Dons win first round in reform struggle

Amid allegations of bullying, John Hood has lost the debate on his proposals for assessing academics
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The Independent Online

For some weeks, Oxford dons have been engaged in feverish debate about the reforms proposed by the university's new vice-chancellor, John Hood, formerly a captain of industry in New Zealand. The atmosphere at the ancient institution was unusually febrile in advance of Tuesday's debate by the university's parliament, Congregation, on the issue of reviewing academics' work. The fact that the result went against Hood's proposal (by 351 votes to 153) will probably end that particular fight. Under Oxford's rules, a postal ballot can now be sought but that is thought unlikely to happen given the size of the majority against Hood.

For some weeks, Oxford dons have been engaged in feverish debate about the reforms proposed by the university's new vice-chancellor, John Hood, formerly a captain of industry in New Zealand. The atmosphere at the ancient institution was unusually febrile in advance of Tuesday's debate by the university's parliament, Congregation, on the issue of reviewing academics' work. The fact that the result went against Hood's proposal (by 351 votes to 153) will probably end that particular fight. Under Oxford's rules, a postal ballot can now be sought but that is thought unlikely to happen given the size of the majority against Hood.

The vice-chancellor, who has hit Oxford like a tornado with his ideas for change since he arrived, has proposed a raft of reforms that have sorely provoked the academic staff, antagonising lecturers, professors and heads of colleges. "Seeing people wrecking Oxford is disagreeable," says Professor Alan Ryan, warden of New College and a noted political theorist. "John Hood would be well advised to read Machiavelli's The Prince, which contains a section on the difficulties of reducing free states to subservience."

The former vice-chancellor, Sir Colin Lucas, may not have been a financial wizard but he knew what a university was about, according to Professor Ryan. "You stick a businessman in charge of a university and it's all a complete cock-up. He doesn't know what the job is about and he doesn't know what the place is for. His first act is always to get into a fight and piss everyone off."

Hood has been trying to drive through change at breakneck speed. He is seeking to reform the way that Oxford runs itself, which would effectively reduce the autonomy of the 39 colleges, and he has also proposed ways to ensure that Oxford performs better. Plans for mandatory reviews of dons' work fell into the latter category.

Moreover, Hood is overseeing a rationalisation of Oxford's libraries, which include iconic buildings like the Bodleian. This is one of the great libraries of the world, parts of which date back to the 15th century; its collections are used by international scholars. Talk of cutting the university's libraries from 45 to 10 or 12 - and turning half of the Bodleian over to other uses, including using its Radcliffe Camera reading rooms as a public relations display space - are not popular. The university administration, however, denies that either of these more radical proposals are on the table.

Mindful of having hit so many raw nerves, the authorities have postponed the governance and library proposals for now. A report is to be drawn up about Oxford's libraries, and governance will be discussed in November this year.

That left the most contentious idea to be sorted out: the review of academics' work. The vice-chancellor's first Green Paper, published in January 2005, outlined regular, joint university-college reviews of academics' work "with scope to enhance financial rewards, rebalance academic duties, and address underperformance".

The dons say that they do not object to having their work appraised. In fact, they have been subject to appraisal since the 1980s. What concerned them was Hood's form of appraisal linked to pay. "It might have been used to bully people," said Dr Lawrence Goldman, a fellow of St Peter's College and editor of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. "Hitherto, appraisal has been a positive experience that has assisted us. What we were seeing is a wind of change that might be used as a way of putting pressure on people."

In his strategy Green Paper, the vice-chancellor based his plans on the notion that Oxford needed to increase its income to compete internationally. "If radical measures are not taken, Oxford's standing will decline," said the Green Paper. One of the simplest ways to fill university coffers is to ensure that academics do as well as possible in the research assessment exercise. The opposition believes that Hood's desire to retain Oxford's position as a great research university is laudable but that it should not come at the expense of teaching students. Nor should it damage Oxford's culture, says Dr Goldman. "There is no doubt that we could blow all our resources on producing the very best research if you think that is what a university is for," he says. "But it is for other things as well.

"We would argue for a balance of the different functions. Oxford has always taken the teaching of undergraduates and postgraduates very seriously, and people are concerned that the strategy might move us more towards the American model, where teaching is less emphasised." The rebels denied that they were engaged in a power battle with the vice-chancellor, arguing that it was a battle of ideas about what the nature of a modern university should be.

Behind the debate about appraising academics' work lay a real fear, based on what had been happening to academics who were considered to have been underperforming in medicine, the sciences and maths. Some had been called in for discussions and received letters saying that if they didn't improve they could be fired.

"In the event that your performance does not reach a satisfactory standard, there may be no option but for the situation to be considered under the university's formal disciplinary procedures... which might lead to termination of your employment," says the letter. According to Professor Ryan, that amounted to bullying. And in the long run it was short-sighted, he said, because it doesn't produce better research. It simply frightens people.

One young academic, in the first year of her job as a college tutor and Oxford lecturer, says that the proposal was insulting and intimidating. "I didn't spend years getting my PhD and training as a teacher and researcher to settle for an insecure job in a corporate environment," she says. "This threat of reviewing our work and punishing us creates an atmosphere of fear, which is the opposite of the academic freedom and creativity that makes Oxford such a wonderful place to work."

According to another academic, who also declined to be named, the new review process was utterly unacceptable. The academics who were called in and told to shape up were either told their research was not up to standard or that they were not bringing in enough research money. "Who's to judge that?" he says. "That's not the point of academic work. It's absolutely appalling. We're not here to generate money. That's why we keep harping on about academic freedom. It will wreck this university."

Hood was not speaking to the press before the vote. Dame Fiona Caldicott, the principal of Somerville College and Oxford's pro-vice chancellor, said the proposal on reviewing dons' work was intended to help them, not to breach their academic freedom: that was the last thing the university wanted to do, she said.

"Academics tell us that workload is a problem. At Oxford, many academics have two employers, the university and the college. This proposal is to give them a regular forum to discuss workload and how it can be addressed."

Asked about the alleged bullying in the cases of some members of staff, Dame Fiona said that the idea of staff being bullied was deeply disturbing. Any academics complaining of such treatment should write to her and she would take it up. "I am sorry that they found it necessary to talk to a journalist rather than to pursue the matter through the university's own channels," she said.

The number of academics receiving the warning letter was very small, she continued. Fewer than 30 had been called in for a talk about their research performance and only a small proportion of those had received the letter. l.hodges@independent.co.uk

New boss: the ultimate outsider

John Hood is the first outsider in Oxford's 800-year history to have been made vice-chancellor. All the others have come from Oxford's academic body. Hood came from the vice-chancellor's job at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. Before that, he had been a captain of industry. That in itself was enough to worry the dons. But Hood, who was born and bred a Kiwi, has meant business from the start. He therefore went about his job in the way that any chief executive of a company would have done. He has moved swiftly on all fronts, wanting to act while he had the time and the goodwill to make the changes he thought necessary.

Oxford has come in for criticism in recent years - over the Laura Spence case, where Magdalen College turned down a youngster from a comprehensive in the North East who promptly accepted a place at Harvard; and in the Lambert report for its governance mechanisms and links with industry.

Hood is widely acknowledged to have done a brilliant job in analysing Oxford's finances and to have begun to put them right by appointing Giles Kerr, formerly the chief financial officer of Amersham International, to the job of finance officer. An engineer by training, Kerr is intelligent, energetic and focused, and unafraid to take on the dons.

Whether that will turn out to have been a sensible strategy in a university as venerable as Oxford, only time will tell.

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