Speech given at a meeting of Congregation of the University of Oxford, 7 May 2019

Dr Duncan Robertson, Fellow of St Catherine’s

Vice-Chancellor, members of Congregation. I look around this room and see privilege.  Every one of us here in the Sheldonian Theatre is privileged; every member of Congregation reading the Gazette is privileged.  We are privileged not by our past but by our present: we all have the power to share in the democratic self-governance of the institution that is the Collegiate University of Oxford.

But democratic self-governance is hard.  It is time-consuming and troublesome, and is most easily left to specialists.  Specialists with a track record of delivering strategic plans at high speed.

The Vice Chancellor warned us of the dangers of high speed in her 2017 Oration, and I quote: Over 2,000 years ago Tacitus pointed out that ‘Truth is confirmed by inspection and delay; falsehood by haste and uncertainty’.

It is tempting to react quickly to short term opportunities in order to gain transient rewards, but this is, as my strategic management colleagues will confirm, often at the expense of more attractive opportunities foregone.  We must, at the very least, be able to give ad hoc proposals the service of being fully inspected.  The proposal to establish a new Society – or is it a College? – is a significant one, particularly when it is to have a distinctive culture as was the case with Templeton College before it.

The reason that an ‘education priority’ within the Strategic Plan has abruptly become a press release announcing Parks College, without the knowledge of Congregation, is that such proposals are now increasingly made without such scrutiny.  While the Strategic Plan was put to Congregation for approval, the Implementation Plan referred to within the Strategic Plan was not.  This ‘Plan within a Plan’ is administered by Programme Boards whose agenda and minutes are secret.  In short, Congregation does not know what is going on, and its ability to give informed consent is subverted.

One of the strengths of Oxford that sets it apart from its ‘competitors’ is its self-governance.  This has allowed the University to evolve and adapt to a changing environment, and mercifully not be suffocated by the latest management fads and fashions.  It is bewildering that ‘Senior Managers’ do not appear to recognize the capabilities available to them within Congregation, preferring to operate in a more comfortable ‘command and control’, top-down fashion.  If strategy is imposed, we as a University lose the ability to adapt and to take advantage of opportunities that may emerge – opportunities that may not be visible from the board room but are visible from the diversity of perspectives that each one of us holds as a unique member of Congregation.

The combined organizational capabilities of Congregation – all members of Congregation, experts in their own fields whatever they may be – are truly awe-inspiring.  It is not always easy to find consensus, but that does not mean that this University should give up and follow the lowest common denominator of managerial hubris.

Congregation must be allowed to review and guide the Legislative Proposal to create Parks College prior to giving its approval. The Strategic Plan spoke of creating a new College by 2023, not a new Society in 2019.

The Nolan Committee on Standards in Public Life was established 25 years ago.  The principles of openness and accountability which it set out are as relevant now as they have ever been.  I urge you to vote against the Legislative proposal while we still have the right to exercise that privilege.

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