V-c attacks selfish dons

October 4, 2002

A handful of unelected and self-interested dons are emasculating Cambridge University's governing council and hindering efficient decision-making, vice-chancellor Sir Alec Broers has said.

Sir Alec this week used his final annual October address as the head of Cambridge to launch an impassioned defence of the university's modernisation drive, which will be put to a ballot of dons this autumn. He said the moves were essential to preserve Cambridge's "present eminence".

In particular, he attacked the practice that allowed a small minority of academics to scupper or seriously delay any decision by the elected governing council by forcing a ballot of the entire academic community on every issue.

"The fact that every decision made by council can be questioned by a handful of people emasculates the council," he said. "Instead of concentrating solely on the needs of the university in fulfiling its mission, council often becomes preoccupied with anticipating and satisfying the demands of a handful of people with no obligation to represent our society as a whole and who, instead, are frequently pursuing personal interests."

Under Cambridge's constitution, Regent House, the community of more than 3,000 scholars, has ultimate power. The governing council must consult it on every significant decision. It takes a petition from ten dons to force a ballot of the entire Regent House on any council decision.

Sir Alec supports plans to increase the minimum number of dons required to force a ballot from ten to "at least 50". He has been frustrated by the activities of history professor Gillian Evans, who has been behind a number of recent petitions.

Dr Evans said: "Criticism may still be valid even if only a few people have the courage to voice it. This would silence criticism."

Ballots have been forced this term on three key statutory reforms - including plans for new rules on intellectual property. There will be a free ballot on the modernisation reforms.

Sir Alec defended plans to increase the powers of the vice-chancellor, ready for his successor who is set to take over next year. He said the move to ensure the vice-chancellor was the "principal academic and administrative officer", as opposed to a civil servant, was "not to empower the vice-chancellor... It is to provide the logical and unambiguous apex to the communication channel."

He also defended plans to include external members on the council.

* Public spending watchdogs are investigating Cambridge University's management of research grants and contracts.

The National Audit Office's director of education, Jeff Jones, has confirmed that despite a number of recent reviews there are still some problems.

He says in a letter to a whistleblower: "I am concerned with aspects of grant and contract management, which I am investigating at the moment".

Cambridge, which is predicting a £20 million deficit within three years, confirmed there were a few outstanding issues with the NAO, but it was confident that its financial controls were "operating satisfactorily".

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