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Report of Discussion

Tuesday, 27 April 2004. A Discussion was held in the Senate-House of the following Reports:

Report of the General Board, dated 11 February 2004, on the establishment of a Herchel Smith Professorship of Pure Mathematics (p. 527).

Professor G. R. GRIMMETT:

Deputy Vice-Chancellor, I rise as Head of the Department of Pure Mathematics and Mathematical Statistics to record the thanks of the Department and of the Faculty to Dr Herchel Smith for his exceedingly generous benefaction, one part of which is to establish a Herchel Smith Professorship of Pure Mathematics.

Pure Mathematics is one of the most ancient forms of intellectual activity, and has led to countless discoveries of beauty and importance in many fields of human endeavour.

There are few institutions worldwide which have contributed more over the last centuries than has this University. The pace of development is greater than ever before across many fronts, and the recent merit of members of this University is evidenced by the five Fields medallists based here during the last few years. One of these Fields medallists was awarded the 2004 Abel prize.

There is intense competition between different areas of Pure Mathematics for the limited resources available to the Department, and it is increasingly difficult to cover sufficiently many aspects of the subject within a Department of our size. In addition, despite the visibility of Cambridge mathematics on the world scene, it has become quite a challenge to recruit and retain leading individuals, especially those from outside the United Kingdom.

The new Herchel Smith Chair will help to rectify this, and it will not be a financial burden on the University. It is 'fully funded' and will relieve existing costs through the associated suppression of a position. Like most of the established Professorships in DPMMS, it comes with a fund which will meet salary and other costs of the Professor.

Cambridge University is indebted to Dr Smith for his recognition of Pure Mathematics and for his practical support.

Consultative Report of the Council, dated 8 March 2004, on matters relating to central administration and management (the Finance and Planning and Resources Committees, the establishment of a Buildings Committee) (p. 537).

Dr C. F. FORSYTH:

Deputy Vice-Chancellor, I speak this afternoon as chairman of the Board of Scrutiny to express the Board's views on this important Report. The Shattock Report into University Management and Governance (Reporter, 2 November 2001) sought to identify how weaknesses in the governance and management of the University contributed to the CAPSA problems. One of the important weaknesses identified was that it was 'unclear at the senior policy committee level where true responsibility lay' and the Shattock Report details (para. 3.6) the confusion over responsibility for crucial CAPSA decisions between the Finance Committee and the Planning and Resources Committee. Not surprisingly Shattock recommended that the Council review the functions of the Finance Committee and the relationship between it and the Planning and Resources Committee (recommendations 10 and 11); and the Report now under discussion is a 'Consultative Report' as a step towards the implementation of these recommendations.

Quite apart from the confusion between these Committees identified by Shattock, the Board became aware early last year of similar confusion in the role of these Committees when investigating the procedure for the approval of new buildings. The details are set out in the Board's eighth Report. It is possible in the Board's view that this confusion led to insufficient attention being paid to the Finance Committee's specific obligation to assess the 'recurrent costs of maintenance and use' of new buildings. And thus this confusion may itself have contributed significantly to the financial difficulties currently faced by the University. So this is a most important issue and it is right that the Council should address it.

Thus the Board warmly welcomes the implementation of these recommendations. In addition, the Board considers that the Council is right to divide the responsibilities of the Finance Committee and the Planning and Resources Committee in the way that is proposed. The Finance Committee will be responsible for the vital tasks of financial management and stewardship of the University's assets while the Planning and Resources Committee will be concerned with strategic matters, high level policy, and budgeting.

However, the Board does have three additional comments to make.

First of all, the Board considers that the implementation of these recommendations has taken far too long. Shattock reported in November 2001 and it seems likely that at least three full years will have passed before these reforms are actually implemented. The Board recognizes that there are difficulties with the implementation of these reforms. The old Finance Board has seen its power and status whittled away since the Wass Report and now, although the Finance Committee will continue to exist, it will be but a faint shadow of the old wholly autonomous Financial Board. It is understandable that this should cause pain, but this does not justify the failure to grasp this nettle, say, two years ago. This delay also illustrates one of the Board's consistent themes. Those who should know better often attribute the delays in the University's government to the involvement of the Regent House. But here, as in many other cases, it is plain that the delay occurs before the Regent House has the opportunity to say anything. The delay derives in part from the often tortuous path that proposals must follow through the thorny thicket of committees before the Regent House is involved. This Report commences - it certainly does not end - the process of bringing order into that thicket and must be welcomed for that reason.

In the second place, the Board considers that the Planning and Resources Committee, with about twenty members, is too large to operate effectively. It seems to the Board that there is a danger that the task of formulating recommendations for the Council will slip away from the Committee into a small formal or informal executive group that would lack legitimacy and would lead once more to confused responsibility. The construction of a smaller PRC may be thought to present the classic dilemma between effectiveness and representativeness. Should the committee have representatives of most persons or bodies likely to be affected by its decisions present? Or should the committee be chosen instead for its expertise, making clear recommendations to Council and relying upon effective and penetrating scrutiny by the representative Council to lend legitimacy to the decisions made. The latter course seems likely to result in more principled decisions, straightforwardly addressing the problems faced by the University. On the other hand, the former, more traditional, structure will lead to more compromise (and even 'horse-trading') and less principled decisions as more regard is paid to the special difficulties of different parts of the University. While in the real world the decision will never be as stark as it has been set out here, it is clear that the Council has chosen the representative route with all the Pro-Vice-Chancellors, all the Chairs of Schools, members of the Colleges' Committee, members of the Council and members of the General Board, and a student member of Council being members of the PRC. (The Vice-Chancellor, though, is not a member, presumably being vicariously present through the Pro-Vice-Chancellors, particularly PVC (PR) who chairs the Committee.) Choosing the representative route makes it more difficult for the Committee to be kept at a manageable size. Clearly, if one Chair of a School is present all the others must be. But it is less clear that all the PVCs need be there. And the Board further considers that the size of the Committee could be reduced by limiting the number of Colleges' Committee, General Board, and Council representatives.

Finally, and in the Board's view, most importantly, the Board wishes to comment on how these Committees should be established. The current Planning and Resources Committee is not a Statutory Committee at all but a Joint Committee of the Council and the General Board (presumably established under Statute A, V, I(b) (ad hoc committees)). The current Planning and Resources Committee is a most important Committee, playing a vital role in the University's governance yet the Statutes and Ordinances is innocent of any mention of it! That is quite wrong. The Statutes and Ordinances should reveal, not conceal, the University's governance.

This is not a merely formalistic matter: much of the confusion identified by Shattock arises from the fact that this Committee 'just growed' accumulating functions and roles informally to the detriment of the good government of the University, in the way described above. There can be no difficulty with the Council and the General Board being able to establish Committees informally with specific, short-term tasks. But where Committees (such as the Planning and Resources Committee or the Finance Committee) with a continuous existence and of such importance to the University and its governance are established, it seems to the Board that the Regent House should be involved. While the Board would not go so far as to require that such standing committees should be established by Statute, it considers that establishment by Ordinance is both appropriate and necessary. The Council promises in the Report under discussion that 'the main provision for the Finance Committee should be in the Ordinances, where both it and the Planning and Resources Committee would be referred to' (para 19). More than a 'reference' is required: the Board considers it necessary that the establishment, including both membership and role, of these Committees be in the Ordinances.

Professor G. R. EVANS:

Madam Deputy Vice-Chancellor, three very important matters of principle are embedded in this Report. Let me dig them out and brush off the earth which is clinging to them.

1. (Para. 19). 'No useful purpose is served by the definition by Statute of committees of the Council,' Why not? To have things in the Statutes means that you know where they are and what they are and what their powers are, and whether Statute K, 5 can be invoked if something appears to be done invalidly.

'The Council and the General Board, are fully responsible for the business which is discharged through their committees, and it is therefore unhelpful that statutory definition should be given to particular committees which appears to diminish the full responsibility of the central bodies.' That would be a more comforting assertion if the central bodies were accountable, particularly if their individual members and secretariat could be held liable for the huge financial and other losses which result from failures of proper supervision. I don't really want to see their bank accounts raided, but their confidence that they are safe be may not be altogether a good thing for the University. Our students may be entitled to take the view that they are running up huge debts to pay higher fees, only to see the University waste money.

Have a look at the National Audit Office's recent report on CMI Ltd, particularly what it says about the way the thing was set up; have a further look at the speeches made in November 1999 and after, pointing out what has since proved to be only too true. Against the nifty attempt at spin in the current Newsletter, see the crushing piece in this week's Varsity. We were promised reports to the University about CMI's onward march into the entrepreneurial future. What did the 'full responsibility of the central bodies' turn out to mean in that case? And CAPSA? Trust has to be earned back in this University and I for one see no reason to believe the 'the full responsibility of the central bodies' means any more than it did a few years ago.

The reality, as those who have been at meetings of the central bodies know, is that at best there is a remark or two round the table, but most business goes through pretty much on the nod. The thoroughness with which Council and the General Board scrutinize the papers which pass before them is not great.

And in an era when we are devolving so much power to Councils of the Schools (a recipe for disaster in my view), why this drive to centralize? If these assertions are allowed to pass unchallenged we shall end up with a huddle of committees with changing names moving about in the shadows deciding things no one will ever really check up on; this will be reverse of the recommendation of the Shattock Report and the Board of Scrutiny that we should clarify the interrelationship of our committees. I hope I am wrong and the Chairman of the Board of Scrutiny is correct about whether they have got it right yet. I am as pleased as he is that they are trying; as concerned as he that it has taken too long. I just want to be more confident about the crispness and clarity of the proposals to which this will I hope now lead. Executive groups like the Executive and Business Committees of the Council, spell doom to accountability.

2. (Para. 12ff) Membership. Appointment to committees is a running sore in the University which is kept well-covered with sticking plaster. When are we going to set up a transparent system with proper procedures and announcement of vacancies and an opportunity for individuals to offer services? If you think all is well, just browse through the Officers Number of the Reporter (5 March) and note the patterning of the favoured names. While 'the Council' (really the Nomination Committee and the Committee on Committees) do it all behind closed doors there is going to be no fresh blood in the membership and little fresh air blowing across those self-satisfied tables. And see again what I have just said about the executive groups. And too heavy a loading of ex officio members is dangerous in many ways.

3. (Para. 10-11). Committee servicing arrangements. The issue is not the 'effective use of officer time' in dancing 'attendance' on committees. Or it ought not to be. It is the effectiveness and knowledgeableness of the 'advice' these officers are able to give. And whether the administrative officers are committee members or advisers is another really important question.

This is a complex of issues in urgent need of attention. Let me give an example, and let me emphasize that this is not personal. It is heroic of one man to handle so much! The Registrary ex officio Secretary to the Council, is also adviser, in charge of the agenda of the Council, line-manager of the Unified Administrative Service, editor of the Reporter, and he exercises various other powers. Should he have quite so many? In the review of the Research Services Division (Reporter, p. 571) it is announced, both reports will go to the Registrary, and 'he will present them to the Council with his own commentary'. Now the first of these reports is to be about the performance and achievements of a division of the Unified Administrative Service, so he is clearly answerable to the Council and to us about that. But the second part of the review is about Organization and Structure, including huge policy questions such as 'whether Cambridge Enterprise should remain within RSD, be an independent division of the UAS, be outside the UAS, or external to the University as a wholly owned subsidiary'. These are not matters for our chief administrator to 'comment' on to the Council. They are matters to Report to the University.

May we have a Report about 'Committee Servicing Arrangements' under its proper heading of 'Who runs this place' (to borrow the title of Anthony Samson's new book).

Mr N. M. MACLAREN (read by Dr D. R. DE LACEY):

Deputy Vice-Chancellor, this Report seems an excellent proposal, but there are two references that I am sad to see omitted. This Report was probably not the place for any such proposals, but the lack of any reference to their existence is disappointing.

The first is an overall plan for reorganizing the major Committees of the University, especially those set up by Ordinance, and even more the principles on which that reorganization is based. It is clear that the Council has some such principles in mind, and it would be useful to have them presented for information and discussion.

The one described in paragraph 19, which I understand to be that only the primary Committees should be established by Statute, that secondary ones should be established by Ordinance, and that tertiary ones should be ad hoc, seems very reasonable. It would be useful to know whether the Council feels that this should be a general principle, and if so, what it feels the criteria for primary, secondary, and tertiary should be. There might then be less misunderstanding of the Council's intentions by the Regent House.

The second, and much more important one is explicit mechanisms to ensure communication, openness, and feedback between those Committees and the Regent House and staff of the University. Shattock and Finkelstein pointed out that poor communications and relationships were a significant cause of the problems with CAPSA, but it was equally the case with the Primate House cost overrun and many other expensive and embarrassing episodes, including some which have yet to happen.

The University has many staff with expertise and foresight, at all levels; it should use them. Abilities to predict the potential problems and costs of a project like CAPSA are actually more likely to be found in experienced Administrators and Computer Officers than in Pro-Vice-Chancellors and senior Professors. Organizations like the British Army, IBM, and others recognize this and provide mechanisms for enhancing information flow between the senior executives and the skilled technicians in the field and, even more importantly, vice versa.

Please note that I am not advocating democracy, which is a much overrated mechanism, but a much more open flow of information and discussion, both up and down the hierarchy. One of the reasons that Cambridge research is so good is that information flows freely in almost all fields of research, and most discussion is open; let us apply the same principles to management.

Dr D. R. DE LACEY:

Madam Deputy Vice-Chancellor, this Report tidies up a lot of loose ends, though I echo Mr Maclaren's point that a statement of the coherent structure of our committees is conspicuous by its absence. In particular, the status and function of the Audit Committee remains somewhat unclear, and no reason is given for making it a Statutory body. The current Ordinances include among its functions:

'(a) to keep under review the effectiveness of the University's internal systems of financial and other control;

...

(g) to monitor the implementation of any recommendations made by the internal auditors;

(h) to satisfy themselves that satisfactory arrangements are adopted throughout the University for promoting economy, efficiency, and effectiveness;

...

(l) to oversee the University's policy on fraud and irregularity, and to ensure that they are informed of any action taken under that policy'.

We have of course reorganized the Audit Committee recently, but past history suggests that these functions have been fulfilled far more successfully by others, particularly the Board of Scrutiny. I hope that the making of the Audit Committee into a Statutory body will not be seen as another blow in the campaign to suggest that the Board of Scrutiny is no longer necessary or up to its job. In October 2000 the Board was fiercely attacked by members of the Council: in the Discussion on its Fifth Report (http://www.admin.cam.ac.uk/reporter/2000-01/weekly/5824/28.html). Dr G. Johnson claimed that: 'In its short history, the Board has never shown the slightest intention of doing this job properly. It has produced a series of written Annual Reports of its own which give little evidence that the members of the Board have ever read carefully, let alone tried to understand, the documents they are supposed to scrutinize. Rather, they have pursued at random bits and pieces of business which one or other of them, or one of their chums, has felt strongly about regardless of its relevance to the task in hand or of the appropriateness for consideration by this particular Board'; while Professor M. Schofield inveighed against it that: 'It does not appear to have occurred to the authors of the Report under discussion that they might even consider whether, on the evidence they are enjoined to examine, the general picture is or is not satisfactory. ... There is a marked imbalance in the coverage ... a great deal of space is taken up with pretty technical and tetchy discussion of higher-level financial matters, much of which seems to be duplicating the scrutiny the University's Audit Committee is charged with conducting (Statutes and Ordinances, 2000, p. 881). The Council surely needs to ask whether having two distinct bodies making recommendations to the University on what are essentially audit matters is good governance or rather a potential source of danger and confusion.'

There are of course significant differences between the two bodies: the Audit Committee works on behalf of the Council and reports to it whereas the Board of Scrutiny works for and reports to the Regent House. We also have the complication that early in 1999 the Audit Committee outsourced a significant part of its operation to Robson Rhodes (http://www.admin.cam.ac.uk/reporter/1998-9/weekly/5768/4.html), so in fact we appear to have three overlapping audit bodies. It may be that rationalization is necessary; however if the Council wishes to economize on such bodies I trust that members of the Regent House will be permitted to decide which one we would like to be the winner. Except that we first need a proper revision of our voting procedures if we are to be able to rely on the results of any ballot. I would then be able to state confidently that my money would not be on the Audit Committee.

May I also endorse the Board of Scrutiny's comments about committee sizes. A lot of work has been done on human groups. We should incorporate the results of such research into deciding optimum sizes of committees.

Report of the General Board, dated 10 March 2004, on the establishment of a Herchel Smith Professorship of Molecular Genetics (p. 560).

Professor G. R. EVANS:

Madam Deputy Vice-Chancellor, here we have a prospective new post of which it is not known at the time it is to be established where in the University it is to be assigned. Quite a useful example of the need to rethink the rule that Professorships and other academic offices should be assigned to a Department or Faculty. Interdisciplinary teaching officers unite? Change the Statutes? Let us be interdisciplinary at last.

Report of the General Board, dated 10 March 2004, on the establishment of two Professorships of Education (p. 561).

Professor G. R. EVANS:

Madam Deputy Vice-Chancellor, 'one of the biggest challenges facing the Faculty of Education is the continued development of its research profile' (p. 562). The academic standing of Education seems to need shoring up again on the departure of a mere two retiring individuals. One would not like to make our new Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Everything Left Over also the Pro-Vice-Chancellor Most Hot Under The Collar. So let me make just one point. The claim that this or that needs 'leadership' has become a routine reason given to the University for the establishment of new Professorships. Here it seems that 'leadership' just means bringing 'strength' to 'research standing' with a consequent improvement in ratings in the Research Assessment Exercise. My point is made on behalf of the many many University Teaching Officers who have done at least that who are still denied promotion to personal Professorships. It simply does not seem fair that there should be a special deal for a weak area of the University's activities when those who have been making their Departments and Faculties strong for years are denied equivalent recognition. For what is the difference between funding these two new Professorships out of 'recurrent allocation' and funding personal Professorships, for which the University now says it does not have enough money to ensure that everyone who deserves one gets one?


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Cambridge University Reporter 6 May 2004
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