Who’s in charge of Cambridge University?

One of my recent dinners was at the house of the Vice Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, at his grand, official residence in Latham Road. The dinner was for speakers at the Cambridge University alumni weekend, which attracts several thousand people back each year. One of my dining companions was a professor of engineering who had been giving a talk  in the lecture theatre next to my talk on Chinese banks. His subject was maths, art and nudity. Yes, he used a nude model to demonstrate the curves involved in the mathematics of collapsing buildings. I know we’re all trying to get a good audience but, I mean, that’s cheating isn’t it?

My other companion was the Chancellor of the University. The Chancellor would appear to out-rank the Vice Chancellor, as with the President and Veep. But, this being Cambridge, things are not so simple. So who’s the boss?

There is an old joke from the US about the job of the dean of a university. There are three groups of people the dean needs to keep happy: the students, the alumni and the faculty. The students care about sex, the alumni care about sports and the faculty care about car parking.

Only the first one of these would translate to Cambridge. There are no sports scholarships at Cambridge, everybody is there on academic merit. Anyone daft enough to try to drive into Cambridge’s congested streets every day deserves the lack of car parking. And I’m fairly sure the sex takes care of itself.

The dean of a US university is a powerful figure, a true executive, though the scope to fire faculty is constrained by tenure rules, designed to protect academic freedom. But in the UK, and particularly at Cambridge, there is no equivalent to the executive dean. Power is diffused to committees of the academic faculty themselves, with major policy changes being occasionally put to the vote of all University officers. This is much the same at Oxford. The two universities are alike in far more things than they differ in, the routine rivalry being what my friend and former colleague Ben Hardy would call the “narcissism of small differences.

The Chancellor

The Chancellor of the University of Cambridge is the honorary head of the University, but has no decision making role. As the current holder of the post, Lord Sainsbury, told me, the only official duty he has is to confer honorary degrees. The University website tells us that the Chancellor has “important statutory duties” but beyond that the role is largely dependent on what the holder is able to do, in an informal way, to support and represent the University.

David Sainsbury, formally known as Baron Sainsbury of Turville was elected for life to the role in 2011. A graduate of Kings, former finance director and then chairman of the supermarket group founded by his great-grandfather, he was Science Minister in the government from 1998 to 2006. He has donated over £1 billion to charity, more than probably any other British person. Of particular interest to us at Judge is that he was chairman of the governing body of the London Business School from 1991-98. He shares the enthusiasm of our current director, Professor Christoph Loch, for the Judge to be at the heart of the Cambridge high tech entrepreneurial phenomenon and I hope he’ll be able to help us in future.

Chancellors are usually elected unopposed. But in 2011, a group of Cambridge alumni put forward three other candidates, as is their right, and for the first time since 1847, there was an election. Lord Sainsbury stood against a leading lawyer, an actor famous for his loud voice, and a greengrocer from Mill Road in Cambridge who objected to the building of a new branch of Sainsbury’s. The voters, which included anyone with a Cambridge degree, elected Lord Sainsbury in October 2011. He is an excellent choice for the role. His predecessor was Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, the husband of Queen Elizabeth II. Even Prince Philip’s best friends would, I think, agree that his accomplishments lie largely outside the intellectual realm.

The VC

The Vice Chancellor is the nearest thing to the University’s CEO. He is elected by the Regent House, which consists of all current university officers and heads of colleges, to provide academic and administrative leadership, on a seven year contract. But he cannot simply impose his will on the University. Decisions are taken through a bewildering range of committees, where the votes lie in the hands of professors.

The current VC (as the post is known) and my host, together with his wife, on Saturday is Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, who was formerly head of the UK’s Medical Research Council. Understanding that his name is a potential barrier to communication, the VC likes to be known as Boris. Of Polish extraction, he is Welsh, as his softly modulated accent makes clear.

The grand house is well earned. Boris spends five evenings a week on business, and his normal working day runs from 7am to 11pm. But it must be a fascinating and deeply absorbing job.

The other officers of the University are the Pro-Vice Chancellors, all senior professors who have responsibility for various areas of administration. The system works by consensus for the most part. It is very hard to effect radical change, which is mostly a good thing.

But it means that even very useful changes can take ages to implement. The creation of the MFin, a brand new degree, required many committees and over a year of tireless effort by my colleague Professor Geoff Meeks. Any new Cambridge degree requires approval by the Privy Council, an old historic institution consisting of a group of advisors to the Queen. In practice it is now powerless and all decisions lie with the government. But there was, notionally, a risk that the MFin might be blocked because it did not meet the pleasure of Her Majesty.

6 Responses to Who’s in charge of Cambridge University?

  1. hi Simon, it was good to meet you at the dinner, and this is a very nice article. Regarding the life model, the point was that, not only can life drawing help you to understand the more difficult mathematical aspects of stability theory, but if you understand the maths of stability theory, it changes the way you see the life model – and the world around you. You start to notice shapes and features that you hadn’t previously noticed. It is a two-way process, with a genuine synergy between the maths and the model. It wasn’t just a cheat to entice people away from your very excellent lecture about Chinese banks. best Allan

    • Allan, I hope it was clear I was joking, I didn’t really think you were cheating. One of the most wonderful things about maths is the way that patterns and themes pop up in seemingly unrelated contexts. I think your linkage between life drawing and stability theory is really inspired. I admire your imagination and enterprise.

  2. “His predecessor was Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, the wife of Queen Elizabeth II.”

    Even Prince Philip’s best friends would, I think, agree that his accomplishments do not include being a good “WIFE” to Elizabeth II, though I would love to hear his own comments on that opinion. I suspect he may be rendered incapable of communicating any such reply over the guffaws of laughter erupting from him at the very idea!

    Or perhaps this is a specific Cambridge University use of the term of which I am unaware?

    • Jeanne, you have caught me out. It’s a fair cop. I apologise to Prince Philip for my remarks, he would I’m sure be most amused at my condescending tone and thoroughly deserved embarrassment. I will amend the original but leave this as a record of an error made in haste.

  3. So who is in charge of Cambridge University? So who makes the decisions? What if a person from one college wants to transfer to another college who is in charge of overseeing and enforcing it?

    • There is a power structure, but it is constrained by the need for consensus on many matters. If a person wants to transfer from one college to another, which is rare, it needs both colleges to agree.

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