Dennis Sewell

Assault on the ivory tower

Plum positions once reserved for academics are now being shared out among the liberal elite

Assault on the ivory tower
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Look down the list of the masters, wardens and principals of Oxford colleges and you’ll soon see that The Spectator’s contributing editor Peter Oborne was on to something with his theory of the inexorable rise of the media and political classes. At high tables across the university, former journalists, broadcasting executives and quangocrats are increasingly occupying places of honour once reserved for scholars of great renown.

Ensconced in the master’s chair at St Peter’s College is the former controller of BBC Radio 4, Mark Damazer. The principal of St Anne’s is former Newsnight editor and Channel 4 executive Tim Gardam. Ex-Guardian and Economist writer Frances Cairncross is the rector of Exeter College.

‘There’s foul weather ahead for all universities, but particularly for Oxford colleges,’ warned the senior fellow as he welcomed the appointment of the former Observer editor Will Hutton as Hertford College’s principal last year.

But if Will Hutton is the solution, what is the problem? It’s a fair bet that the author of The State We’re In wasn’t drafted in to rescue the institution’s finances. Hutton took up his position only a short time after the Work Foundation, the London think-tank he’d been running for a number of years, went spectacularly insolvent. A clue is perhaps offered by the senior fellow’s confidence that the appointee would enhance Hertford’s reputation for ‘innovation, open access... and intellectual distinction’ (note the order of priorities) and his identification of Hutton’s ‘experience of public life’ as grounds for optimism that the college will weather the impending storm.

Oxford has always been shamelessly quick on the uptake when it comes to spotting and adapting to changes in the nation’s power structure and enlisting men who represent whatever is currently on the rise. In the 1640s, after the city had fallen to Parliamentary forces, Wadham College elected John Wilkins as its warden, despite the fact that he was only 34 years old at the time. Wilkins, who went on to marry Oliver Cromwell’s sister and secure even greater eminence as master of Trinity College, Cambridge, ended up as one of the founders of the Royal Society, showing that appointments made for reasons of proximate political expediency can come to be seen as inspired and far-sighted in retrospect.

Since then, fellows who have come to believe the taunts about their being out of touch in their ivory towers have from time to time drafted in accomplished men and women from outside — usually retired civil servants, diplomats and distinguished lawyers — to refresh their colleges and reconnect them with the real world. Now the media have joined that list. Partly in recognition of the media’s power in contemporary society, but partly because of a crisis of confidence among academics occasioned by incidents such as the Laura Spence affair in 2000, when Gordon Brown launched an unworthy and unwarranted assault on Magdalen College’s admissions policies that left the fellowship floundering. Now, with the coalition government’s installation of Les Ebden at the Office for Fair Access with a brief to see that admissions policies always err on the side of political correctness, it is as if the Laura Spence affair has been institutionalised. Recent changes to the way higher education is funded have also left many dons feeling inadequate and looking for ‘operators’ who know their way around Westminster, Whitehall and the media to lead them.

Mansfield College has certainly covered all the bases with its choice of Baroness Kennedy as principal. Apart from a successful career at the Bar, Helena Kennedy has sat on more boards than the ‘quango queen’, Dame Suzi Leather, herself. She’s chaired the British Council, the Human Genetics Commission, the Power Commission, she’s been on the board of the British Museum, served as an external adviser to the World Bank, is a patron of Liberty and has sat on numerous commissions of inquiry. There isn’t room here to do more than begin to list her public leadership roles, let alone her 28 honorary doctorates from universities stretching from Edinburgh to Tomsk, or, indeed, her television credits as presenter of the BBC’s Heart of the Matter, Channel 4’s After Dark and panellist on just about every current affairs discussion programme going. To top it all, she is a power in the Labour party.

It would be amazing if there were not some measure of resentment among professional academics that so many of the top jobs are nowadays going to outsiders from the metropolitan bubble. Dons who follow the academic cursus honorum, scratching away for many years on less than the salary of a schoolteacher, have little to sustain them along the way other than the dream of one day acquiring the key to the master’s lodgings and the private garden. In the past there has been plenty of bitchy, gossipy rivalry for these posts — the battle between John Sparrow and A.L. Rowse for the wardenship of All Souls in 1952 was still being talked about over the crusted port half a century later. Yet there hasn’t been a word of criticism about today’s media-political interlopers, at least not in public.

In private, some worry that the newcomers will change the university’s culture for the worse, that the new generation of heads of houses will bring with them bad habits picked up at the BBC or in quangoland. Six years ago, Dame Patricia Hodgson, the former head of policy and planning at John Birt’s BBC, was appointed principal of Newnham College, Cambridge. She’s said to have started her first meeting with a piece of boilerplate bureaucratic waffle about ‘priorities’, was mercilessly teased about it by the assembled dons, and quickly had to ditch the Birtspeak. Is it too much to hope that Tim Gardam, whose idea of fun is his part-time role at Ofcom, or Mark Damazer, who did a spell at the Wharton Business School, or Will Hutton, who so frequently sounds as if he is addressing a Common Purpose seminar, will prove equally adaptable and rapidly acquire the charm, poise and conversational gifts of a Maurice Bowra?

By no means every college has fallen for the spurious glamour of the London media gang or feels the need for a bloodless technocrat or a political fixer at the helm. Balliol has recently appointed Sir Drummond Bone (now there’s a proper name for the head of an Oxford college!), an expert on the works of Lord Byron, as its new master. Who will do the best job? My money’s on the poetry man.