Christ Church’s internecine war is a huge failure of governance

The Oxford college’s vast expenditure of charitable funds to try to dislodge its own dean could have serious repercussions, says Alan Rusbridger

January 20, 2022
Christ Church’s internecine war is a huge failure of governance
Source: Alamy/Getty montage

The dispiriting saga at Christ Church, Oxford, is now entering its fifth year. If this were a school in Bootle or Basildon, there’s little doubt it would have been placed in special measures by now. Instead, Oxford’s grandest college – as financially well padded as it is socially well connected – has been left to fight its own messy internecine war without much official scrutiny.

So far.

Oxford colleges are fiercely independent institutions, run by their own governing bodies and genetically programmed to be suspicious of any interference by outside bodies. The college’s Visitor is the Queen – and no one to date has sought to embarrass Her Majesty by dragging her into the interminable row over whether it is right to spend eye-watering sums of money to dislodge its own dean, the Very Rev. Martyn Percy.

But there are signs that the leadership of the university, which until now has watched rather impotently from the sidelines, is now stirring itself to get involved. More worrying – for Christ Church and for other colleges in both Oxford and Cambridge – are the unmistakable signs that the Charity Commission, which since 2010 has been the ultimate regulator of the colleges, is flexing its considerable muscles.

The two actions may not be unrelated. For if the Charity Commission were to decide that the governance of such an august educational institution were not fit for purpose, what would be the implications for dozens of other colleges in Oxbridge – and maybe beyond?

The problem is simply put. The way Christ Church governs itself – a small group of so-called censors, answering to a huge “board” or governing body – doesn’t remotely match the guidelines outlined in a number of official and unofficial codes for how any other charity in the UK should operate. Here are some of them:

  • Most charities are expected to operate with a board “of at least five but no more than twelve trustees”.
  • Membership of most charity boards is supposed to be based on merit, judged against objective criteria after a skills audit.
  • In most charities, trustees are appointed for an agreed length of time. It is considered generally undesirable for trustees to serve longer than nine years without a rigorous review and a note of explanation in the annual report.
  • In most well-run charities, there is an annual review of their own performance, and an external evaluation every three years.
  • Most charities think increasingly seriously about diversity of membership and publish a description of what steps they are taking to address diversity and accessibility issues.
  • Most well-run charities believe in being transparent and accountable.

The challenge for the Charity Commission is that Christ Church – with its 65 trustees (or, as they are quaintly known, “students”) plus some former censors – doesn’t look remotely like a “normal” charity. Academics become de facto members of the governing body on appointment as a fellow. But while someone may be a brilliant biochemist, that has nothing to do with the skills necessary to oversee a charity. There are currently 62 around the table, with one vacancy, one in jail and one helping police with their enquiries into alleged papyrus theft.

While things ticked over reasonably well, the commission could turn a blind eye: “Oxford is Oxford: we do things differently” just about washed. But when things have gone so horribly, disastrously, excruciatingly wrong in Oxford’s grandest college, people have naturally asked why an immensely wealthy and elite institution has been able to disregard conventional instructions and guidance and govern itself as it sees fit. “One rule for them…”, as the current mantra goes.

Christ Church reacted to initial Charity Commission probings with a striking degree of insouciance. No, we can’t break down all the expenses we have incurred in hiring lawyers and expensive London PR firms to rid ourselves of the dean. No, we won’t give you unredacted minutes of our meetings. No, we won’t show you the legal advice we’ve received. No, we won’t give you all the details you want about how the money spent on getting rid of the dean was supervised, and by whom. No, we won’t give you all the documents you’ve asked for. And so on.

Imagine a charity in Bootle or Basildon treating their regulator in such a high-handed way. The commission’s response – to remind trustees that the penalties for incorrect, incomplete or misleading responses include fines or jail – suggests that patience is wearing thin. Christ Church has said it will be responding in due course. And, for the record, it believes not too much should be read into the commission’s warnings.

And then consider those who have been most active in agitating for the dean’s removal. One has been a trustee (predating the official charity status of the college) since 1987 – more than 34 years. Another looks to have clocked up more than 20 years (it is difficult to be precise: publicly available details are scarce). Another has notched up 31 years. A relative newcomer – but very influential – has been in position for 14 years.

Enough to raise an eyebrow in an average Bootle charity.

This steely behaviour from the regulator doubtless explains the unprecedented approach to the “students” of Christ Church from the vice-chancellor and chancellor of the university. They have no formal powers to intervene. But they will have been talking to other heads of house, most of whom preside over perfectly well-managed colleges and who fear that the ongoing shambles at Christ Church could have serious consequences for their own autonomy.

And then there is reputational damage to the university as a whole, given that few external observers make a distinction between the behaviour of an individual college and “Oxford” in general. The university has recently, under its outgoing vice-chancellor, Louise Richardson, begun to ditch its reputation for elitism and disdain for the conventions that apply to other institutions in higher education. How dismaying that one group of fellows in one college can generate so many destructive headlines over such a prolonged period.

Wherever your sympathies lie in the interminable blood-letting at Christ Church, it is difficult to deny that there has been a monumental failure of governance. How many millions of supposedly charitable funds have been spent on trying to dislodge the organisation’s leader? No one truly knows. How many more millions in donations have been withdrawn or withheld? The same. Could mediation have produced a different result? We don’t know – and the same is probably true of most trustees.

How many of these 65 trustees have asked why is it that when external eyes have independently considered the available evidence they have clearly found in favour of the dean? If they did, what answers did they receive?

How many trustees applied to read the closely guarded verdict of Sir Andrew Smith, an eminent high court judge, exonerating the dean – available to read, but kept under lock and key? How many questioned the considerable sums spent on more than one London PR company to promote the official narrative and blacken the dean’s name? Is that how charities are supposed to behave? Did any trustees query whether it was fair and reasonable that the dean should be denied his legal fees – even when he won? Is that how decent charities are run? How much have they been told of other regulatory probes into lawyers who have been engaged to represent the college?

The toll on the mental and physical health of the dean has been evident for all to see. Now the college is threatening to take him to yet another tribunal for not being resilient enough to run the college.

Is that how reasonable charities behave?

I should declare an interest. In November 2018, I met Martyn Percy at an official Oxford event. We barely knew each other, but he looked so thin and gaunt I worried he might be seriously ill. I tentatively asked after his health. Within a few days he cycled round to see me and told me a little of what had been going on. It seemed evident that he was receiving little support from his own colleagues: he had, in effect, been sent to Coventry.

Out of basic human goodwill, I offered moral support. This instinct to assist a colleague in trouble came to qualify me as being on Team Percy. This was considered a bad thing by some trustees of the charity that is Christ Church. One went to the trouble of ringing up a tabloid editor to try to smear me – before telling the same editor an outright, and hugely damaging, lie about his own dean.

So I got a tiny flavour of what it was like to have upset some trustees of this very powerful charity, which has more than £500m in the bank and isn’t afraid to use it.

The chancellor and vice-chancellor have discovered that they, too, will be in the firing line if they do dare to intervene. Leaked emails show trustees of this august educational charity recently conferring with expensive London PR consultants about the potential humiliating damage to the reputation of Richardson and chancellor Chris Patten (“a dinasour” [sic], scoffed one trustee) should they venture to meddle.

Think about that. The first instinct of an educational charity, asked for a meeting with its own chancellor and vice-chancellor, is to rush to an expensive West End PR agency (led by a former editor of the celebrity OK! magazine) for advice – and then discuss whether the damage to their leaders’ reputations could be terminal.

The latest steely intervention from the Charity Commission surely means that this four-year-old saga cannot continue in its opaque and profligate way. That is surely good news. But the longer-term implications for Oxford and Cambridge colleges may just be dawning.

Alan Rusbridger is editor of Prospect magazine. He was formerly editor-in-chief of The Guardian and principal of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford.

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Reader's comments (3)

This is an important article that needed to be written, yet it is surely flawed, for Rusbridger criticises the way Christ Church is governed as a charity; yet in only one important way is it governed any differently from any other college at Oxford and Cambridge, including LMH. And I can't see how mocking the institution for retaining the term "Student" for its fellows is meant to achieve anything other than trying to make a point not on the merits of the case but by snigger. Of course the college has demonstrated a failure of governance on a colossal scale, but such failures have been seen even at conventionally-run charities, so it surely behoves us to assume that the academics at Christ Church are no more wicked than at any other Oxford college, and thus try to understand how this miserable situation could have developed. My guess (though I have no special or inside knowledge) is that the Students of Christ Church are as professional a group of scholars as any at Oxford, but that they are frustrated by the necessity of electing a priest of the Church of England as their Dean. My guess is that the Students have found the limited field of potential candidates to be disappointing. Moreover, my guess is that it is more difficult to remove an unsatisfactory head of house at Christ Church (for that person has a dual appointment with the C of E) than at other colleges. The difficulties associated with dual academic/ecclesiastical appointments were highlighted in the Dartmouth College Case two centuries ago, and perhaps they are perennial. These are only my guesses, but I think we need to ask if there are structural problems with Christ Church's unusual governance that might have misled a group of otherwise-unexceptional scholars down a series of dreadful and misconceived steps that acquired their own path-dependent logic and thus apparently-irreversible momentum. And we can all, I'm sure, agree with Rusbridger that the time for external investigation and perhaps mediation has most certainly come. Terence Kealey
Yes I agree with your comment 100%. Mr Rusbridger‘s article is puzzling given he was a principal of an oxford college. As such he should be aware that most of them run a governing board comprised of their academics and will number from c40 to c70 trustees depending on the size of the college. Yes they each use particular terms reflecting their histories but a Student at Christ church is a fellow at another etc and the basic constitutions are similar. Also each of the college governing boards appoint a sub group to manage the college day to day. Some call them censors others wardens etc. Christ church appears to have been a reasonably well run college much as the others. The issue seems to be the dual appointment. On the one hand in a dispute between any board and its leader we would expect the leader to resign not the board. Whether that board was an NHS board, school governing board, private board of directors or MPs in parliament. On the other hand being Dean of a cathedral and providing ministry to a Diocese is a special mission and not one that can be easily resigned from. The college statues appear not to have been modernised to deal with this tension and realistically the only way forward is to end the dual aspect as has been done at other colleges notably Trinity college Cambridge in the last century.
I think the 'students' will benefit from study of this article. In general should the charity commission conclude that spending funds was inappropriate with the charitable purpose thus representing a financial loss to a charity and / or that the charity has failed in its duty of candour to the commission; things get tricky for the trustees. Each trustee is individually liable. Ignorance is not a legal excuse unless you can prove you took all reasonable steps to ascertain the facts here. This is what the author means by "how many questioned ", its the duty of trustee to question. What removes personal risk is emails or minutes showing that you as a trustee asked questions, made sure you were informed of the issues and took steps to satisfy yourself the actions were consistent with the charitable purpose. Being deceived or out voted or professionally mis-advised are valid defences. Not turning up to meetings because it was too awful or not reading papers because you were too busy or accepting verbal assurances from "senior" fellow trustees are not legal defences. The commission can punish trustees in the following ways "personally liable to replace the loss, be liable to criminal prosecution and /or be barred from being a trustee in the future". It can turn out rather costly personally to those involved if the commission bites rather than just barks.