The world won't wait for us

March 8, 2002

Without modern governance, Cambridge risks losing its leading global position, argues Malcolm Grant

Cambridge is one of the world's truly great universities. Yet keeping its position in the world is becoming increasingly difficult. The competition is powerful and growing in intensity. Higher education and research are globalising rapidly, and the resources and the prizes for the future will go to institutions that fight for them.

The stakes in Cambridge's debate about its future governance are uncomfortably high. It has never been more obvious that universities such as Cambridge need to be able to adapt to changes in the outside world and to manage change internally. Success will depend on leadership, and few academics possess this quality.

In this global world, the top US institutions have three great and related advantages: operational independence from government, wealth and a serious attitude towards governance.

UK universities can only watch with awe the fundraising capacity of US rivals. Harvard University's endowment of $19 billion (£13.4 billion) and Princeton University's of $8.2 billion dwarf Cambridge's of about $1 billion.

The Ivy League model of governance is quite different from that of Oxbridge, although there are variations. Princeton, for example, is small (4,600 undergraduates and 1,750 postgraduates) and historically highly centralised. Harvard has 17,500 students, the majority postgraduate, but it also has powerful baronies such as the Business School and the Law School. Yet both universities place a premium on central leadership, expressed through a president with strong executive powers.

Neil Rudenstine, recently retired as president of Harvard and formerly provost of Princeton, says Harvard poses greater challenges to its president than Princeton. Its professors see themselves as soloists, not ensemblists. But even at Harvard, the centre's control over resources gives it a great capacity to facilitate innovation in departments. It has a strong president and strong deans who work together strategically. The president's job is to deliver continuing enhancement of quality and resources.

But are the academics downtrodden and oppressed by such leadership? All the indications are to the contrary. In the US, it is well understood that academic leadership, inclusive and accountable, provides the excellent facilities and the high salaries that attract and retain the best.

Against these forces, Cambridge's strengths of diversity, democracy and decentralisation may, in their present form, prove to be its fatal weakness. These characteristics have led to a system of central governance that is, in many respects, sclerotic.

Decision-making tends to be secretive and diffuse, based almost wholly in a committee culture that suppresses rather than promotes energy and ideas, and that makes it hard to ascertain where responsibility and accountability lie. The process can be slow and unresponsive. Academics are excellent theorists and articulate critics, but they are sometimes poor administrators and even worse managers.

To be competitive, Cambridge will have to fight to maintain its reputation as a centre of academic excellence. It must build on its MIT links and forge new partnerships. And it must grapple with the hard question of whether its governance arrangements allow it the strategic ability and flexibility to compete with the best institutions in a rapidly changing world.

Malcolm Grant is pro vice-chancellor of Cambridge University.

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