Oxford is urged to split v-c role

April 21, 2006

As John Hood prepares to issue a white paper on governance, Claire Sanders reports on divisions among staff.

Oxford University should adopt a US style of academic leadership, with the vice-chancellor role split between a president and a provost, a number of prominent Oxford academics are arguing.

The proposal for changing the way the university is led is one of several flash points set to test the leadership of vice-chancellor John Hood in the next academic term, as Oxford braces itself for the publication of its white paper on governance.

Susan Cooper, professor of physics and a member of the university council, has co-authored a piece in the Oxford Magazine - an independent magazine run by Oxford academics - questioning the role of the vice-chancellor. "The specific role of the vice-chancellor is not clearly defined in Oxford's statutes and regulations," she says. "What is clear is that we are currently expecting too much of one person."

The issue was raised by Donald Fraser, professor of earth sciences, during a debate on the governance reforms in Congregation - the parliament of dons - last year. He argued that the university should divide the role of vice-chancellor into a president responsible for academic affairs and a US-style provost responsible for financial management.

"As provost of Stanford University, for example, Condoleezza Rice (now US Secretary of State) was responsible for a budget of about the same size as ours - $1.5 billion (£800 million), with 1,400 faculty members and 14,000 students. She was not also head of academic affairs," he said.

Last week, Alan Ryan, head of New College, said: "The president/provost model is essential because the talents of academic leadership are not necessarily those of close financial management. We had an excellent president in Colin Lucas (the previous vice-chancellor of Oxford) who lacked a good provost and found tight financial management impossible to accomplish. And we have an excellent provost in John Hood, who could do with a good president to look after the politics of the place, make the speeches and enthuse donors."

The university declined to comment on this or any other matter regarding its future governance. It is understood that the white paper is not yet in draft form.

However, in a timetable for governance reform published last December, the university said that it envisaged the publication of a white paper in spring. It said this would be circulated widely before being considered by Congregation in autumn.

The issue is just one of a number that could lead to a defeat for Dr Hood should the paper be put to a vote in Congregation.

The Times Higher reported this year that a group of academics in Oxford were considering a vote of no confidence in his leadership. There remain widespread differences on key issues across the university, as revealed in the responses to the previous governance paper produced by the university.

Academics, administrators and college heads are bracing themselves for a major battle over the future of the university in the coming months.



  • Board of Scrutiny proposal: Create a board of scrutiny, similar to that in place at Cambridge University since 1995, to exercise independent oversight over decisions taken by the university council and the executive officers of the university.
  • For: Alan Ryan, head of New College, said: "It is a political necessity. It will show that the executive is really willing to answer to the rank and file."
  • Against: Others argue that it is better to strengthen the university's audit procedures. The university has just agreed to put papers from its audit committee on the intranet
  • Bicameral system proposal: Split the university's council, the 26-member policy-making body set up in 2000, into two. A new, smaller council of 15 people would be the main policy-making body for the university and would answer to Congregation. A new academic board of 36 members would oversee academic affairs.
  • For: Some have argued that the 26-member council is overloaded with work and that two separate bodies would function better.
  • Against: Susan Cooper, a physics professor, said: "It is my firm view that we need a unitary committee as the main policy-making body of the university."
  • Council membership proposal: Establish a new 15-member council with seven internal members and seven external members, chaired by the chancellor, Lord Patten.
  • For: Some have argued that it is an essential move that would bring Oxford into line with guidance from the Committee of University Chairmen and with the expected impact of the Charities Act.
  • Against: Many in Oxford believe that this would end the cherished tradition of self-governance.
  • Nominating committee proposal: Establish a nominating committee that would put forward names for membership of council to Congregation.
  • For: Some argue this is essential for the reforms to work.
  • Against: Critics want to see more than one name go forward to Congregation and a more transparent system of elections.

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