A lost cause?

Oxford university is a great institution, yet unable to adapt to the modern world
December 20, 2000

In 1990, Congregation-the "parliament" of Oxford's 3,000 dons-agreed that the university should establish a business school, a proposal first mooted, and rejected, 25 years before. In 1996, the university announced that after three years of discussions the Syrian-born businessman, Wafic Said, had agreed to donate ?20m to establish the Said Business School, and that John Kay had agreed to be its first director. Congregation then rejected a proposal to use a playing field once owned by Merton College as the site of the school. After a year-long battle, it was agreed that construction would begin opposite Oxford station on a building which should be completed in 2001. But soon after construction began, Kay resigned as director.

The university of Oxford is one of Britain's great institutions. It commands affection and respect across the world. Yet today there is also a sense of malaise, both inside and outside the university: a belief that Oxford finds it difficult to adapt to changing educational and social needs, a fear that it can no longer maintain its pre-eminence. There is real cause for this disquiet. My object here is not to consider how Oxford needs to change to meet the challenges of the 21st century. It is to discuss, from my own experience, a prior issue: why the university seems unable even to address the question.

It is not easy to describe Oxford's governance structure. This difficulty is not just my own. Management consultants Coopers & Lybrand, reporting on Oxford's governance in 1996, noted that "in one of our meetings, the expression of bewilderment by one person was explained by others as being due to the fact that he had been in Oxford for only seven years."

The university has no structures of authority, responsibility and accountability, and many of its officers and members have no concept of such structures. The system is a morass of committees with ill-defined and overlapping jurisdictions. I once spent an entertaining half-hour sifting through the terms of reference for committees on which I sat, highlighting words that were euphemisms for "meddle." By this I meant phrases which conferred the right to be involved in a decision, but not the obligation to take responsibility for its consequences. I identified terms such as "monitor," "have oversight of," "propose," "liaise with," "advise"-even, delicious phrase, "be recognised as having an interest in." Almost every paragraph included some such words.

The consequence of this miasma is not only the waste of time and paper. It is the absence of any means of resolving contentious issues in a consistent way-or often at all. As Coopers & Lybrand observed, "in many cases, university decisions are not specifically made at all, they just emerge." Government and corporate bureaucracies are also afflicted with committees designed to diffuse and deflect responsibility. But there is no doubt in either case that ministers or senior executives have the authority to make decisions, that they are identified with these decisions, and that they are accountable for the consequences.

In Oxford there is no equivalent. The source of ultimate authority is Congregation: the "parliament" of all the Oxford faculty, some 3,000 in number. The impracticality of Congregation as a forum for decision-making is so clear that I came to learn that the words "this might have to go to Congregation" became a powerful argument against a proposal.

In the absence of an effective means of resolving issues, a number of devices are employed. The most frequent is simply to avoid raising any matter that might lead to opposition. This process of evading issues is called "building consensus." Opposition is usually rationalised as an objection to the way in which a proposal has been brought forward. In my time at Oxford, I do not think I encountered a single person who admitted that they were opposed to the university establishing a business school. But I heard dozens of objections to the procedures used to establish it. And because the procedures are ill-defined, there is always a case for these criticisms.

Another tactic is deferral. Because time is not valued and urgency is not felt, it is thought unreasonable to resist the suggestion that a decision be delayed. Yet another is ambiguity-the search for a means of describing a discussion that appears consistent with every view which has been expressed.

Many decisions are made by examining precedent. At first it puzzled me why so much time was spent discussing whether a proposed action had a precedent and so little in reviewing the merits of the action itself. I came to realise that, because you did not have a means of making a new decision, you could sometimes arrive at a conclusion by asserting that the issue was predetermined by a decision that had already been made. Because this argument from precedent is so often used, it aggravates the problem of making a new decision: such a decision might have unforeseeable implications in future discussion of quite different matters.

This procedure was satirised by Francis Cornford in Cambridge a century ago in Microcosmographia Academica: "The Principle of the Dangerous Precedent is that you should not now do an admittedly right action for fear you, or your equally timid successors, should not have the courage to do right in some future case, which, ex hypothesi, is essentially different, but superficially resembles the present one. Every public action which is not customary, either is wrong, or, if it is right, is a dangerous precedent. It follows that nothing should ever be done for the first time."

One instance of this indecisiveness was a running sore for me, as director of Oxford's first business school. The Oxford Centre for Management Studies had been established in the 1960s, in loose association with the university, but outside it. While the centre had kept the torch of management studies burning by the Isis, it had not succeeded in establishing a strong reputation in the business world or in achieving intellectual credibility within Oxford. When the university decided to develop a business school of its own, a number of alternative courses of action were available. It could use the centre as the basis for its new initiative; it could close the centre; it could let it develop outside the university; or it could establish its new institution and merge the older one into it.

The university did not adopt any of these alternatives, because each might have been contentious, and it may not have had the power to implement any of them. Instead, a bizarre series of events was allowed to unfold. Following a donation from John Templeton, the centre changed its name to Templeton College. Although it was not a college of the university, it formed an aspiration to achieve recognition as such. Oxford procrastinated, sought to impose (but did not enforce) conditions on admission, and eventually gave in. In consequence, there is a charitable foundation by the Oxford bypass whose main business is to run training courses for middle managers who have no other connection with the university. The university does not admit students to these courses; nor does it supervise, accredit, or derive revenue from them. But Templeton enjoys the governance arrangements and status within the university of foundations such as Balliol and Christ Church.

Since hardly anyone outside Templeton College thought this arrangement was a good idea, it is reasonable to ask how it happened. The resolution of contested issues can be postponed for many years by avoiding discussion, by deferral, by ambiguity, by referral to other committees, and by other forms of procrastination. But eventually these devices run out. If a small group of people is sufficiently persistent, it stands a fair chance of getting what it wants, after a long delay. This is true however small the group and however weak the merits of its case.

Quality control requires clarity and firmness. The lack of either is potentially disastrous for an institution with aspirations to high standards. For example, I was involved in an assessment of a probationary Oxford lecturer. The case was clear. The individual had poor teaching evaluations and a thin research record: an external assessor from a redbrick university affirmed that the person concerned would not qualify for tenure at his own institution. Both Oxford and the individual would have been better off if the lecturer had been transferred to a less exalted university. This could easily have been arranged.

But Oxford is full of kind and well-meaning people, so non-renewal would have been contentious. I learned that a decision not to renew the contract, even if agreed by all the senior academic staff at the business school, would have to go first before a committee of 16 people (several more junior than the individual concerned) and then on to a still larger committee. That committee would contain nobody with any knowledge of the subject or of business education, but might well overturn the original recommendation: it would certainly scrutinise procedure in minute detail and seek common ground between conflicting positions. It was apparent that non-renewal was simply impracticable.

A further consequence of this inability to resolve contested issues is that there can be nothing that the world outside would recognise as budgeting, resource planning, policy or strategy formation, because difficult choice is the essence of all of these activities. The lack of such procedures means that in reality there is no management process at all.

Instead, it is an agreed convention that in recognition of the budgetary pressures on the university, no new initiative will today be considered unless it is claimed by its proposers that it requires the expenditure of no additional resources. Such assertions are obviously untrue-how can you extend the length of a course by a year without additional resources?-but are rarely challenged. Since all proposals supposedly have no cost, there can be no meaningful discussion of different uses of the university's resources, and there is inevitable acrimony when the implications of a proposal in due course emerge. This is what happened in the establishment of the business school.

Thus, the university proceeds by a mixture of general inertia and random initiatives. The business school was the largest of recent initiatives. When I became director in 1996, it was clear to me that the first priorities were to establish a development strategy, to identify the early steps needed to implement that strategy, and to put forward proposals for the operational management of the school to the university.

The preparation of a strategy went well. I held enthusiastic meetings with colleagues. We spent a day with all our management faculty formulating a strategy document. The paper runs to 50 pages, defines the immense potential of a business school in Oxford, and I remain proud of it. My hope was that we could discuss this strategy with the university and then begin the implementation of an agreed plan.

At this point, the process ran into the ground. The university had no mechanism for proceeding with such discussions. I was advised that I had to turn the document into specific proposals which would then be considered by diverse relevant committees. But a plan to establish a new institution rests on interlinked initiatives. You cannot discuss courses, staffing, and buildings independently of each other, even if there were different committees for all these things.

The draft document was circulated to senior officers of the university. I do not know whether any of them read it-I never received a single comment or reaction. The only serious discussions of the document outside the embryonic business school were with our business advisory council and with Wafic Said's trustees. Both these groups consist of people accustomed to the idea that agreeing objectives and strategy and decentralising responsibility for implementation are the means by which organisations undertake new ventures. They offered valuable feedback. But the university was unable collectively to engage in the process of determining strategy.

When we did move on to specifics, the burning questions to be resolved were the relationship between the school and Templeton College-and the problems of salaries and recruitment. I lost count of the number of times I was asked to explain the relationship between the university's business school and Templeton College, especially to potential corporate supporters. But I could not explain it, because I could not understand it. Nor could Templeton, as is evident from its extensive press advertising and its website. I inherited an entire drawer of a filing cabinet, containing records of discussions going back to 1982 on the university/ Templeton relationship.

I was present at similar discussions for a further two years. These added to the volume of paper but contributed nothing to a resolution. Officers of the university exerted no influence to secure such a resolution, and urged us to seek refuge in further ambiguity. The plan was that we would announce to the world that there was an agreement on the complementary roles of the institutions, although we would have been unable to explain the nature of the agreement because none could be reached. I encountered considerable hostility by resisting this notion. When there are conflicting interests, and no mechanism for adjudication, discussions can continue interminably. These ones did. I expect they are proceeding still.

We encountered the same incapacity to reach a conclusion in relation to salaries and recruitment. It is not possible to attract an internationally distinguished business school faculty if a newly appointed lecturer is paid less than ?20,000 and the standard professorial salary is around ?40,000. (Would you listen to a lecture on corporate finance or option pricing from someone earning less than a receptionist at an investment bank?) But Oxford, like other universities, cannot afford to pay all its staff at the rate necessary to attract capable business school teachers.

Arguments for salary equality should not be lightly dismissed. One of the strengths of Oxford is the cross-disciplinary nature of its colleges; that solidarity risks being eroded if two colleagues are paid radically different amounts, not because of differences in experience or achievement, but simply by virtue of the marketability of their skills. Still, if it is to maintain that egalitarian stance, the university has to abandon aspirations to establish a business school and will-as is happening-find it increasingly difficult to teach economics, engineering and law.

But although I spent many, many hours at meetings discussing salaries, this fundamental issue was never discussed. Since the substantive problem could not be resolved without contention, it was not allowed to arise. Sometimes the meetings focused on deferral-I was criticised for my insistence on raising now an issue which might, in some unspecified manner, be settled in the future. There was much discussion of precedent-could we discover some previously adopted salary practices which, however spuriously, might resemble the present case? But most time was devoted to the search for ambiguity-could we establish a formula which actually paid people more while appearing not to do so? In the end, this approach offered no real answer: when it comes down to it, people are either paid more or they are not.

At one level, the mental dexterity that went into these exercises was impressive. There was an element of ritual, of games played according to arcane rules. Most participants had worked in Oxford for all or most of their careers. They had almost no experience of the business world, and little knowledge of other organisations. They had spent much of their lives learning Oxford processes, and did not recognise their idiosyncrasy, though there was a certain pride in the uniqueness of the Oxford way.

The incoherent and committee-based nature of the governance structure poses particular problems for those who hold university posts, such as vice- chancellor, or director of a business school. These officers have executive titles, but virtually no executive authority. They enjoy responsibility without power: the converse of the power without responsibility embedded within university committees.

Such jobs are profoundly unattractive-for myself, ultimately impossible-to undertake. Consequently the posts are often occupied by people who enjoy the processes of the university for their own sake; or who relish prestigious titles even if the powers they have do not correspond to the title. More often, senior positions and seats on committees are filled by academics with a strong sense of obligation to Oxford as an institution. They wish to contribute, but feel frustrated by the time they are wasting, and long to return to teaching and research.

It is difficult-or impossible-for people outside Oxford, used to normal management processes, to deal with those who hold executive titles but who do not have executive functions. Outsiders expect to negotiate agreements with responsible officers on the basis that the results of such negotiation will be honoured. But this expectation cannot be satisfied, because the individuals who conduct the negotiations lack appropriate authority. This situation was a source of incomprehension and eventually of frustration to Said, who spent five years trying to persuade the university to accept his ?20m gift.

One day, the consequences of this to the university will prove costly; someone will refuse to accept the excuse that apparent commitments cannot be fulfilled because no one ever had the authority to make them, and become litigious rather than merely angry. But the indirect costs are already very large. The inability to engage effectively with the world outside limits the capacity of the university to undertake new initiatives and reinforces inward-looking instincts.

With my colleagues, I sought to establish a governance structure that would enable the business school, at least, to make decisions. We put forward proposals under which an executive committee of the school would have reported on operational matters to a board made up of senior members of the university plus experienced outside business people, and on academic matters to a university committee. This corresponds, more or less, to the way in which leading academic institutions around the world are run.

I was not successful even in securing serious discussion of these suggestions. The involvement of senior business people in discussion and decisions was particularly objectionable: they were liable to be critical of Oxford's processes, and the best means of dealing with this was to shut them out. This position was defended by reference to democracy and academic integrity. These assertions were spurious. It was often embarrassing to contrast the rigorous insistence of outside supporters of the university on the maintenance of the highest academic standards with the constant willingness of university officers to fudge and compromise in the interests of domestic harmony. The essential problem of Templeton College-that it had not managed to reach academic standards consistent with Oxford's reputation-was widely recognised outside the university but could never be acknowledged, far less addressed, within it.

The clarity of responsibility I sought was not the Oxford way, and by diluting the role of university committees it was feared that the business school would undermine Oxford's ostensible democracy. At this point I finally understood that creating an institution within Oxford which could compete with major international business schools was impossible.

How can an institution that is so badly run have been successful for so long? The answer runs, I believe, as follows. The art of managing a successful academic community involves balancing the need for pluralism and individual intellectual freedom with a shared commitment to the values and success of the institution. The decentralised collegiate structure of Oxford, combined with its inchoate committee processes, sustained that balance for many years. But this achievement depended on a high degree of social homogeneity among the members of the university, a relatively slow-moving environment, and little external pressure. Faced with internal heterogeneity, much greater outside pressure, and a rapid pace of change, this structure has ceased to work.

For activities which are well established and reasonably successful-and this is true of most of what Oxford does-paralysis of decision-making and an absence of capacity to devise policy or strategy result in slow decline, but not immediate disaster. Oxford is not collapsing, simply sliding gradually into mediocrity. We can argue about the significance of published league tables, but there is no doubt that Oxford is losing its pre-eminence among British academic institutions, and that these in turn are falling increasingly behind the top US schools. While the power of the Oxford brand is still extraordinary, and the quality of the best students, teaching and research remains outstanding, an increasing amount of activity is mediocre and amateur.

The above characteristics are true of the university as a whole. The problems faced by the business school were more acute, partly because there was no history to rely on, but mostly because a big initiative required many decisions across many issues.

The problems of Oxford are structural, and should not be blamed on individuals, most of whom are able and well-intentioned. There is a comprehensive failure of leadership, but nothing worse. A deplorable Oxford characteristic is the degree to which justified dissatisfaction with the performance of institutions is held to be the fault of particular people. No doubt it is true that if the vice-chancellor combined the management skills of Jack Welch, the communication skills of Bill Clinton, the political acumen of Machiavelli, and the patience of Job, all would be well. But effective management structures are those which can be operated by people who are less than perfect. I was myself the victim of this feature of Oxford life: it remains unbelievable to me that my inability to achieve the things that obviously needed to be done was held to be my responsibility by the very people who denied me the authority to bring them about.

There is a widespread perception within Oxford itself that the governance structure is in need of reform: there has even been a recent committee of inquiry, led by a former vice-chancellor, although its results were of little consequence. But the capacity to generate reform internally is limited by a lack of understanding of the nature of the problems.

These problems were well identified by the Coopers & Lybrand report (prepared as part of the background to the committee of inquiry). But Coopers' comments-although made with obvious respect for the institution-were brushed aside. There are those who think that any criticism of Oxford's procedures-even from its own consultants or members-must be the product of misunderstanding or malice.

As Coopers & Lybrand emphasised, the search for participatory democracy is doomed. It is not only that an organisation of the size and complexity of Oxford cannot be run by an assembly of 3,000 people, important though that point is. It is also that, even if they could do it, they should not. Any reader of John Bayley's admirable Iris and the Friends will recognise that the characters described are people who should be left free to develop the products of their extraordinary talents, while others, with fewer gifts but more relevant experience, worry about the level of student fees, the design of the reception area in the business school, and the salary paid to a computing assistant.

The inability to understand that democracy does not preclude delegation and expertise is general. The construction of a business school is a ?30m task and it was obvious to me that we needed a project manager who could answer the questions raised by the architects and engineers-questions, for example, about the ventilation system or the materials to be used. I was refused permission to hire such a person. I was told that in Oxford the way to deal with such issues was to appoint-of course-a committee of academics. Hiring someone would also cost money, while the time of academics, who should have been doing teaching and research, was assumed to be free.

This problem went deep. All the support functions of the university-from accounting to fundraising to marketing-are underpaid and under-resourced. Professional skills are not valued, nor the individuals who have them. As a result, the university fails to take advantage of the talents and often extraordinary commitment of its non-academic staff, who in turn feel demoralised and fearful of any show of initiative. This resistance to professionalism was particularly damaging for a new business school, obliged to compete with modern, well-managed institutions elsewhere. Oxford's neglect of these essential support functions does not prevent the university from spending disproportionate amounts on administration. The bulk of this expenditure, however, goes on maintaining the detailed mechanisms of internal control and on the servicing of committees. The institution would be better off if most of these tasks simply ceased to be performed.

The notion that effective management and free intellectual inquiry are incompatible derives from the belief that if you give people authority to fix Iris Murdoch's bookshelves they will start telling her what to write. This fear should not be discounted completely-there are people like that-but there are also ample means of safeguarding against them. The ideal of a community of scholars is well worth preserving, but we should be clearer about what it does and does not mean. The most vibrant academic institutions-like Harvard and Stanford today, or Oxford in its glory days-are those which give scholars the financial and practical freedom to pursue the goals of scholarship. In a modern world, this is achievable-as at Harvard and Stanford-only through effective professional management of the institution.

It is widely understood in Oxford that the participatory model has failed. Members of the university believe, correctly, that they are offered the appearance of participation but denied its reality. They think real authority has been assumed by someone else-the administration in Wellington Square, or a clique of university politicos. They are not entirely wrong, because the paralysis of formal mechanisms has led to the parallel development of informal processes. When decisions are made, or meaningful discussions take place, it is often in secret, and within groups with no formal status. In this way, a system which is notionally open and democratic is in fact the exact opposite-a paradox noted by Coopers-and there is a lack of integrity at its core. But these parallel processes are mostly concerned with minutiae of procedure or appointments, rather than with matters of substantive policy. It is not that power has been usurped; it is that it is nowhere to be found.

I have already referred to the existence of a view in Oxford that criticism is only the product of misunderstanding or malice. No doubt some readers will receive these comments in that vein. But nothing could be further from the truth. One of my great sadnesses was the number of people I met who felt they had benefited greatly from their time at Oxford, who loved and respected the institution and wanted to help it adapt to a new environment, but who found their efforts to do so rebuffed. Eventually, I became one myself. n