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Report of Discussion

Tuesday, 4 November 2003. A Discussion was held in the Senate-House of the Second Report of the Council, dated 22 October 2003, on governance (external membership of the Council) (p. 95).

Professor G. R. EVANS:

Two anxieties about the way this is going to work.

First, the appointment process. There is an undertaking to advertise the intention of making a nomination but it does not say where or how far in advance. We need a requirement to publish in the Reporter an alert which will ensure that members of the Regent House are aware in good time that an 'advertisement' has occurred, and know what to do to get names into the hat. We seem to get away with being in breach of the HEFCE Financial Memorandum (para. 3(b)) year by year, so there is no guarantee of that requirement being taken very seriously.

Secondly, the preservation of the 'externality' of the new members of the Council, which is the justification for having them. As originally conceived (Reporter, 15 December 1999, Report on the Composition of the Council), full external membership of the Council was going to include 'relevant service' on the Council's committees 'and on other bodies in the University' and 'the commitment of time and energy' was going to be 'substantial'. The Report (Reporter, 14 May 2003), which gave us the external members of the Council did not bother with these considerations and we graced the plan without it being at all clear how much time the externals are going to be expected to give. But if it is to be on the scale of the 1999 ideas, the externals are going to become internals very quickly, their freshness of view and expertise from other walks of life melted-down in the furnace of our internal patterns of behaviour. How are we to ensure that the external vantage-points for which we appointed them retain their independence and detachment?

Let me draw attention to p. 92 of the Reporter. In the QAA Institutional Audit Report, para. 169, you may read of the General Board's assertion that 'consideration of quality management arrangements, by an independent committee with an external (my italics) member, is now an explicit element in periodic University reviews of the activities of the academic institutions'. At para. 170, the QAA auditors comment that 'several elements in this balanced system are, however, new and untested; some were unfamiliar to staff and students who met the audit team'. So what are we to conclude of the actual impact of 'external' members on those 'independent committees' in making sure not only that things work better, but that staff and students are made aware of the procedures designed for their good?

I want to see external members on the Council who are going to be wise to lack of compliance, face-saving, massaging of the realities, lack of consultation, and who will not be afraid to speak out about it. It is not going to be an easy brief. We had an external Pro-Vice-Chancellor sitting with us on the Council for a while in my time, an American. He was frequently shocked by the conduct of affairs, and said so, but no socks were pulled up as a result. We have taken this momentous decision. Now let us make it work.

Mr N. M. MACLAREN:

Deputy Vice-Chancellor, I regret that I need to start by some remarks that are relevant to the history of this change of Statute, rather than the actual nomination procedure, but they are both important and essential background for my main point, which is that this nomination procedure could well lead to severe embarrassment for the University unless steps are taken to reduce the political temperature.

In the Discussion of 27 May 2003, I said 'I had hoped to see a proposal for a significant number of external members, nominated and elected by the Regent House.' In the Notice of 28 July 2003, I was quoted as 'Mr N. M. Maclaren suggested in the Discussion that there should be more external members of the Council than the two proposed.' I find it extremely disappointing that the Council misinterpreted my remark so badly. I thought that it was obvious that I was referring to the addition of a suitable class of external members defined by Ordinance or Notice, such as senior members of other universities, representatives of the Cambridge Society and so on, to be nominated and elected in the same way as existing classes (a), (b), and (c).

That Notice continues 'However, the proposal in the Council's Report on governance dated 17 June 2002 for three external members to be appointed to the Council was rejected by the Regent House in a ballot.' That is so misleading as to be false in context. As many people have stated, the Grace in question was very complex, and included several unrelated changes that had the effect of a considerable reduction in the powers of the Regent House. In the Web poll published on 26 June 2002, 56 out of 73 people favoured three or more external members, and the Discussion of 11 March 2003 made it very clear that many or most people's objections were not to the number of external members but to the other aspects.

The Board of Scrutiny stated in that Discussion 'Such confidence as may initially have been felt in the reform proposals was undermined by the tactics the Council then adopted to persuade the Regent House to vote for them. As everyone presumably recalls, the Council first called the vote on the proposals over the Christmas vacation, a period when the University Messenger Service would be closed for part of the time, and the voters otherwise occupied for most of it - and, in disregard of the University Statutes, the Council initially implied that any amendments would not be welcome. In the face of protests from (among others) the Board of Scrutiny, it then called off the ballot and rescheduled it for Term time, and allowed amendments. But this change of heart did not destroy the impression that the Council was trying to rush the proposals through by using dubious methods.'

The Council did not see fit to respond to this remark, and the Grace that added these external members was published in the last Reporter of the year, on 6 August 2003, at a time when a large proportion of the Regent House was away from Cambridge. It is harder to imagine an action further from the spirit of Statute A, Chapter VIII, paragraph 4. I think that the Board of Scrutiny should investigate this matter, using its powers in Statute A, Chapter VII, paragraphs 2 and 6, and I beg the Council to listen to its constructive, if sometimes acerbic, comments.

As we all know, there is a convention that the members of the Council in class (a) have decided between themselves who is to stand, so this change reduces the number of members of the Council nominated and elected by the Regent House to a bare majority. Given the passage of Grace 2 of 6 August 2003, this nomination procedure is about as good as could be expected, but does have the effect of further disenfranchising the Regent House. The Council is still a long way from becoming a self-perpetuating oligarchy, but is very close to not being primarily elected by the Regent House. In her address to the University on 1 October 2003, the Vice-Chancellor said 'In closing, I have one further observation to make, and it has to do with trust. Trust is earned, but it must also be given. As Vice-Chancellor, I gladly put my trust in you. I would not be standing here today were it otherwise. I believe my first and abiding task is to earn your trust. But in some measure that trust must also be your gift, and as I pledge myself to earn your trust so I ask you to offer it. As John Dunn pointed out a decade ago, 'There is, to be sure, an alternative to trust: a consistent and strategically energetic distrust. But ... this is apt rapidly to paralyse all capacity for co-operative agency.'

It is fair to say that the trust between some of the ordinary members of the Regent House and some people on the governing bodies of the University, as exemplified by the Council, the General Board, and the administrative officers, has broken down. And that this mistrust is not just of those governing bodies by some members, but is of the Regent House by some people on those bodies. The Vice-Chancellor will have to ensure that the damage done by the above actions to the mutual trust between the Regent House and the governing bodies of the University is repaired, or John Dunn's warning may well come to pass.

Why is all this relevant to this nomination procedure? It is because effectively the only influence that most of the Regent House has on the choice of external members is to call for a vote on the nominations, and then to vote against. It would be extremely embarrassing for the University if this were to happen as a form of protest, especially while this mechanism is new, even if the Regent House did then approve the nominations. I have tried to think how the nomination procedure could be improved, and have failed, but some way of restoring trust is essential. We have already had some Westminster politicians say that we are unfit to govern ourselves; please let us not give them further ammunition.


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Cambridge University Reporter, 12 November 2003
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