University chief defeated by dons to step down

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The Independent Online

John Hood, the industrialist from New Zealand who failed in his attempt to introduce radical changes at Oxford University, has announced that he will quit as vice-chancellor when his contract ends next year.

Dr Hood, the first outsider to be appointed Oxford's vice-chancellor in the university's 800-year history, had the option to continue in his role. His plans to alter the organisation were humiliatingly killed off by a rebellion of dons, who accused him of failing to understand the university's long-established traditions.

He was an industrialist who was appointed vice-chancellor of the University of Auckland, in New Zealand, before being brought to Oxford in 2004 to tackle chronic financial problems. In his first months in the job, he proposed to chip away at the traditional independence of the university's 39 colleges and introduce mandatory reviews of academics' work that would have offered financial rewards for those deemed to be doing well, and penalties for underperformers.

He also embarked on an overhaul of the university's library network, cutting down the number of libraries and planning a new, fully mechanised building to store stock for the Bodleian Library, one of the finest libraries in the world which suffers from an acute shortage of shelf space. But his reform plan in January 2005 set off an unprecedented dons' revolt, and was rejected by 351 votes to 153 after a meeting at the Sheldonian Theatre.

The dons particularly disliked the thought of being subjected to regular reviews linked to their pay.

It was rumoured that Dr Hood considered resigning after this public humiliation, but was talked out of it. At the height of the debate he said in a letter to the university's 3,700 academics and staff: "Whatever the outcome of the postal ballot, I assure you that I will want to do all I can to put aside division, continue dialogue with all shades of opinion and, in an atmosphere of trust, tolerance and goodwill."

Dr Hood has now said he will step down at the end of his five-year contract in September 2009, rather than exercising the option to carry on until 2011. "That will be the appropriate time for me to hand on the immense privilege of leading this great university," he said yesterday. "Oxford is making huge progress on so many fronts and I look forward immensely to helping it to make further substantial advances over the next two years."

Oxford's chancellor, Lord Patten, a former Conservative Party chairman, praised Mr Hood's achievements. "Under his leadership, the university's global reputation, academic standing, financial strength, and internal organisation are all continuing to advance," he said.

Professor Alan Ryan, warden of New College, Oxford, who was one of the leading opponents of Mr Hood's 2005 Green Paper, said yesterday that being vice-chancellor of the ancient university has become "an impossible job", and suggested that it needed reforming along the lines of US universities, where the two tasks of being the public face of the university and running its finances are divided between the president and the provost.

"I don't think it's necessary to have someone who is literally from inside the university, but I do think it needs someone with a feel for the place and its peculiarities," he said. "The job is impossible because what we demand is two things which are jolly hard to do – one is to be the university's financial manager and the other is to have the sort of political talent to get everybody on board and feeling that they want to work in the same place."

In the latest set of international university rankings, published last week, Oxford rose to joint second place behind Harvard, in the US, but the university still has unresolved money problems. Dr Hood's last two years in office are expected to be devoted to a huge fund-raising campaign.

Before Dr Hood's arrival, Oxford University had been forced by the government to be more open about its financial management. The results showed that the university had been running up an annual deficit of £27.8m on its teaching, and £67.7m on the research side. The university admitted that it was bailed out by the profitable Oxford University Press publishing business. It attracted further unwelcome publicity when it was criticised by Gordon Brown for allegedly giving students from private schools preference over bright pupils from comprehensives.

In 2004, a report by Richard Lambert, former editor of the Financial Times, warned that Oxford and Cambridge universities were going to have to become more responsive to international competition.

The Green Paper that Mr Hood published in January 2005, would have transferred powers from the colleges to a large university-wide academic council, and would have created a board of trustees, all drawn from outside the university, to oversee finance, external relations, and the shape and size of the university.