John Kay is misleading: Oxford does have a problem but it's not the one he thinks it isby Alan Ryan / January 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
John kay has occupied a good deal of space in the national press, and even more in Prospect last month, complaining that his failure to create the business school he wanted in Oxford was all the fault of the university’s sclerotic management practices, and evidence of its slow descent into mediocrity-illustrated by its third place in various league tables, behind Cambridge and then Imperial College. If Kay is right, the truth is clear-Oxford is gently going down the drain, encumbered by slow-moving committees, excessive academic democracy, and an unwillingness to seize commercial opportunities.
It’s not quite like that. Finger-pointing is improper, and any energetic person has their gripes about any organisation’s slow-footedness; but Kay’s wounds are largely self-inflicted. He never acknowledges in his complaints that if you turn up with a promise of ?20m, but need another ?20m to trigger it, you impose on your hosts the task of finding that other ?20m. Since Oxford hadn’t got it, it was right to be cautious. And if you are told by your benefactor to build a big building in the middle of a crowded city, you need to be careful where you put it. Kay did not want caution, and threw an extended tantrum. For a man who preaches the doctrine of the “ethical corporation,” he set quite high standards of ill- tempered managerial behaviour.
His talk of the university’s lack of decision-making procedures, and of the absence of a proper resource allocation system boils down to the complaint that he didn’t get his own way, and wasn’t allowed to spend money that other people rightly regarded as theirs. It’s no wonder that after two years of his monopolising much of the university’s time and attention he was finally allowed to stalk off.
Kay says he has not come across anyone who is openly against the Said Business School. If this is true, he can count me as the first. The whole enterprise has wasted an appalling amount of time, money and energy. I have no hostility to business schools as such. The Said Business School might be a useful, intellectually serious and agreeable place if set up as a free-standing enterprise like the London Business School. The attempt to insert it into a university with a proto-business school already established at Templeton College was a mistake, as Kay implicitly admits throughout his essay. It will doubtless work out in…