Magazine article The Spectator

Is Oxford about to Get Rid of Its Vice-Chancellor?

Magazine article The Spectator

Is Oxford about to Get Rid of Its Vice-Chancellor?

Article excerpt

Forget Tony Blair's problems for a moment -- Sir Paul McCartney's too -- and concentrate instead on those of a rather more cerebral national figure: the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford, Dr John Hood. Word from the university is that his days in office are numbered.

Dr Hood, a polished 54-year-old New Zealander, has been a controversial figure ever since his appointment in October 2004. That's hardly surprising. He was, after all, the first vice-chancellor to be headhunted from outside the university's academic body in its 900-year history. Not only that, but hostility to his election was compounded by the appointment -- apparently on Hood's recommendation -- of Julie Maxton, a fellow Kiwi and former colleague, to Oxford's second most senior position of Registrar.

Congregation, a somewhat motley 3,000strong parliament of dons, has objected to Hood's plans to reform the university's governance, published in February last year in his green paper on Academic Strategy.

Hood proposed introducing a newly structured ruling council at the top of Oxford's hierarchy, consisting of a majority of executives brought in from outside the university.

The green paper was voted down in May this year by Congregation. It has since been revised and is now to go before Congregation on 14 November as a white paper. If that is also rejected, Hood would seem to have little alternative but to resign.

It's not all been wailing and whingeing, however. Hood's popular predecessor Sir Colin Lucas, vice-chancellor of Oxford from 1997 to 2004, has come out in support of Hood's radical plans. And Hood must have been doing something right: Oxford was placed third in the Times Higher/QS World University Rankings for 2006. But, as Hood acknowledged in his inaugural address, Oxford had achieved its recent success 'despite persistent and serious fiscal constraints'; and in the university rankings Harvard once again pipped Oxford and Cambridge (second) to the post.

And that's really the point. One reason Harvard beat Oxford and Cambridge is that it is hugely wealthy. There is a vast financial schism between the American universities and their British counterparts. Harvard's endowment of just under £14 billion dwarfs the annual funding for all British universities.

When Hood became vice-chancellor, he took responsibility for devising a solution to the widening fiscal and academic gap between Oxford and its Ivy League rivals.

To that end he has conducted a worldwide search for the most experienced names in university financing, and last October he appointed Jon Dellandrea in the new role of Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Development and External Affairs). Dellandrea, a Canadian formerly with the University of Toronto, is credited with having raised more than a billion dollars through fundraising during one campaign in 2003.

Without sound financing in place at Britain's top institutions, American universities threaten to dominate not only those scientific fields where one would expect research levels to correspond directly with investment, but across the board. Recently a big stir was created when Salman Rushdie sold his archive to Emory University in Georgia, an establishment that already possesses the complete manuscripts of the former poet laureate Ted Hughes. Reform and financial incentives of the sort envisaged by Hood are essential to attract modern writers, in all disciplines, to archive their works in Oxford and not abroad. …

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