A number of UK university vice-chancellors invited to join the Council for the Defence of British Universities ignored correspondence from organisers, a founding member of the council has said.
Sir Keith Thomas, the historian and former president of the British Academy, said that he had written to several university leaders to join the group, which was launched last week to campaign against government interference in the sector, but not one had decided to join the campaign.
"They either declined to respond entirely or were extremely hesitant about the possible effect that it might have on their position," he told Times Higher Education after the group's inaugural meeting on 13 November, held at the British Academy. However, he added that every former vice-chancellor he approached had accepted.
Sir Keith said he suspected that many academics from the rank and file would be supportive of the campaign, which has already criticised a number of government policies, but that self-interest may prevent more senior university leaders from joining.
Speaking at the meeting, Lord Morgan of Aberdyfi, the historian and former head of the University of Wales, said that vice-chancellors held the key to tackling many of the problems faced by universities.
"They have gone along with these changes (to higher education policy)," he said. "I do feel that vice-chancellors should be far more resistant and outspoken. They should be more coherent as a group."
He added that being leaders of universities meant "becoming megaphones for their institutions as agencies of free inquiry and free thought and champions of higher education as the most supreme of public goods".
According to Sir Keith, the chancellor of one distinguished university said that he entirely subscribed to the CDBU's statement of aims but that he saw it as his business to maintain good relations between his university and the government and therefore would not sign up.
Founding members of the 66-strong council include prominent academics such as Sir Paul Nurse, Richard Dawkins and Sir Ian Kershaw as well as 16 peers from the House of Lords and figures from outside the academy including the broadcaster Lord Bragg of Wigton.
The group now plans to embark on a campaign to recruit more members from among the general public as well as academics and students.