Friday, 30 April 2010

Professor G R Evans's Remarks

Professor G. R. Evans:
Madam Deputy Vice-Chancellor, can anything
persuade the Council to bend down and pick up this
gauntlet that it has thrown down and tip-toe away
hiding its blushes before the Regent House accepts its
challenge and there has to be a fight?
This is a matter where the Vice-Chancellor could
certainly take a lead, so that the most visible legacy of
her period in office does not become an ugly intrusion
in the corner of a beautiful fifteenth-century room.
Let me quote what the Vice-Chancellor said in her
Gomes Lecture in February:
An important university is – and must be –
simultaneously a community of scholars and a very
big organization, with operating and capital budgets
well in excess of a billion pounds annually in the case
of Cambridge, and substantial assets and liabilities.
Scholars make discoveries through independent
enquiry, informed by debate and argument within the
scholarly community. That modality does not work
well for the conduct of many of the affairs of a big
organization. The resulting tension is recognized in
Cambridge: the community of scholars delegates
operational authority to individuals, and it also
makes decisions by ‘democratic means’ – voting.1
The Vice-Chancellor is not here to preside at this
Discussion and respond in person on the record, but as
Chairman of the Council she will be in a position to
influence the content of the Notice in reply. It is
understood that she gave a strong lead in encouraging
the Council to publish the Report we are now discussing,
so she could certainly lead a rethink now. The Report
before us today should not have been seen by the
Council as a vote of confidence in the Vice-Chancellor.
That way lies the subtle consolidation of a Chief
Executive Vice-Chancellorship which was rejected by
the Regent House in Cambridge’s governance battles of
a few years ago. And even if they snap their fingers at
that, Council’s members would be wise to consider the
HEFCE-approved CUC guidelines about their
responsibility to act as a check on the executive power
of a Vice-Chancellor.
I see that five of the ‘elected’ members of Council
contributed a Dissenting Note. They remembered their
duty to uphold the Statutes. They said:
Statute A, VIII, 9(a)(ii) authorizes the Council to
block a ‘50-member’ Grace where there are good
reasons, such as if the Grace could not legally be
implemented or is out of time. The Report that
recommended such Graces said ‘the Syndicate
envisage that the Council’s authorization would be
withheld only on very rare occasions’. We do not
think the reasons given in this Report for withholding
authorization in this case are admissible reasons.
The Vice-Chancellor sought in her lecture to make a
‘modal’ distinction between the running of ‘a very big
organization, with operating and capital budgets well in
excess of a billion pounds annually in the case of
Cambridge, and substantial assets and liabilities’, and
the part played by its academics. She seemed to be
saying that ‘debate and argument within the scholarly
community’ is a ‘modality’ that ‘does not work well for
the conduct of many of the affairs of a big organization’.
So (I do wish she was here to put me right), she appeared
to be suggesting in her Gomes Lecture that
administration of the organization with its huge
financial responsibilities not only ought to be left, but
could safely be left to the Unified Administrative
But surely that is a safe position only if the
administrative arm does not make expensive mistakes?
The only time I recall a Vice-Chancellor actually
presiding at a Discussion in recent generations ‘because
of the significance of the issues raised … and the
implications that they carry for the future governance
of the University’ was the CAPSA Inquiry Discussion,
held on 27 November 2001, before the assembled press
who had been invited to the Discussion and lunched
beforehand in the Combination Room by the Press
Office. The Vice-Chancellor not only presided but made
an opening speech. Are memories so short that we have
all forgotten about that particular administrative
‘mistake’ with its huge financial consequences?
One of the recommendations of the Shattock part of
the CAPSA Inquiry was the enlargement of the UAS,
and it has been remarked more than once in this place
that that has been going on apace recently. But it is
admitted in the Report we are discussing that that
expansion of the administrative workforce has not
prevented mistakes, that ‘arrangements could indeed be
In the Report I can hear echoes of the fallacious
arguments of the Microcosmographia Academica. First
there is the ploy of taking an immensely long time and
then answering a different question from the one asked.
‘The Council regrets that the process by which the
decision to proceed with the lift was taken led to
controversy’. But we will not rectify what we did wrong.
We will just promise to be more careful next time.
Next we have the Good Businessman argument that
because we have mis-spent a vast amount of money,
questions of financial prudence now arise. If the
50-member Grace were to be put and approved, it is
claimed, it would involve ‘expenditure from University
funds additional to those already authorized’. This line
of argument would surely allow almost any 50-member
Grace to be stopped in its tracks, except that it is not for
the Finance Committee or the Council ultimately to
approve the additional expenditure but the Regent
House, and the Regent House must therefore be given
its chance, with the Council putting its ‘financial’ case in
a flysheet if it chooses, not in a blocking Report.
Then there is the argument that the expenditure so far
would be ‘abortive’ (who wrote this inexact piece of
prose?) if the lift were removed and the damage made
good. ‘The total abortive cost of the lift installation and
reinstatement to original condition would be £352,000’.
Wasted, they mean. But this expenditure, it will be
remembered, was deliberately increased when it became
obvious that it might be wasted, after a Discussion on a
Topic of Concern to the University had been called;
indeed work on the lift was restarted immediately before
the Discussion was held. It was further deliberately
increased when work was carried on in defiance of
concerns raised at that Discussion. It was increased
again by carrying on regardless when a 79-member
Grace was placed in the Registrary’s hands. If the work
had been stopped when it became apparent that that the
‘arrangements’ had gone wrong and that the Regent
House was getting angry, the sum of money aborted
would be considerably less.
When the Regent House delegates powers it is not
relieved of the responsibilities it has delegated. By
making this extraordinary blockading move in the
present Report, the Council, led by a Vice-Chancellor
who began her period of office on the heels of the
Regent House decision not to turn the office into a
Chief Executive post, has done what is famously the
most foolish thing, the thing experienced administrators
in the Old Schools in the old days would tell you they
avoided at all costs. What is this folly? It is to wake up
the Regent House from its gentle slumber. It is to set the
ancient democracy of the University of Cambridge at
nought, sniggering in its face. It is to say ‘we will do
what we like and if what we do turns out to be
unconstitutional or silly or aesthetically unacceptable
we will still do what we like, and if you try to exercise
the powers the constitution gives you and act like the
governing body you are, we shall not take a blind bit of
notice. We are the Management and you should confine
yourselves to your nice little scholarly activities. Don’t
argue with us. We have a big organization to manage
with “operating and capital budgets well in excess of a
billion pounds annually”’. The Regent House is quite a
big beast when it gets its dander up and I shall be
disappointed in its dander if it is not up now.
I won’t say this is no longer about the lift. The lift is
still of great importance. But it is now about much more
than the lift. If there is never any accountability for
serious mistakes made by senior figures they will never
learn. I do not mean initial errors made in good faith of
course. I mean ignoring constitutional challenge and
trying to beat it down rather than admit fault and take
the consequences. After CAPSA one or two heads did
eventually roll. But of course if the Management gets
away with this it will become unchallengeable by the
Regent House and no more heads will roll, whatever
culpable cock-ups occur. We might as well get the Vice-
Chancellor’s words in her Gomes Lecture engraved in
tasteful capitals over the entrance to the lift straight
away. Shouldn’t cost much.
1 Alison Richard, Vice-Chancellor, The 12th Gomes
Lecture, 12 February 2010

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