Oxford’s new chancellor must not be woke

Oxford University
Oxford University

It was pretty well inevitable that where American universities led on the Palestinian campus protests, Britain would follow. Yesterday that included students at Oxford and Cambridge. Whatever view you take of the arguments, what emerged from the American experience is that the leadership of these institutions is terrifically important when it comes to how they are managed.

Well, the top post at Oxford is up for grabs now that Chris Patten, the last governor of Hong Kong, is resigning as Chancellor. And while the Chancellor is lofty and doesn’t get involved in the day to day running of the university (that’s more the vice-chancellor’s job), you could say that he or she sets the tone for the institution.

That’s why it matters that the vote for the new Chancellor is being subverted. The election for the post used to be straightforward: a candidate would get 50 or more nominations from Oxford graduates, then he or she would be on the ballot. Oxford graduates who wanted to vote – there are about 350,000 of them – would turn up in person and vote. Simple.

Now it’s anything but. Out of nowhere, without any popular demand, the rules changed. There’s now a self-appointed nominations committee run by the university bureaucracy which has nothing to do with the students or the dons who make up the actual institution. And it’s this committee which will decide who will be the candidate or candidates that the electors decide on.

So who gets to choose whom the voters choose? The answer, if this goes ahead, would be the Registrar of the university – right now, Gill Aitken, an ex HMRC lawyer – and her associates. These changes should have been put to Congregation, that is, academics and some senior administrators. But no: they were foisted on the university unasked.

There’s another aspect to the proposed changes. Before, people would turn up in person to vote. Now the proposal is to allow remote voting. In theory, online voting gives greater access. In practice, it opens up the process to outside interference – China, politically-motivated hacking, you name it. There’s a kind of purity to a voter with a ballot paper and a pencil which is lost when you go online.

If there’s something sinister-sounding about an eligibility vetting committee that’s because it is sinister. Especially since there hasn’t been much about the eligibility criteria that this self-appointed committee will be using to decide who’s a suitable candidate. What is likely to happen is that it’ll be the usual: diversity, equality and inclusion. There hasn’t yet been a female Chancellor. Neither has there been one from an ethnic minority background. What are the chances that the eligibility vetting committee will decide to go for a woman, and possibly one who’s diverse all round? Chris Patten was clear when he backed the last vice-chancellor Louise Richardson that it was time Oxford chose a woman for that role. You can see exactly how this will play out.

Of course there may well be excellent candidates who are female or whatever. But they should have to go through the normal selection process – nomination by 50 or more Oxford graduates – before their names go to voters. Right now this change looks like a combination of wokeism and authoritarianism, a grim combination. It’s not too late to change it. How about now?