“How can we be so good, when we organise ourselves in this sclerotic way?” vice-chancellor Richardson asked in her Oration earlier this month. “How much better would we be if we made decisions faster, if we were to build more trust between us so that we could make decisions more expeditiously?” At a couple of other points in her excellent, misleadingly reported, speech, she makes feints in the direction of university centralisation. There can be no mystery about why the problem of centralisation is such an important one for our University. But the minimal proposals Richardson indicates we should consider seem to me perfectly sensible and totally innocuous.
It is a point that is often ignored at the student level: Oxford operates at a severe financial deficit relative to other (American) universities in its weight class. It has a fifth of Harvard’s endowment, a quarter of Yale’s, a third of Princeton and Stanford’s. When it comes to hiring the best faculty, all else equal, Oxford can be out-bought; when it comes to exciting new research initiatives, Oxford must be warier in its commitments. Much of this is no doubt attributable to a difference in alumni culture. But two observations. First, it is surely right that the quality of fundraising operations is variable across colleges. Secondly, this only increases the pressure on the University to make good use of its resources: not, as Richardson laments, employ the equivalent of 30 full-time employees on processing expense claims.
It is also undoubtedly the case that the collegiate structure is the source of much that is extraordinary about the University. Furthermore, there is a real question about how far Oxford can go in the direction of unity without becoming, at a deep level, a different institution. A remark by Jerry Cohen has considerable force in this connection: “in addition to the consideration of what good we might do… there is also the consideration of what we are, of our identity, and we may legitimately have regard to our desire to preserve that identity.” Cohen observes that a university might have a “central, organising self-conception”; that even if a change might be better for undergraduates, graduates and faculty, there can still be reason not to go along with it. But to make changes is not to change everything; and the journey towards centralisation does not strike me as one, that, once embarked upon, is impossible to stop until it has reached some far-away endpoint.
There is a final point that we should address, concerning sentiments of the faculty, with which I, as an undergraduate, must be unacquainted. In a recent survey, Oxford academics expressed greater satisfaction with their University’s administration than those of any other UK university. This should not be lost sight of in the push for international competitiveness, unless the process become self-undermining. The way the situation appears to students is quite plausibly entirely different from the way it strikes those more intimately involved; indeed it cannot be ruled out that students only have access to the most superficial level of a problem that runs much deeper.