The role of dinners at Cambridge University

Perhaps it’s having recently re-watched the film Brideshead Revisited, which rather emphasises the food and drink aspect of student life at Oxford. Perhaps it’s the fact that I have seven official work-related dinners (and three drinks receptions) coming up in the next couple of weeks. But I’m wondering if dining is more central to life at Cambridge and Oxford Universities than elsewhere?

My dinners are: i) welcoming the new Executive MBA students; ii) welcoming a group of executives from China Merchants Securities; iii) welcoming the new class of MFin students; iv) as guest of the Vice Chancellor, in celebration of the University Alumni Weekend, at which I’m giving a talk; v) saying goodbye to the CMS executives; vi) marking the retirement of a professor of finance; and vii) a barbecue to welcome the new MBA class (OK, not strictly a dinner, but an evening event with food). To some people, the thought of seven free dinners must sound wonderful. But aside from the damage to one’s waistline, these dinners are not necessarily all fun.

First, the quality of the food varies greatly. There is no correlation between the splendidness of the surroundings and the quality of the dinner. I have sat in beautiful, candle-lit halls that look for all the world like Hogwarts (absent the floating objects) and eaten tasteless stuff with a fancy name. College chefs seem to be able to produce excellent dinners some of the time and quite inedible courses at others. This is partly a matter of what is spent but there seems also to be a random element.

The wine is more consistently good. The adverse public relations impact of films and TV series like Brideshead (based on the Evelyn Waugh novel about students at Oxford, Catholic belief and a tiresome teddy bear, it’s rather tedious, and inferior to his comic Scoop or serious Men at Arms) is that the British public believe that Cambridge and Oxford students and academics live an expensive lifestyle that undermines any appeal for outside financial support. But far from being an inappropriate use of subsidy, most colleges run their wine at a good profit. They are expert buyers with good long term relations with the dealers. Wine bought twenty years ago has usually made a high return, allowing the college fellows to drink excellent wine at low cost and the wine account to turn a profit by selling the surplus to fund the next generation of wine. I know that some of this high return has been because in the last ten years top French wine has become a high beta asset play on the creation of new billionaires eager to impress their guests by flaunting prestigious premier cru, but the colleges are wise to this. One wine steward I know has been reducing the amount of over-priced French stuff in favour of first class wines from California and South Africa. I’m confident the colleges will do fine if there is a popping of the wine bubble.

A social scientist’s view of college life

Secondly, these dinners are not just for entertainment. They form an essential part of how the University works. When I was a Fellow of St Catharine’s College years ago, I think I grasped how it all works. Fellows are somewhere between non-executive directors and trustees. Collectively they are in charge of the college and few decisions of significance may be delegated. So the executive committee is a very unwieldy governing body of perhaps forty or fifty fellows, which meets three times a term, usually on a Friday afternoon. This ought not to work – it is far too large a committee to function efficiently. And at times it works badly, the meetings would go on right up until dinner at 7.30pm and occasionally resume afterwards. Every Fellow has one vote. So there can emerge groups or “parties” as in any other politics, though overtly factional behaviour is rightly frowned on as being inconsistent with a collegial approach and with individual responsibility.

In my judgement, two things make college decision making system work, most of the time.

First is the inverse significance rule. Very important decisions, on matters affecting the college finances or decisions to build a new extension, are often voted through quite quickly because a sub-committee has thoroughly done the preparatory work and the rest of the Fellows trust their colleagues to be diligent and fair-minded. Relatively trivial decisions, such as what colour of flowers to put in the west-facing flower bed may go on for hours because everyone has a view and it would be improper to deny each Fellow a chance to express his or her preference for primroses over begonias.

But the second ingredient in this system is dinner. The frequent meeting of Fellows at dinner, lunch and coffee allows the matters of the college to be discussed in detail and the key facts isolated, long before the governing body meeting. In this way the key strands of a debate are clear at the meeting and much time is saved in rehearsing the arguments. It is this socialising which is essential to the running of the college, and of which regular dining is an important part.

St. Catharine’s College, Cambridge

(If I were an anthropologist rather than an economist I would probably identify other functions of dinners, which have ceremonial and symbolic aspects too. But economists generally don’t know anything about these things.)

So it is of some concern for the future of the college system that dining is in decline and has been for many years. The world of CP Snow’s The Masters, a wonderful tale of politics on the small scale set in a fictional but very believable Cambridge college in the 1930s, was one of gentleman dons who dined in college most nights. Those days have gone – and mostly for the better. Fellows today are likely to have partners or at least have a home life, and to live outside Cambridge because real estate prices are too high for them to afford anything other than a garden shed in the city limits. If you have to drive home you will not only come to dinner less often but you will of course drink less than if home was a short stumble across the court. Driving home from dinner helps to explain Cambridge’s port surplus – it’s just too strong to drink on a regular basis. The pressure on academics to produce research means that many of us aren’t even college fellows at all and those who are have much less time to be collegial than in the past.

The college system has lasted several centuries through continual evolution. The gentleman don is not completely extinct but is an endangered species, mainly because of the modernisation and professionalisation of the University in the last sixty years. Something of charm may have been lost but the gains in merit, diversity, fairness and the volume of outstanding work are more than adequate compensation.

So dining is part of the job and in some sense a duty. Next time I bite into some unidentified piece of organic matter which is the college chef’s idea of a vegetarian meal, I will try to remember that.

2 Responses

  1. Anthony Smith

    Aaah… memories of college food (Emmanuel). “Macedoine de Legumes”. Criminal tin-opener merchants. A bloke called Keith on the 6o’clock buttery, straight out of a Martin Amis novel.

    More nutrition to be had at the Zebra on Newmarket Road, if you could get your grub before the three-pawed Irish Setter or the tabby cat on the bar.

    Mind you, it’s vastly improved these days, on recent experience.

  2. Peace

    Your writing is fun and it gives me better understanding of the dinners at Cambridge, which I had hard time to figure out why food is of identifiable quality on an irregular basis but people keep showing up 😉

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