Oxbridge’s internal politics players need closer peer scrutiny

As the Christ Church saga underlines, college trustees must ask probing questions if they are to fulfil their responsibilities, says Gill Evans 

March 1, 2022
People leaning deep into bushes to illustrate Oxbridge’s internal politics needs closer peer scrutiny
Source: Alamy

The settlement announced last month between Christ Church, Oxford and its dean, Martyn Percy, brought to a close a four-year wrangle that has reportedly cost the college millions of pounds and generated numerous negative headlines.  

But Percy is not the only head of an Oxford or Cambridge college to have left early in recent years. The internal politics of a college have come as a shock to more than one figure who has been appointed on the back of a successful, high-profile career outside academia, only to discover that they have nothing like the executive power they assumed they would have.

Oxford and Cambridge colleges are autonomous corporations with their own royal charters, linked with their university by virtue of their right to present students to it for matriculation – and thereby to make them students of the university, too. This leaves their governing bodies holding almost all the cards in their internal affairs. The statutes of Christ Church, for instance, state that “the disposal and management of [the college’s] possessions and revenues…shall be vested in the Governing Body, and all powers and authorities in connection with the [college] shall be exercised by the Governing Body”.

When C. P. Snow published The Masters in 1951, his story of a Cambridge college at war with itself lacked a crucial factor that weighed heavily in the recent Christ Church affair. Unlike then, Oxford and Cambridge colleges are now subject to supervision by the Charity Commission. It seems to have been the risk to the college’s charitable status that concentrated minds on Christ Church’s governing body and got it to agree not only to settle the dispute but also to allow a review of its governance.

The possibility that the Charity Commission might begin to take a very close interest in the governance of Oxford colleges, hinted at a week or two before the settlement was achieved, would threaten Cambridge ones too. For they are all alike in the behaviour that has brought Christ Church so many reputation-damaging headlines.

It is a familiar oddity of academic life that those who are fierce in defence of a particular scholarly view of a patch of knowledge will sit silently through an administrative meeting, too timid to raise an objection. That may allow two or three more outspoken colleagues to “acquire influence”, as Francis Cornford put it in Microcosmographia Academica, his 1908 sketch of Cambridge life.

Many years ago, as an Oxford graduate newly appointed to a Cambridge university post, I was offered a fellowship at a Cambridge college. It was during the period when all-male colleges were beginning to admit women and I found that I was the third newcomer to displease the same small group of fellows, who had been members of the college since they were students. Before I resigned to accept a fellowship at a different college, other fellows of the first college had begun to mutter that my treatment could befall them too, and the governing body swung round in my defence. It had been realised that it was dangerous to allow the two or three so destructively active in its internal politics to act unopposed. 

It would be no more possible to prevent such playing of internal politics in Oxford and Cambridge colleges than to purge it from Parliament. But better accountability could certainly be insisted on. Those driving the Christ Church dispute did not give all the members of its governing body copies of the judgment of the first internal tribunal in 2019, in which Sir Andrew Smith, a High Court judge, firmly dismissed all the allegations brought against the dean. Nor were they all provided with details of the huge expenditure of the charity’s money on legal fees in pursuit of the dean’s removal. All Oxford and Cambridge colleges are required to publish their financial statements, but those legal fees were tucked unidentified under other headings. Why did the fellows as a body not insist on transparency?

On the day when it agreed the settlement, the governing body had before it only the heads (summaries) of the proposals. A statement was read to it from an anonymous complainant demanding compensation for her alleged losses. Neither her standing nor her claims seem to have been questioned. Why was more information not demanded? Unless they ask probing questions, trustees cannot fulfil their responsibilities. 

For this purpose, Cambridge’s university council has a useful device. When it publishes a report with “recommendations” to be considered by the Regent House, the 5,000-strong group of academics that constitutes the university’s governing body, members of the council may sign a “dissenting note”. This is published with the report, and if it has a number of signatures, it carries weight.

The UK’s Parliamentary Code of Conduct has found itself in choppy waters lately, but it at least creates expectations of good behaviour. If it is the conduct of members, rather than the governance structure, that is the problem in Oxbridge colleges, perhaps the Charity Commission’s upcoming review could require their governing bodies to draw up and abide by similar codes.

Whatever your view of the particular rights and wrongs in the Christ Church affair, it is clear that steps must be taken to try to ensure that such a breakdown in effective college governance can never occur again.

G. R. Evans is emeritus professor of medieval theology and intellectual history at the University of Cambridge.


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