An object lesson in prevarication: Oxford University

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Oxford University is still one the world’s greatest academic institutions. To rise to fresh challenges in the twenty first century it must begin to address the ineffectiveness of its proceedings.

“You should say what you mean,” the March Hare went on.

“I do” Alice hastily replied “at least, I mean what I say – that’s the same thing you know”

“Not the same thing a bit!” said the Hatter

Alice in Wonderland

“Why doesn’t anyone say what they mean, or mean what they say?” My questioner had recently arrived in Oxford University – where Lewis Carroll had spent his adult life. We had sat together through one of its interminable committee meetings.

Oxford is still one of the world’s great academic institutions. The respect and affection which it commands is unparalleled. Such feelings led us to try to suppress our anger and frustration at the ineffectiveness of its proceedings.

But there was something surreal about these occasions. It is hard to describe an institution with no structures of authority, accountability or responsibility. A morass of committees, with ill-defined and overlapping responsibilities. The important consequence was the absence of any means of resolving controversial issues, as I write in the current edition of Prospect.

Five years ago, Oxford’s then vice-chancellor established a commission of inquiry into governance and asked Coopers and Lybrand to look at the university’s organisation. Coopers found matters hard to penetrate. ‘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.’ But the firm identified the absence of a means for making decisions as the key issue.

It was often not certain whether a decision had been made, or what it was. The university had resolved to have a business school but that resolution seemed not to carry any commitment to things needed to make the project happen. Had Merton College been assured that the site earmarked for the business school would forever be a green field? Had Templeton College been told that the university’s business school would not offer executive education?

Both parties concerned had reasonable grounds for believing in such commitments. Others, including myself, had equally reasonable grounds for believing that directly contradictory commitments had been made. In both cases, there was no clear record of what had been decided in the past, and neither the ability nor the inclination to determine the matter now. In a fog of inconclusiveness, the only safe thing to do is nothing,

Several devices were used to avoid decisions. The most frequent was simply to avoid raising any potentially contentious issue. This process was called ‘building consensus’ and was a universal recipe for inaction. Deferral to the next meeting, or referral to another committee, were standard.

The search for ambiguity or precedent were more subtle. University politicians built careers by crafting forms of words that appeared to reconcile diametrically opposite views.

At first it puzzled me that so much time was spent discussing whether a proposed action had a precedent, and so little discussing the substantive merits of the action itself. I came to realise that if you could not make a decision, you could sometimes resolve an issue by asserting that the decision had already been made.

The procedure was elegantly satirised by Francis Cornford the Cambridge classicist a century ago “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.”

Those who hold university posts have executive titles, but no executive authority. They enjoy responsibility without power, the converse of the power without responsibility embedded in university committees.

The positions are often occupied by those who relish prestigious titles, even if their powers do not correspond to the title. Some people enjoy the processes of the University for their own sake. The tone of meetings is set by a coterie of political dons who spend their day cycling from committee to committee. Most have spent all or virtually all of their careers in Oxford. They did not realise the peculiarity of the processes they engaged in, although they took a pride in the intricacies of the Oxford way.

There are people of great expertise and distinction in Oxford – scholars who give the institution its academic reputation, outsiders who have become heads of colleges. But they mostly avoided major entanglement in the central processes of the university. Most members of committees are ordinary academics who want to contribute, but feel frustrated by the time they are wasting and long to return to teaching and research.

It is easy to mock these procedures, but the consequences for the institution are profoundly serious. Oxford has nothing that can be recognised as policy, strategy, resource planning or budgeting. The same is true of quality control, which by its nature is not a consensual matter. The best work in Oxford is still outstanding, because its reputation continues to attract able dons and students. The key issue is whether Oxford in the twenty-first century can hope to rival the best academic institutions in the United States. Today that is very much in the balance.

Cambridge shares many of Oxford’s problems, but is better placed. The greater importance of science, a different relationship between university and colleges, and stronger leadership, have allowed it to maintain greater self-confidence. Still, many of the recent significant initiatives in Cambridge have wholly or partly bypassed established procedures and processes. Only outside the hopeless confusion of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party can either university seize the opportunity to create business schools.

What can be done? The process of internal reform failed: its most important change was to introduce a new layer of committees – divisions – a process that brought the university no nearer addressing its central problems. How to assert academic elitism while avoiding social elitism. How to pay what is needed to attract top scholars but yet maintain internal cohesion. How to retain the strengths of Oxford’s institutions – its colleges and its tutorials – in the face of external change The fact is that despite hundreds of committees there is no forum in which these questions are discussed.

Oxford’s problem is not lack of resources. It is funded more generously by government than other British universities and its endowments are considerable. More importantly, the Oxford name is magic. An Oxford which understands that most of its future funding will come from the private sector, and which is ready to engage with the world outside, can, like Harvard and Stanford, attract resources far greater than institutions of nearly comparable quality.

A possible direction of change is disintegration of the central institutions of the university. The medical school could become independent, and some major science departments effectively so. The future for the humanities in this scenario can only lie in richer colleges sponsoring subject specialisms Oxford’s centre makes the university less than the sum of its parts. It does not provide the quality control and strategic direction which are its proper functions, but it does interfere with every initiative by faculties and departments.

However, it would be better to re-establish an effective university. In the nineteenth century, a Royal Commission began the transformation of a decaying institution into a great university. The same device could be employed again, if such a Commission could be insulated from the envy of those who resent the very concept of elite academic institutions. Better still, perhaps, would be a stimulus from government and outside supporters to those in Oxford who have the qualities of leadership required to give the institution direction. A silent majority in Oxford knows that revitalisation is required. It needs voices.

“The question is” said Alice “whether you can make words mean different things”.

“The question is” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all”

Through the Looking-Glass

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