Dons have forced one of Vice-Chancellor John Hood’s key modernisers to resign from the University Council after a rebellion against giving him a new term in office.
Sir Victor Blank, who read history at St Catherine’s College and is Chairman of Lloyds-TSB, has announced that he will not seek re-election after seven years as a non-academic member of the Council.
Over the summer, the Council voted 15-2 to offer Sir Victor a new term of four years on the Council, the main policy-making body of Oxford University, responsible for academic position and strategic direction. It contains 26 members, of which 4 are non-academics.
Congregation, the University’s supreme government body composed of 4,000 academic and administrative staff, effectively blocked this proposal by collecting almost 250 signatures calling for a full debate and vote. With the prospect of a vote on his position being held on 26 September, Sir Victor announced that he would not seek re-election.
Sir Victor was eager to go forward with the debate and vote but was persuaded not to by John Hood, the University Vice-Chancellor. According to the Financial Times, Hood was concerned that the debate risked damaging the reputation of the University regardless of the outcome, which would have taken attention away from the launch of a new fund-raising campaign.
It was also feared that a row could cause difficulties for the Vice-Chancellor, who is due to decide whether he wishes to seek a two-year extension when his tenure in office ends in October 2009.
Hood’s term as Vice-Chancellor has already divided public opinion. In 2006, he proposed for Council to have a majority of non-academic members, which would have brought Oxford in line with all other British universities except for Cambridge. The current Council would have been replaced by a 15-member Council with 8 non-academic members, including the chairman. An amended proposal was defeated at a meeting of Congregation and a subsequent postal ballot of Congregation members was also rejected.
Mark Robson, Treasurer of Lady Margaret Hall, led the opposition to Sir Victor’s re-election. He claimed to be worried that allowing Sir Victor to stand for re-election would be contrary to the corporate governance principles espoused by Hood and his supporters in their arguments for reform.
Hood has previously argued that the University has to comply with the Committee of University Chairmen’s (CUC) code of practice, which advises that non-executive members should remain for no longer than nine years on Council.
Robson demanded that guidelines on terms of office should be adhered to by the University.
In a document circulated to senior academics in June, Robson said, "I am not, however, aware of any particular skill or expertise that he [Sir Victor] brings to bear that it would be impossible to find in any new external member of Council, such that it would be necessary to invoke the exception in the CUC code. […] To extend his term automatically to eleven years (or more) in the face of accepted best practice in corporate governance would, in my view, be a great institutional mistake at a time when the University’s governance arrangements remain under intense national, political and press scrutiny."
It is uncertain whether Sir Victor, a supporter of Hood, will remain on the committee that appoints the Vice-Chancellor. He had served on this committee when it recommended Hood’s appointment in 2003.
This is not the first time that Sir Victor has been involved in disputes with dons. In 2006 he used lawyers to obtain an apology from the Master of St Catherine’s College, Professor Roger Ainsworth, after sitting together on a committee investigating the distribution of ‘quantum’, the system for allocating money between colleges and the University.As chairman, Sir Victor sent the committee’s recommendations to Hood and the chair of the Conference of Colleges. Prof Ainsworth then wrote to the Conference of Colleges with a response, the content of which is not known. Sir Victor reacted to this by hiring the libel specialist law firm, Carter-Ruck, who succeeded in obtaining a retraction and an apology from Professor Ainsworth.