The Management of the University of Oxford…. Facing the Future

950

John resigned as Director of Oxford University’s Said Business School in July 2000. A year and half later, he breaks his silence to talk about some of the frustrations of attempting to help the university face up to the challenges of the twenty first century.

The University of Oxford is one of Britain’s great institutions.

It commands depths of affection and respect that are envied by universities the world over.

Yet today there is also a sense of malaise, both inside and outside the University: a belief

that Oxford finds it difficult to adapt to changing educational and social needs, a fear that

it can no longer maintain its historic pre-eminence.

There is real cause for this

disquiet. My object here is not to address the substantive, and difficult, question of how

Oxford needs to change to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century. It is to discuss,

from my own experience, a prior issue: why it is that the University, as presently

constituted, is unable to address this question.

It is not easy to describe the

governance structure of the University of Oxford. The difficulty is not just my own.

Management consultants Coopers and Lybrand, reporting on this governance structure, noted

that “in one of our meetings, the expression of bewilderment by one person was explained

by others as being due to the fact that he had been in Oxford for only seven years.”

The essential point is that the University has no structures of authority,

responsibility and accountability, and many of its officers and members have no real concept

of such structures. The system is best described as a morass of committees with ill-defined

and overlapping jurisdictions.

I once spent an entertaining half-hour going through

the terms of reference of committees on which I sat, highlighting words that were euphemisms

for “meddle”. By this I meant phrases that conferred the right to be involved in a

decision, but not the obligation to take responsibility for its consequences. I identified

terms such as “monitor”, “have oversight of”, “propose”,

“liaise with”, “advise” – even, delicious phrase, “be recognised as

having an interest in”. Almost every paragraph included some such words.

The

important practical consequence of this miasma is not the waste of time and paper, large

though that is. It is the absence of any means of resolving contentious issues in a

consistent way, or often at all. As Coopers and Lybrand observed “in many cases,

University decisions are not specifically made at all, they just emerge and it is often

difficult to tell at what point a discussion became a decision.”

Both government

and corporate bureaucracies are similarly afflicted with committees designed to diffuse and

deflect responsibility. But there is no doubt in either case that ministers or senior

executives have the authority to make decisions, that they are identified with these

decisions, and that they are accountable for the consequences of their decisions.

In

Oxford there is no equivalent. The only source of ultimate authority is Congregation – the

“parliament” of all the faculty of the University, some 3000 in number. The

impracticality of Congregation as a forum for decision-making is so clear that one came to

learn that the comment “this might have to go to Congregation” was, with some

reason, regarded as a very powerful argument against a proposal.

In the absence of an

effective means of resolving issues, a number of devices were employed. The most frequent was

simply to avoid raising any matter that might lead to dissension. This process of evading

issues was called “building consensus” and was a universal recipe for inaction. The

institution clings so tightly to this custom that to raise a contentious issue will invite

opposition to it on the simple ground that the proposal is contentious.

Often, such

opposition is rationalised as an objection to the way in which the proposal has been brought

forward. In my time at the University, I do not think I encountered a single person who

admitted they were opposed to the University establishing a business school. But I heard

dozens of ostensible objections to the process and procedures used in its establishment. And

because the process and procedures of the University are so ill defined there is always an

arguable case for these procedural criticisms.

Other ways of avoiding decisions

included deferral. Since time is not valued and urgency is not felt, it is thought

unreasonable to resist the suggestion that decision be delayed. Referral to another committee

is an effective means of procrastination. Ambiguity – the search for a means of describing a

discussion that appears consistent with every different view that has been expressed – is yet

another device for avoiding real decision. These mechanisms are used endlessly.

Some

decisions are made by examining precedent. At first it puzzled me why so much time was spent

discussing whether a proposed action had a precedent – whether it resembled some action which

had been taken before – and so little reviewing the substantive merits of the action itself.

I came to realise that since you did not have a means of making a new decision you could

sometimes arrive at a conclusion by asserting that the issue was predetermined by a decision

that had already been made. And because this procedure is so often used, it aggravates the

problem of making any new decision: such a decision might have unforeseeable implications in

future discussion of quite different matters.

The procedure was eloquently satirised

by Francis Cornford in Cambridge a century ago

The Principle of the Wedge is that

you should not act justly now for fear of raising expectations that you may act still more

justly in the future – expectations which you are afraid you will not have the courage to

satisfy. A little reflection will make it evident that the Wedge argument implies the

admission that the persons who use it cannot prove that the action is not just. If they

could, that would be the sole and sufficient reason for not doing it, and this argument would

be superfluous.

The Principle of the Dangerous Precedent is that you should not now do

an admittedly right action for fear you, or your equally timid successors, should not have

the courage to do right in some future case, which, ex hypothesi, is essentially different,

but superficially resembles the present one. Every public action which is not customary,

either is wrong, or, if it is right, is a dangerous precedent. It follows that nothing should

ever be done for the first time.
(Microcosmographia Academica, being a guide for the young

academic politician )

The result of these practices is that although there are

endless meetings very little time is ever spent debating real issues, far less resolving

them. Discussion is largely devoted to procedures, to precedents, to forms of words, and to

the interpretation of ambiguous forms of words which were been agreed at previous

meetings.

What Cornford correctly perceived was that precedent is relevant only in an

institution that lacks confidence in its present and future ability to reach conclusions on a

rational basis. Sadly, little has changed in the last hundred years.

If you cannot

decide, it is hard to say yes but also hard to say no. One instance of this indecisiveness

was a running sore for me. The Oxford Centre for Management Studies had been established, in

loose association with the University, but outside it, at a time when Oxford was highly

ambivalent about a business school. While the Centre had kept the torch of management studies

burning by the Isis, it had not succeeded in establishing a strong reputation in the business

world or in achieving intellectual credibility within Oxford itself. When the University

wished to develop a business school, a number of alternative courses of action were

available. It could restructure the Centre and use it as the basis for its new initiative; it

could close the Centre; it could let it develop outside the University; it could establish

its new institution and merge the older one into it.

The University did not adopt any

of these alternatives, since each might have been contentious, and it may not have had the

power to implement any of them. Instead a bizarre series of events was allowed to unfold.

Following a donation from Sir John Templeton, the Centre changed its name to Templeton

College. Although this institution was not a college of the University of Oxford and did not

resemble one, it formed an aspiration to achieve recognition as a college. The University

procrastinated, sought to impose (but did not enforce) conditions on admission, and

eventually gave in. In consequence, there is a charitable foundation on the edge of the

Oxford bypass, whose principal business is to run corporate training courses for junior and

middle managers who have no other connection with the University. The University does not

admit students to these courses; nor does it supervise, accredit, or derive revenue from

them. But Templeton College enjoys the governance arrangements and status within the

University of foundations such as Balliol and Christ Church.

Since it would have been

difficult to find anyone outside Templeton College itself who really thought this arrangement

was a good idea, it is reasonable to ask how it happened. The resolution of contested issues

can be postponed for many years by avoiding discussion, by deferral, by ambiguity, by

referral to other committees, and by other forms of procrastination. But eventually these

devices run out. If a small group of people is sufficiently persistent, it stands a good

chance of getting what it wants, after a long delay. This is true however small the group and

however weak the merits of its case.

Quality control requires clarity and firmness.

These standards are acceptable: these other activities are not. So the lack of either clarity

of firmness is potentially disastrous for an institution with aspirations to high standards.

I was involved in an assessment of a probationary lecturer. The case was entirely clear. The

individual concerned had poor teaching evaluations and a thin research record: an external

assessor from a redbrick University affirmed that the person concerned would not qualify for

tenure at his own institution. Both Oxford and the individual would have been better off if

the lecturer had been translated to a post at a less exalted University. This solution could

easily have been arranged.

But Oxford is full of kind and well-meaning people, so

non-renewal would have been contentious. I learned that a decision not to renew the contract,

even if agreed by all the senior academic staff at the business school, would have to go

first before a committee of sixteen people (several more junior than the individual

concerned) and would then have to be reviewed by a still larger committee. That committee

would contain nobody with any knowledge of the subject or of business education, but which

might well overturn the original recommendation: it would certainly scrutinise procedure in

minute detail and seek common ground between conflicting positions. It was apparent that

non-renewal was simply impracticable.

A further consequence of this fundamental

inability to resolve contested issues is that there can be nothing that the world outside

would recognise as budgeting, resource planning, policy or strategy formation, since

difficult choice is the essence of all of these activities. The lack of such procedures means

that in reality there is no management process at all.

This absence of management

process is illustrated in the Coopers and Lybrand report, which describes three new

initiatives: the extension of two courses, and the establishment of an Institute of Molecular

Medicine. It is an agreed convention that in recognition of the budgetary pressures on the

University, no new initiative will today be considered unless it is claimed by its proposers

that it requires the expenditure of no additional resources. Such assertions are obviously

untrue – how can it be seriously suggested that you can extend the length of a course by a

year without additional resources – they are rarely effectively challenged. This is partly

from na•veté, partly from the desire to avoid disagreement, partly by dint of

lobbying by the advocates of the initiative. Since all proposals supposedly have no cost,

there can be no meaningful discussion of different uses of the University’s resources, and

there is inevitable acrimony when the implications of a proposal in due course emerge. This

is exactly what happened in the establishment of a business school.

Thus, the

University proceeds by a mixture of general inertia and random initiatives. The business

school was the largest of recent initiatives. When I was appointed as its Director, it was

clear to me that the first priorities were to establish a strategy for the school’s

development, to identify the early steps needed to implement that strategy, and to put

forward proposals for the operational management of the school.

The preparation of a

strategy went well. I held enthusiastic meetings with senior colleagues. We spent a day with

all our management faculty discussing and formulating a draft strategy document. The paper

runs to fifty pages, defines the immense potential of a business school in Oxford, and I am

still proud of it. My hope was that we could discuss this strategy with the University and,

after clarifying what the University expected from its business school, begin the

implementation of an agreed policy.

At this point, the process ran into the ground.

The University had no mechanism for proceeding with such discussions. I was advised that I

had to turn the document into specific proposals which would then be considered individually

by diverse relevant committees. Of course, this approach missed the point. A plan to

establish a new institution rests on a serious of interlinked initiatives. You cannot discuss

courses, staffing and buildings independently of each other, even if there were different

committees for all these things.

But protests were to no avail. The draft document

was circulated to senior officers of the University. I do not know whether any of them ever

read it – certainly I never received a single comment or reaction. The only serious

discussions of the document outside the embryonic business school were with our business

advisory council and with Mr Said’s trustees. Both these groups consist of people well

accustomed to the idea that agreeing objectives and strategy and decentralising

responsibility for implementation are the means by which organisations normally undertake new

ventures. They offered valuable feedback. The University was unable collectively to engage in

the process of determining strategy. Its method of doing business was to await specific

proposals, to which it would react through the usual mechanisms of deferral, referral, and

criticism of the process by which these proposals had been brought forward.

So we

moved on to such specifics. The burning questions to be resolved were the relationship

between the School and Templeton College, and the problems of salaries and recruitment. I

lost count of the number of times I was asked to explain the relationship between the

University’s business school and Templeton College, especially to potential corporate

supporters. But I could not explain it, because I could not understand it myself. Nor could

the College, as is evident from Templeton’s extensive press advertising, and its website. I

inherited an entire drawer of a filing cabinet, containing records of discussions going back

to 1982 on the relationship between the University and Templeton College: but the discussions

had no conclusions.

I was present at similar discussions for a further two years;

these added to the volume of paper but contributed nothing to any resolution. Officers of the

University exerted no influence to secure such a resolution, and urged us to seek refuge in

further ambiguity. The plan was that we would announce to the world that there was an

agreement on the complementary roles of the institutions, although we would have been unable

to explain the nature of the agreement because none could be reached. I encountered

considerable hostility by resisting this notion. When there are conflicting interests, and no

mechanism for adjudication, discussions can continue interminably, and these did. I expect

they are proceeding still.

We encountered the same crippling incapacity to reach a

conclusion in relation to salaries and recruitment. It is not possible to attract

internationally distinguished business school faculty if a newly appointed lecturer is paid

less than £20,000 and the standard professorial salary is around £40,000. (Would

you listen to a lecture on corporate finance or option pricing from someone earning for less

than the pay of the receptionist at an investment bank?) But the University of Oxford, like

other universities, cannot afford to pay all its staff at rates necessary to attract capable

business school teachers.

Arguments for salary equality which should not be lightly

dismissed. One of the strengths of Oxford is the cross-disciplinary nature of its colleges,

and that solidarity risks being eroded if two colleagues are paid radically different

amounts, not because of differences in distinction, experience or achievement, but simply by

virtue of the marketability of their skills. Still, if it is to maintain that egalitarian

stance, the University has to abandon aspirations to establish a business school and will – as is happening – find it increasingly difficult to teach subjects such as economics,

engineering and law.

But although I spent many, many hours at meetings discussing

salary questions, this fundamental issue was never discussed. Since the substantive problem

could not be resolved without contention, it was not allowed to arise. Sometimes the meetings

focused on deferral – I was criticised for my insistence on raising now an issue that might,

in some unspecified manner, be settled in the future. There was much discussion of precedent – could we discover some previously adopted salary practices which, however spuriously, might

resemble the present case? But the greatest time was devoted to the search for ambiguity – could we establish a formula that in fact paid people more while appearing not to do so? In

the end this approach offered no real answer: when it comes down to it, people are either

paid more or they are not. After two years of these perambulations, we were no closer to any

resolution.

At one level, the mental dexterity that went into these exercises was

impressive. Yet their principal characteristics were irresolution and ineffectiveness, and

endless time was spent on evasion and little on issues of real substance. There was always an

element of ritual, of games played according to arcane and implicit rules. The vast majority

of participants had worked in Oxford for all or most of their careers. They had virtually no

knowledge or experience of the business or commercial world, and little knowledge of other

organisations. They had spent much of their lives learning the Oxford processes, and did not

recognise their peculiar and idiosyncratic nature, although there was a certain pride in the

uniqueness of the Oxford way. Some individuals of outstanding ability and external reputation

arrived in Oxford from elsewhere, but for the most avoided entanglement in the central

affairs of the University.

The incoherent and committee-based nature of the governance

structure poses particular problems for those who hold University posts, such as

Vice-Chancellor, or Director of a Business School. These officers have executive titles, but

virtually no executive authority. They enjoy responsibility without power, the converse of

the power without responsibility embedded within University committees.

Such jobs are

profoundly unattractive – for myself, ultimately impossible – to undertake. Certainly for

anyone who wants to do anything substantive. Consequently the posts are often occupied by

people who enjoy the processes of the University for their own sake; or those who relish

prestigious titles even if the powers they have do not correspond to the title. More often,

senior positions and membership of committees are filled by academics with a strong sense of

obligation to Oxford as an institution: they wish to contribute, but feel deeply frustrated

by the time they are wasting, and long to return to their proper duties of teaching and

research.

It is difficult or impossible for people outside Oxford, used to normal

management processes, to deal with those who hold executive titles but who do not have

executive functions. Outsiders expect to negotiate agreements with responsible officers on

the basis that the results of such negotiation will be honoured. But this expectation cannot

be satisfied, because the individuals who conduct the negotiations lack appropriate

authority. This situation was a constant source – at first of incomprehension, then of

frustration – to Mr Said, who spent five years trying to persuade the University to accept a

£20m gift.

It is difficult to exaggerate how damaging to the University this

problem is. One day, the consequences will prove directly costly to the institution, when

people inside or outside refuse to accept the excuse that apparent commitments cannot be

fulfilled because no-one ever had authority to make them, and become litigious rather than

merely angry.

But the indirect costs are already very large. The consequential

inability to engage effectively with the world outside limits the capacity of the University

to undertake new initiatives and reinforces inward-looking instincts. Discussions with an

outside body that do not proceed along already well-trodden paths will – at best – be

immensely protracted. Apparent conclusions prove to be no more than the basis for yet a

further round of prevarication. This state of affairs is demotivating for those inside – if

the prospective arrangement is in any way novel, one is daunted by the prospect of

interminable discussion and delay – and frustrating for those outside, whose initial goodwill

towards the institution is so often dissipated.

What was – is – evidently needed is to

co-opt the enthusiastic support which is so readily available to the University. With my

business school colleagues I sought to establish a governance structure that would enable the

Business School, at least, to make decisions. We put forward proposals under which an

executive committee of the School would have reported on operational matters to a Board made

up of senior members of the University and experienced outsiders – we identified a group of

non-executive directors whose services any corporation would have killed to have – and on

academic matters to a University committee. This corresponds, more or less, to the way in

which successful academic institutions around the world are run.

I was not successful

even in securing serious discussion of these suggestions. The substantive involvement of

senior business people in discussion and decisions was particularly objectionable. It had

been discovered that they were liable to be critical of Oxford’s processes and the best means

of dealing with this was to keep them at arm’s length. This position was defended by

reference to assertions of democracy and academic integrity. These assertions were spurious.

It was often embarrassing to contrast the rigorous insistence of outside supporters of the

University on the maintenance of the highest academic standards with the constant willingness

of university officers to fudge and compromise in the interests of domestic harmony. The

essential problem of Templeton College – that it had not managed to reach academic standards

consistent with the reputation of the University of Oxford – was widely recognised outside

the University but could never be acknowledged or articulated, far less addressed, within the

University itself.

The clarity of responsibility I sought was not the Oxford way, and

by diluting the role of committees would undermine Oxford’s ostensible democracy. It was at

this point that I finally understood that the aspiration of creating within Oxford an

institution that could compete effectively with major international business schools could

not be realised within the context of Oxford’s current procedures and practices.

One

needs to ask how an institution that is quite so badly run as the University of Oxford can

have been successful for so long. The answer runs, I believe, broadly as follows. The art –

and it is not an easy art – of managing a successful academic community involves balancing

the essential need for pluralism and individual intellectual freedom with shared commitment

to the values and success of the institution. The decentralised collegiate structure of

Oxford, combined with its inchoate committee processes, sustained that balance for many

years. But this achievement depended on a high degree of social homogeneity among the members

of the University, a relatively slow-moving environment, and little external pressure. The

Oxford structure contained and contains no mechanisms either for making and reviewing

policies or for effective negotiation with the world outside. Faced with internal

heterogeneity, much greater outside pressure, and a rapid pace of change, this structure has

ceased to work.

For activities that are well established and reasonably successful –

and this is true of most of what Oxford does – paralysis of decision-making and an absence of

capacity to devise policy or strategy result in slow decline, but not immediate disaster.

Oxford is not collapsing, simply sliding gradually into mediocrity. One can argue about the

significance of published league tables, but there is no doubt that Oxford is losing its

pre-eminence among British academic institutions, and that these in turn are falling

increasingly behind the top US schools. While the power of the Oxford brand is still

extraordinary, and the quality of the best students, teaching and research remains

outstanding, an increasing amount of activity is mediocre and amateur. The University’s

presentation of itself compares poorly with that of much less distinguished institutions.

These characteristics are true of the University as a whole. The problems I faced in

the business school were more acute, partly because there was no history to rely on, but

mostly because a major new initiative required many decisions across a range of issues.

Without any mechanism for agreement and implementation of strategy, and without recognition

that it is often more important to make a decision than to debate yet again what the best

decision might be, or the process by which a decision should be arrived at, it is impossible

to create a distinguished new institution such as a world-class business school.

The

problems of Oxford are structural, and should not be blamed on individuals, most of whom are

able and well-intentioned. There is a comprehensive failure of leadership, but nothing worse.

A deplorable Oxford characteristic is the degree to which justified dissatisfaction with the

performance of institutions is held to be the fault of particular people. No doubt it is true

that if the Vice-Chancellor combined the management skills of Jack Welch, the communication

abilities of Tony Blair, the political acumen of Machiavelli, and the patience of Job, all

would be well. But effective management structures are those that can be operated through

people who are less than perfect. I was myself the constant victim of this feature of Oxford

life: it remains simply unbelievable to me that my inability to achieve the things that

obviously needed to be done was held to be my responsibility by the very people who denied me

the authority to bring them about.

There is a widespread perception within Oxford

itself that the governance structure is in need of reform: there has even been a recent

Committee of Inquiry, led by a former Vice-Chancellor, although the ultimate results of this

inquiry were of little consequence. But the capacity to generate reform internally is limited

by a lack of understanding of the nature of the problems.

These problems were well

identified by the Coopers and Lybrand report to which I have several times referred (prepared

as part of the background to the Committee of Inquiry). In passing, one might note that a

similarly devastating report into the governance of any other organisation, public or

private, would create expectations that the senior officers of that organisation would

immediately offer to resign. No one imagined even for a moment this would happen in Oxford.

Partly because those officers felt no responsibility – and largely had no responsibility – for the state of affairs that was revealed. But more seriously, and damagingly, because

Coopers’ comments – although made with obvious respect for the institution – were generally

brushed aside. There are those who think that that any criticism of the University or its

procedures – even from its own consultants or members – must be the product of

misunderstanding or malice.

As Coopers emphasised, the search for participative

democracy is doomed to failure. It is not just that an organisation of the size and

complexity of the University of Oxford cannot be run by an assembly of 3000 people, important

though that point is. It is also that even if they could do it, they should not. Any reader

of John Bayley’s admirable Iris and her Friends will recognise immediately that the

characters described are people who should be left free to develop the products of their

extraordinary and unique talents while others, with fewer intellectual gifts but more

relevant experience, worry about the level of student fees, the design of the reception area

in the new business school, and the salary paid to a new computing assistant.

The

inability to understand that democracy does not preclude delegation is quite general. The

construction of a business school is a £30m project and it was obvious to me that we

needed on our staff a technically qualified project manager, who could answer on our behalf

the questions constantly raised by the architects and engineers – questions, for example,

about the ventilation system or the materials to be used. I was refused permission to hire

such a person. I was told that in Oxford the normal, and appropriate, way of dealing with

such issues was to appoint – of course – a committee of academics.

There were two

parts to the misunderstanding here. The first concerns legitimacy. The key issue was not how

to make a good decision but how to make a proper decision, and that meant the involvement of

some committee. The second was an inability to understand that the real problem was one of

expertise – only by chance would a group of academics have any relevant knowledge or

competence. There was an incidental issue that hiring someone would cost money while the time

of academics, who should have been doing teaching and research, was assumed to be

free.

This problem went deep. All the support functions of the University – from

accounting to fundraising to marketing – are underpaid and underresourced. Professional

skills are not valued and the individuals who have them are not valued either. As a result,

the University fails to take advantage of the talents and often extraordinary commitment of

its non-academic staff, who in turn feel demoralised and fearful of any show of initiative.

This resistance to professionalism was particularly embarrassing for a new business school, obliged to compete with modern, well-managed institutions elsewhere. Oxford’s neglect of these essential support functions does not prevent the university spending disproportionate amounts on administration. Most of this expenditure, however, goes on detailed mechanisms of internal control and on the servicing of committees. The institution would be better off if most of these tasks simply ceased to be performed.

The notion that effective management and free intellectual inquiry are incompatible derives from the belief that if you give people authority to fix Iris Murdoch’s bookshelves they will soon start telling her what to write. This fear should not be discounted completely – there are people like that – but there are also ample means of safeguarding against them. The ideal of a community of scholars is well worth preserving, but we should be clearer about what it does, and does not, mean. The most vibrant academic institutions – like Harvard and Stanford today or Oxford in its g;pru days – are those which give scholars the financial and practical freedom to pursue the goals of scholarship. In a modern world, this is achievable – as at Harvard and Stanford – only through effective professional management of the institution.

It is widely understood in Oxford that the participative model has failed. Members of the university believe, correctly, that they are offered the appearance of participation but denied its reality. They think real authority has been assumed by someone else – the administration in Wellington Square or a clique of University politicos. They are not entirely wrong, because the paralysis of formal mechanisms has led to the parallel development of informal processes. When decisions are made, or meaningful discussions take place, it is often in secret and within groups with no formal status. In this way, a system which is notionally open and democratic is in fact the very opposite – a paradox noted by Coopers – and there is a lack of real integrity at its core. But these parallel processes are mostly concerned with minutiae of procedure or appointments, rather than matters of substantive policy. It is not that power has been usurped, it is that it is nowhere to be found.

I have already referred to the existence of a view in Oxford that criticism is the product of misunderstanding or malice. Some readers will receive these comments in just that vein. But nothing could be further from the truth. One of my great sadnesses was the number of people I met inside and outside the university who felt they had benefited greatly from their time at Oxford, who loved the institution and respected its core values, who wanted to help it adapt to a changing environment, and who found their efforts to do so rebuffed. Eventually I became one myself.

John Kay

25th October 2000

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