inescapably in public life.

Gillian Evans is a history lecturer and a member of Cambridge University's council.

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