Dons remain divided

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Nominations for candidates to University Council have revealed that eighteen months after the Vice-Chancellor’s failed governance reforms, dons remain divided into two camps.

When John Hood’s landmark reforms were rejected in December 2006, Hood wrote a letter to dons calling for the University to put what was a two year dispute behind them.

At the time he wrote that he hoped all members would “put aside division [and] continue…in an atmosphere of trust, tolerance and goodwill.”

Now it appears that he will leave Oxford with a legacy of division and dispute.

Four candidates are vying for two places on Council, the University’s elite governing body, and they appear to be split into two camps with differing views over how to govern the University most effectively.

A senior academic claims that there is a clear “division” between the two sets of candidates over approaches to the University’s governance.

He said, “It’s plain that there is an ongoing contest between the people who want to centralise things more and those who don’t, and these elections are a part of that,” he said.

The don added that under Hood’s leadership, proposals for reform have divided dons into factions which have continued.

“Hood’s period in office has served to wake people up. It’s perfectly plain: two groupings have emerged and remained. Hood has brought it out into the open and it’s going to stay out,” he said.

Two of the candidates for the election, Dr James Forder and Dr Jane Garnett, have received nominations from a number of dons who spoke out against the White Paper defeated by Congregation over a year ago.

The White Paper proposed fundamental reforms to the University’s system of governance, which opponents claimed would erode the current system of academic democracy.

The candidates have themselves previously opposed such reforms. In March, Forder used his oration as the outgoing Senior Proctor to underline his prioritisation of democracy and make a veiled criticism of reforms that would remove power away from dons.

He said to Congregation, “The benefits of all this nose-poking [that being a proctor requires] arise, one hopes, from the enrichment and defence of our democracy.”

He has also commented, “I am certainly in favour of maintaining the University as a self-governing community of scholars, but I do not think that there is now much serious challenge to that position, and certainly not from inside the University.”

The other two candidates, Dr Sally Mapstone and Professor Sarah Whatmore, have received nominations from dons who favour the centralisation of power in the University and from supporters of the Vice-Chancellor in the governance reforms debate.

This latest divide suggests that the University’s future is still marked by discord. However some dons have argued that the rift is neither as deep nor as harmful as it may appear.

Nicholas Bamforth, a fellow in Law at Queens College and an elected member of the University Council, said that the contested elections were healthy for the University, and upheld its democratic system.

He said, “It’s good that these elections are being contested: Oxford’s academic democracy helps make us a world-leading university, by contrast to places run by dull ‘managers’.”

Jane Garnett stated: “I am sure that all the candidates for election to Council are committed to the open and effective government of the University.”

Professor Susan Cooper, who nominated Forder, admitted that the nominations give the impression of a rift, but played down such a suggestion and stated that the University can still unite and move forwards.

She said, “It does appear that the candidates are split. That does not necessarily mean that this continues to be a deep divide in the University.

Cooper added, “I hope it isn’t and that we can move on from discussing governance to actually doing it – there are many important issues that need to be dealt with.”

Professor Cooper, a prominent supporter of academic democracy, was herself re-elected unopposed to Council this term, a possible indication of the way Congregation will swing when they return their votes before June 5. Bamforth described this result as “truly significant”.

He said, “She was one of the leading lights in last year’s governance debates and is a truly effective member of Council.

“If those who want to silence democratic debate had wanted to take on anyone, she would have been the person to beat – and yet, no-one came forward to oppose her,” he added.

A spokesperson for the University declined to comment on the matter.


Governance Reforms

February 2005
Hood’s proposals, first put forward in a Green Paper published in February 2005, would have seen the size of Council cut to 15 from 25, of which seven would be University members and seven external.
Opponents suggested that the reforms would impinge on academic freedoms.

December 19, 2006
In a postal ballot of Congregation, academics rejected the reforms by 1,540 votes to 997.

Prior to defeat the Vice-Chancellor wrote a letter to all dons asking for the University to unite and move forwards regardless of the result.

June 5, 2008
Voting closes on nominations for two Council positions. The four competing candidates appear to be split into two camps based on their attitude towards governance reform.

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