Why did dispute drag on?

March 8, 1996

In June 1994, Norman Dombey was elected by the academic faculty of the school of mathematical and physical sciences of Sussex University to serve on the senate of the university for three years from August 1 1994 to July 31 1997. On March 15 1995, the senate recommended to the council that there should be a reorganisation of schools, with the result that the school of mathematical and physical sciences would cease to exist from July 31 1996. Professor Dombey, among others, spoke against these proposals but council adopted them on March 24 1995.

On April 6 1995 an official of the university informed Professor Dombey that the vice chancellor had decided to terminate his membership of senate with effect from July 31 1995. The following day, Professor Dombey replied that he was unwilling to accept this ruling. Professor Dombey appealed to the Visitor of the university and the Lord President of the Council sought advice from Lord Lloyd of Berwick, a Lord of Appeal in Ordinary.

Professor Dombey's election had been in accordance with the charter, statutes, ordinances and regulations of the university which made no provision for the termination of office except for "good cause". It was not suggested that such "cause" existed in this case.

The first position taken by the university authorities was that the vice chancellor could remove Professor Dombey from senate as "an exercise of executive authority". Then it was said that the forthcoming senate elections would be conducted on the assumption that the senate would ratify the vice chancellor's actions as its chairman. On June 28, the senate confirmed the vice chancellor's action.

The university argued that as the constituency Professor Dombey was elected to represent no longer existed his membership of the senate had lapsed. Lord Lloyd expressed himself satisfied that the vice chancellor, the senate and the council had acted throughout from the highest motives, and in what they regarded as the best interests of the university. Indeed he found that the scheme proposed was eminently fair and sensible "from everybody's point of view except that of Professor Dombey". But, like Sir Richard Scott, Lord Lloyd found that even those smelling of roses should not break constitutional rules, especially those that went to the heart of the democratic process.

The fatal weakness was that neither the vice chancellor alone, nor the vice chancellor acting as chairman of senate, nor senate itself, nor the council, nor the chairman of council, nor any combination of these, had power under the constitution of the university retrospectively to deny the continuing validity of the election of June 1994 or to remove Professor Dombey from senate. As Lord Lloyd said, Professor Dombey's election had conferred on him the status of being a member of the senate for three years, and the responsibility of acting as representative of the faculty members who elected him. Lord Lloyd said: "The senate and the council has no more power to dispense with the regulations in the name of common sense, or in the name of administrative convenience, than had the Crown to dispense with the general law in the time of James II."

Lord Lloyd concluded that Professor Dombey was entitled to the declaration that he was and remained a member of the senate until July 31 1997.

Three causes for concern remain and have wider implications for university administration. The first is the willingness of senior officials, including some vice chancellors, to act arbitrarily and then to rely on senates and councils to ratify their actions. The second is the reluctance of academic members of universities to insist on justice being done and being seen to be done, especially when individual colleagues adopt unpopular or inconvenient attitudes.

The third is why this dispute was allowed to continue. From the beginning, Professor Dombey's unwillingness to go quietly and his intention to insist on his constitutional rights were apparent. Why at that moment did not the university authorities rescind their decision? Professor Dombey would have had no cause to complain, no injustice would have been done, the Lord President of the Council would have remained undisturbed, and King James's mistake would not have been repeated.

John A. G. Griffith London School of Economics

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