Skip to main contentCambridge University Reporter

No 6350

Wednesday 4 June 2014

Vol cxliv No 33

pp. 609–617

Report of Discussion

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

A Discussion was held in the Senate-House. Pro-Vice-Chancellor Dr Jennifer Barnes was presiding, with the Registrary, the Junior Proctor, the Junior Pro-Proctor, and seven other persons present.

The following Reports were discussed:

Report of the Council, dated 13 May 2014, on the process for the nomination and election of the Chancellor (Reporter, 6347, 2013–14, p. 536).

Professor A. W. F. Edwards (Gonville and Caius College):

Deputy Vice-Chancellor, I am a member of the Senate though not of the Regent House, qualified by degree (class (c)) rather than as a member of the Regent House (class (b)). As a matter of fact, I possess four qualifying degrees of the University, but alas only one vote. It occurs to me to mention at this point that when persons over the age of seventy were deprived of their membership of the Regent House some years ago though otherwise qualified, those who were members of the Senate other than by degree lost their membership. I do not recall that this was intended.

As a member of the Senate I participated in the recent election of a Chancellor, and since I intend to criticize this Report I should like to stress that my criticism relates to the procedure and not the result.

I am going to argue that the creation of a Nomination Board in 1953 was a mistake and that it should be abolished, and that future elections should return to a procedure in which all members of the Senate have an equal right to propose candidates. Anything less incurs a democratic deficit.

Unfortunately the Report does not consider this possibility. Nor is this surprising, for all the signatories are members of the present Board, and the Council’s working group contained two more. Yet the Report tells us that in 2011 the Council agreed that ‘it would be appropriate, in due course, to review the arrangements for the election of the Chancellor’, and that they asked their working group to consider issues of principle including ‘the role and constitution of the Nomination Board’. Since the origin of the Board is highly relevant to the issue of its role and is not discussed in the Report, some history is in order.

Under the Royal Statutes of Elizabeth I election was a simple matter. The Vice-Chancellor and Proctors were the scrutineers, and as each written vote was received the Senior Proctor read it out and the scrutineers counted it. The Vice-Chancellor declared the winner. But things did not always run smoothly. When Dr Whewell, Master of Trinity, approached Prince Albert to fill the vacancy caused by the death of the Duke of Northumberland in 1846, the Prince, aware of the candidacy of the Earl of Powis, declined. Whewell’s committee nevertheless decided to record their votes for Prince Albert, hoping that the Powis supporters would be so few that he would afterwards accept what they hoped would be the wish of a large majority. Prince Albert ‘won’ by 953 votes to 837. But would he accept? Sir Robert Peel advised that he should, and he did.

The new 1858 Statutes barely changed the Elizabethan procedure, but by 1882 the reading-out of the votes by the Senior Proctor as he received them had been dropped (thus spoiling half the fun), but still nothing was said about requiring a candidate’s consent. The 1926 Statutory Commissioners added ‘only those persons shall be eligible whose nomination papers have been signed by at least fifty members of the Senate’, but left the manner of voting to be determined by Ordinance ‘and unless so prescribed shall be as has been customary heretofore’. They still said nothing about getting the consent of the candidates, but they should have done, for a century after the problem with Prince Albert it happened again.

The Chancellor, Jan Christiaan Smuts, had died on 11 September 1950, aged 80. His had been a short tenure; his unopposed election had been a formality, only four days’ notice being given of the Congregation of the Senate for it. The Senior Proctor read the instrument of election and a Grace was passed that it be sealed and delivered.

But the ghost of Prince Albert returned for the election of his successor. There was still no Ordinance in spite of the 1926 Statute. The call for nominations produced two, Lord Tedder and Pandit Nehru, each handsomely supported by well over fifty members of the Senate. Tedder’s supporters included every member of the Council of the Senate except the Provost of King’s, and was surely one of the most distinguished list of names ever to appear in the Reporter. Caius produced Sir James Chadwick (Master), Sir Vincent Wigglesworth, J. F. Cameron (former Master) and Sir Charles Sherrington (Nobel Laureate, as was Chadwick).

Nehru’s list looks like a reaction to this. Caius names included Joseph Needham (later Master). The Department of Physiology were out in force and so were the MRC – Kendrew, Perutz, Sanger – and the astronomers – Hoyle, Gold, Bondi, Lyttleton, Ryle, F. G. Smith. There had been no objection to Smuts, but perhaps it was thought that two military Chancellors in a row was one too many. Fly-sheets had been circulated inviting members of the Senate to sign the Nomination Papers, and ominously Nehru’s admitted ‘his acceptance of this nomination is awaited’. Notice of the election procedure was given in the usual way. Examples of the two voting cards were given, and ‘the names of the persons who have voted for each candidate will later be published in accordance with ancient custom’. Presumably this was thought to be a replacement for the earlier custom of the Senior Proctor reading out each vote.

Then came the bomb-shell – a letter from the High Commissioner for India indicating that Nehru did not wish to enter into any contest and requesting that his name be withdrawn. The Vice-Chancellor immediately issued a second notice of election. Doubting the legality of withdrawing a nomination for which the Statutes made no provision, he determined that the election would go ahead, banking on Tedder’s success, adding ‘neither the names of the persons who have voted nor the number of votes cast will be published’. And go ahead it did, Tedder being elected but no record of the votes ever being made public, unlike in Prince Albert’s case.

After this embarrassing performance the Council took fright. Perhaps driven by S. C. Roberts who had been the Vice-Chancellor at the time and was now an ordinary member of the Council, they published a Report on the procedure for the election of the Chancellor.1 They noted that the Ordinance anticipated by the Statutes had never been made, and that at the last election ‘certain difficulties showed themselves’:

(i)there was no body charged with ensuring at least one candidate;

(ii)there was no requirement for candidates to consent to nomination; and

(iii)there was no provision for a nominated candidate to withdraw.

(i) was a straw man since there had never been a case of no candidate since the dawn of time, while (ii) and (iii) could easily have been rectified by a simple Ordinance.

But the Council seemed most taxed by (i) and thought that the creation of a permanent Nomination Board might resolve it. They put their careful and non-committal Report ‘which contains no recommendation’ up for Discussion on 10 February 1953. Perhaps it was a cold day. No remarks were made. Encouraged by the silence, they produced a Second Report tying down the kites they had been flying, complete with a recommended Ordinance proposing a Nomination Board to consist of the members of the Council of the Senate afforced by sixteen additional members appointed by Grace of the Senate (and thus of course recommended by the Council). Again, no remarks were made at the Discussion and the Nomination Board floated undiscussed into Ordinances with a complicated, expensive, undemocratic over-reaction to a problem that had never occurred and was never likely to, and indeed would not matter much if it did – just announce another election.

The objections to the Board are both theoretical and practical. Plain democracy requires all members of the Senate to have an equal opportunity to nominate a candidate in the same way that they have equal votes. The requirement of fifty supporters for a nomination is sufficient barrier against vexatious practice. Oddly, that Statutory figure was removed when the Nomination Board was created and thus became a mere Ordinance.

The practical objections became obvious at Lord Sainsbury’s election, the only occasion since the Board’s invention when there has been a contest. The first was that the very existence of an official candidate may deter other candidates from accepting nomination just as much as it encourages other candidates to be proposed in opposition. Excellent choices might therefore decline to stand. The new proposal is no better because it would allow the Nomination Board to survey the field of candidates before proposing their establishment joker.

Secondly, the official candidate is placed at a disadvantage by the use of the Single Transferable Vote system (STV) which risks the embarrassment not only of him losing, but of being seen to lose unfairly. For STV reduces to the Alternative Vote procedure (AV) when there is only one place to be filled, and it is easy to see that, whatever its role in political elections, it is quite inappropriate for filling a largely representative and ceremonial office like the Chancellorship.

This is not only because AV admits the possibility of the Condorcet paradox (where A is elected even though more voters prefer B to A), but it has the property that if the candidates divide into two classes, an official nominee and the rest, the nominee is likely to be at a disadvantage. This is because the rest carry the aura of being opposition candidates. If none of them is elected on the first count, at each redistribution their votes are likely to circulate among themselves, with the possible eventual outcome of defeating the official candidate even though he had the most first-preference votes. Indeed, the very purpose of the AV system is to facilitate this.

This nearly happened to Lord Sainsbury, whom the Cambridge News reported was elected by a substantial majority. Of the 5,558 votes cast, Lord Sainsbury had 2,893 first-preference votes and the three opposing candidates 2,665 in all. Had he not won on the first count (with a majority of only 52%) he might well have failed to gain a majority at any subsequent stage because of the probable lack of transfers from the opposing candidates. The Chancellor should be the person whom the greatest number of voting members of the Senate want, not the composite representative of those losers who were allowed to have their subsequent preferences shuffled until they accumulated sufficiently on someone else.

The Council should withdraw this Report and dissolve their working group if they have not already done so. They should constitute another one consisting entirely of members of the Senate who are not members of the present Board. An ad hoc Syndicate would be in order. They should ask it to consider the role of the Board and, if it omits to do so, it should be reminded of its terms of reference and asked to try again.

The Ordinance for the Nomination and Election of the Chancellor, which it is now proposed to change, is a Senate Ordinance in accordance with Statute A I 8. It can only be changed by Grace of the Senate. Recommendation II for its replacement is therefore ultra vires since it omits to state this.

If the Council simply resubmits the same Report with Recommendation II correctly described as a Grace of the Senate it will face the possibility of a Senate non-placet requested by ten members. Rejection of the Grace would not of itself eliminate the Nomination Board but the calling of a ballot might encourage the Council to think again.

The Nomination Board has been a failed and unnecessary experiment. I came to this conclusion from consideration of the facts, and invite the Council to do likewise.


  • 1Report, dated 8 December 1952, of the Council of the Senate on the procedure for the election and appointment of the Chancellor and High Steward of the University (Reporter, 3823, 1952–53, p. 475).

Dr S. J. Cowley (University Council and Chair of the Faculty of Mathematics):

Deputy Vice-Chancellor, I am a member of the University Council and did not sign this Report.

It is proposed that a subset of the Council, rather than the full Council, serve on the Nomination Board. I have no trouble with that proposal, given that the meetings of the Nomination Board last time round were somewhat unwieldy because of its size. Where I have a problem is how the subset is to be selected.

If all members of the Council are members of the Nomination Board, the Nomination Board mirrors the elected part of the membership of the Council. Once there is an element of choice in who is going to be selected, there is no guarantee that the diverse opinions on Council will be represented on the Nomination Board. A requirement that at least one person shall be from each of the five classes of membership of the Council does not guarantee that, since often there are more diverse opinions within classes than between classes. Further, given that the ‘rank-and-file’ class (c) is at least twice the size of the other classes, why are there not at least two members from class (c)?

The cover note for this item that came to the Business Committee of the Council stated:

By having full powers of appointment, the Council will be able to use its discretion in making appointments to the Board to ensure that its membership is balanced.

But there is no guarantee that Council will ensure that the membership is balanced; maybe instead the Council will use its discretion to have a quiet life. I can remember Gill Evans railing against the Committee on Committees (now succeeded by the snappily titled Advisory Committee on Committee Membership and External Nominations), and wondering if she was off her rocker. She may have been, but possibly not on that point.

Personally, I do not really care who is on the Nomination Board. However, there is a point of principle here. I would prefer that appointments to committees were on merit and some sensible form of diversity, rather than being class based (but if Council is going to be class ridden, might I note that the ‘rank-and-file’ class (c) is under-represented on the Remuneration Committee as well). There are a number of ways forward. I would opt for members of the Council being elected to the Nomination Board by the Regent House (as they are for the Nominating Committee for External Members of the Council); this should not add to the expense, since there is going to be an election for four members of the Regent House anyway. Another possibility would be to draw lots, or alternatively those who were most successful in the biennial elections to the Council might be appointed, or at least given first refusal. Alternatively, we could just abolish the Nomination Board, as Professor Edwards’ has proposed.

Finally, to answer Professor Edwards’ point about STV, would the Council consider using a version of the Condorcet method for the election of a single person (or the making of a yes/no decision)?

Professor G. R. Evans (Emeritus Professor of Medieval Theology and Intellectual History), read by the Junior Proctor:

Deputy Vice-Chancellor, if the method of choosing a Chancellor is to be revisited, is there not a prior question to be considered. What is a Chancellor for?

The Chancellor is a figurehead, presiding at Honorary Degrees; he or she may engage in informal liaison with the Vice-Chancellor – conducted in a manner and to an extent which suits them both – and is a member of the Council, though to the best of my knowledge the Chancellor never attends meetings in modern times. But he or she could – and take the Chair. The Chancellor formerly provided a route for appeal where a member of the University invoking Statute K, 5 (now Statute A IX 1) remained dissatisfied with the Vice-Chancellor’s decision, but that task has now been transferred to the Commissary.

There is, however, one role which the University does not have power to amend. It would take an Act of Parliament. The Universities of Oxford and Cambridge Act 1877 contains at s. 52, with reference only to Cambridge, an amended version of s. 42 of the Cambridge Act of 1856:

If after the cesser of the powers of the Commissioners any doubt arises with respect to the true meaning of any statute made by the Commissioners for the University of Cambridge, the Council of the Senate may apply to the Chancellor of the University for the time being, and he may declare in writing the meaning of the statute on the matter submitted to him, and his declaration shall be registered by the Registrary of the University, and the meaning of the statute as therein declared shall be deemed to be the true meaning thereof.

This remains in force under the Oxford and Cambridge Act 1923, again only for Cambridge. The Act makes no provision for a situation where a Chancellor has died in office and there is for a time no Chancellor to ‘declare in writing the meaning of the statute’.

This is a provision which is, I suggest, paradoxically of some importance now. For if the proposed changes to the process of election of the Chancellor should be deemed to be in contravention of the intention of the Statutes, only a Chancellor could determine that intention. And I suspect there may indeed be some constitutionally dubious points in what is proposed, for it leaves us members of the Senate with our hands tied when it comes to making proposals. Those of us who have been longstanding members of the Regent House have been used to having more say in things.

Report of the Council, dated 13 May 2014, on the financial position and budget of the University, recommending allocations from the Chest for 2014–15 (Reporter, 6347, 2013–14, p. 539).

Dr S. J. Cowley (University Council and Chair of the Faculty of Mathematics):

Deputy Vice-Chancellor, I am a member of the University Council. I signed this Report and I approve of it. However, I wish to comment on the rather boring matter of process. In paragraph 9 it is stated that

...the University’s Capital Fund is currently fully committed for the next five years with limited capacity for capital investment in the next ten. In recognition of this, the Council, with advice from the Finance Committee, recommends a transfer of £150m from accumulated reserves attributable to the Chest to the Capital Fund towards the cost of replacing the University’s biofacilities.

This transfer was discussed at the Council on 20 January 2014, when I noted that the £150m transfer would lead to about a £8–10m loss in recurrent income from (suitably invested) reserves. I asked what the impact would be on future budgets, e.g., what would have to be cut and/or forgone. That was minuted as ‘it would be necessary to understand the extent of the recurrent income generated from those reserves’. I have yet to hear an answer to my questions at the Council.

This budget was discussed at the Council as follows.

On 17 March when, as far as I can tell, the £150m transfer was not mentioned.

On 14 April, when paragraph 5 of the draft Allocations Report stated

The estimated cost of the total project is £150m, to be funded as part of the University’s strategic capital planning budget.

Note, no reference to a transfer.

On 12 May, when paragraph 9 was in the above form. However, this significant change was not highlighted on the coversheet, and I missed it (much to one person’s apparent amusement), as maybe did some other members of the Council. Indeed, the matter was not discussed when the Allocations Report was approved, as might have been better.

However, I did raise the matter when the Council discussed matters approved by the Finance Committee by circulation, following the cancellation of its 30 April 2014 meeting. That the £150m transfer was approved (by circulation) does not appear in the Council’s Agenda or papers as far as I can tell. Yes, it was considered at other Finance Committee meetings, but for a decision of this magnitude, I am not convinced that the process has been ideal; especially approval by circulation, and then not flagging the matter at the relevant Council meeting.

I should add that as a member of the Planning and Resources Committee (PRC) I knew that the matter was going to be discussed at the Finance Committee meeting on 30 April 2014. I then anticipated that there would be a full discussion at the Council during which the Council would be informed of the ‘extent of the recurrent income generated from those reserves’, and the effect on future budgets. That did not happen.

Let me be clear. I am not objecting to the transfer, in fact I approve it since we have little choice, having failed to put money away for the biofacilities rainy day. I am objecting to the process by which the Council and the Regent House are being asked to approve matters. There are significant changes happening. Less than two years ago, the Capital Plan was based on a maximum borrowing limit of £100m. That was then raised to £150m. Then the University transferred (or if I was to be emotive ‘raided’) a further £150m from reserves. That is a 200% increase in effective ‘borrowing’ from £100m to £300m in less than two years, In my opinion there is very little wriggle room left for unexpected expenditure, and that will happen. Indeed, I refer members of the Regent House to a forthcoming Report approved for publication by the Business Committee on 19 May 2014 on the construction of an extension to the Wolfson Brain Imaging Centre for the Radiopharmaceutical Unit.1 Earlier today I could not find this building in the Capital Plan of 20 March 2014, and in the absence of a PRC meeting this month (like the Finance Committee, it was cancelled), and the urgency, this Report was approved by the Capital Projects Group at a meeting on 12 May 2014. The University and the Council should be assured that there is adequate wriggle room.

Report of the General Board, dated 30 April 2014, on the establishment of a Professorship of Climate Change Economics and Policy (Reporter, 6346, 2013–14, p. 514).

No remarks were made on this Report.