AROUND THE YEAR 870, a bridge was built across the river Cam in England. In 1209, in that location, by then named Cambridge, one of the world's first universities was established. Nearly eight hundred years later, Cambridge University appointed its 344th and most recent president, or vice chancellor (VC),1 Alison Richard. Richard is the first woman to lead Cambridge University. She is a distinguished anthropologist who spent her academic career at Yale University, from which in 2003 she left the position of provost to join Cambridge. Just a year later, in 2004, another long-standing English university installed its 270th vice chancellor, John Hood. Hood became the first head of Oxford University since the year 1230 to be elected to the vice chancellorship from outside the university's current academic body. Indeed Hood, a New Zealander, is not an academic. He spent most of his career in business.2
Why did Cambridge and Oxford choose two such different individuals to lead their ancient institutions?
The same year that Alison Richard boarded an eastbound jet, the Nobel Prize—winning biologist Paul Nurse left England for New York to become Rockefeller University's ninth president. He is not the only Nobel laureate to run a top American institution. David Baltimore, who stood down as president of the California Institute of Technology in 2006, is also a Nobel Prize winner, as is J. Michael Bishop, chancellor of the University of California, San Francisco. Indeed California has some of the most distinguished scholars in the world leading its universities. John Hennessy, at Stanford, is a prominent computer scientist; Robert Birgeneau, a Canadian who heads Berkeley, is a top physicist. At the University of California (UC), San Diego, Chancellor Marye Anne Fox is an eminent chemist, and at UC Irvine, the renowned atmospheric scientist Ralph Cicerone was chancellor until he left his position in 2005 to head the National Academy of Sciences. The University of California is arguably one of the best public university systems in the
1 A vice chancellor is the principal academic and administrative officer or CEO, akin to
a university president or rector. In this book the term president will normally be used to
denote the head of a university, though other titles may also be referred to interchangeably.
2 Interestingly, at the time of writing it was announced that John Hood would be re-
placed as head of Oxford University by Andrew Hamilton, another former provost from