Justin Cartwright

The man who saved Oxford University

As the controversial Dr Hood stands down as vice chancellor, those of us who resented his attempts to modernise should offer him our heartfelt apologies, says Justin Cartwright

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The Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford is an astonishing building, designed by Christopher Wren. Its painted ceiling has just been restored, so that the darkish miasma that was Robert Streeter’s original allegory of truth and light striking the university, is now bright with playful cherubs and lustrous clouds. Here, bookended by large chunks of Latin, a new vice chancellor is to be admitted to the job. He is Andrew David Hamilton, his name Latinised for the ceremony into Andreas. He is not an Oxford man, having arrived here by way of Exeter, Cambridge and Princeton, where he was Provost. Later you could tell that he was not an Oxford man: he pronounced ‘Cherwell’, in his amusing and rather post-prandial speech, as ‘Churwell’.

Waiting for the procession to enter and looking at the ceiling, this sub-Michelangelo heavenly frolic, I wonder just how much it has cost to restore. This may be a university, but it is also a place stuffed with priceless treasures in astonishing buildings and all these have to be maintained. The Bodleian Library, next to the Sheldonian, is one of the great libraries of the world. As well as holding most of the books printed in England since the first quarter of the 17th century, it houses priceless printed texts, manuscripts and collections. Soon it will have a permanent display centre and a new book depository is being built. Money is the subtext of all these ancient rituals and historic demands. It is also the subtext of the outgoing vice chancellor’s oration. Over the past five years, Hood has divided dons and members of the university with his proposals for reform. This is one of the most charged handovers in the history of Oxford.

Before this, his final engagement, I have talked at length to John Hood, a New Zealander who had been invited to apply for the job in 2004, and I have repented of my rather casual remarks about him in my book on Oxford. Other commentators mostly bought the line that he was trying to turn the university into a sort of hellish academic warehouse. He tried at first to set in place a new council that would have a number of external members. This was modified, but passed by Congregation, the parliament of dons. The council would in effect have taken over the finances, replacing the 28 members, from a rotating group of 66 university fellows, including heads of colleges. But when Congregation put the proposals to a postal vote, they were resoundingly rejected. There was loose talk of Enron management practices and reminders of a scandal at the University of Toronto, when a big donor corporation, Eli Lilly, was said to have vetoed the appointment of an academic who doubted the effectiveness of Prozac. But there was also the understandable fear that sooner or later Congregation would become powerless. Other commentators, including Dr Howard-Johnston of Pembroke, author, inter alia, of Fur Trade from Classical Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages, were against disturbing the ancient governance of Oxford on the principle that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But, it turns out, it was broke, in both senses of the word. Chancellor Christ Patten, who knew how serious the situation had become, supported John Hood to the full. 

For the more left-wing dons, some of whom had been involved in the peevish rejection of Mrs Thatcher’s honorary degree, it was a sort of game. One don told me proudly that the left had used its traditional organisational skills to good effect. John Hood’s efforts were depicted as the thin end of the wedge: hedge fund managers and retired investment bankers would soon be running Oxford. And one of the least rational arguments was that Oxford had done fine for 900 years without spivs. What the opposition had perhaps failed to appreciate, or did not want to accept, was that Oxford has become a vast and intensely complex organisation, comparable in scope to a very big corporation but with far more social obligations. Not only that, but government had come to regard Oxford as an easy target. Personally, I have detested Gordon Brown since the moment in 2001 when he tried to make cheap capital out of the Laura Spence affair; as his troubles have piled up, I have felt no sympathy for him at all. 

Oxford dons are constitutionally disputatious; their purpose is to have opinions and to propel them to the top of the pile. But while they were disputing, the unpaid bills and the unsent invoices were gathering like autumn leaves in the university’s Dickensian offices, which were staffed by untrained people and bedevilled by two new computer systems that had failed to deliver. So, despite the rejection of his master plan, John Hood set about making the administration work. He employed new and professional people, he had the offices renovated and he moved heaven and earth to raise money — a target of £1.25 billion — so that Oxford could free itself from dependence on the government. At the same time he was performing the ceremonial functions of the job, which involved eating out virtually every night for five years. I was at a dinner in Trinity early on in Hood’s term, when Michael Beloff, then president of the college, welcomed him, saying, ‘We are all behind you, vice chancellor. Not too far I hope.’ It seemed to me to be a very Oxonian sort of greeting, and I wondered then if John Hood knew exactly what he had got himself into. If he didn’t, it could not have taken him long.

Now John Hood stands up beneath the restored cherubs. This is his final oration, his account of the year’s business, but also his last chance to put the record straight, and he looks tense and drawn. He is suffering from an infection and has taken a number of codeine tablets. He starts quietly, offering Samuel Johnson’s account of the usefulness of lectures: ‘People have now-a-days got a strange opinion that everything should be taught by lectures. Now I cannot see that lectures can do so much as reading from books from which the lectures are taken.’ It is his one and only rhetorical flourish.

He moves on to list the university’s achievements over the past year; we learn that research funding has grown by more than 20 per cent, that the Oxford University Press has contributed over £100 million, that Oxford is the most international of any research university in the world; that the Ashmolean Museum is almost ready to re-open, and that the Pitt Rivers has been refurbished. The list of projects and successes goes on and on. But I have the feeling that sooner or later he will get to what we have all been waiting for, his own role over the last five years. Finally, the moment arrives: ‘I come next to changes in the administration. In Michaelmas term, 2004, the university’s administration was under considerable stress...’ Yes, the university was four weeks from bankruptcy, and was unable to file its accounts for ten months. But Hood does not put it like that. He says the ‘institution was exposed to an unacceptable level of risk. There was no comprehensive list of capital expenditure commitments and there was no clear system to allocate capital according the university’s strategic priorities.’ This is diplomatic or perhaps accounting language for saying that the whole thing was an absolute bloody shambles when he arrived, sunk in amateurism and incompetence.

The heads of colleges, the incoming vice chancellor, the various donors and guests, are attentive: Ritalin is not something they have ever been prescribed. They know that behind this rather dour delivery is a man who has been hurt by his treatment and they sense that this is his moment. The repair work was undertaken, Hood continues, ‘in an environment too often, unfortunately, tarnished by gratuitous criticism, rather than stimulated by constructive di alogue’. Patten nods assent, from his gilded chair. His face is now oddly like the figurine of a Chinese emperor, massive and philosophical. What we are seeing, behind the formalities, is an intense human drama.

Hood goes on: ‘Allow me to touch on governance. Council had mandated the review of governance to coincide with my arrival, which I thought then, and certainly think with hindsight, was unfortunate. I said at the time I would ideally have preferred to have started a year later, and, as it happens, that may also have allowed greater exposure of some of the weaknesses of governance that led to the excessive financial and other risks faced by the university in 2004.’

In other words, he would have won the argument had people been aware of just how bad things were. He was unable to be too frank at the time, he has told me, because of the damage it would do to the perception of Oxford. He goes on to say that the present structure is vulnerable and must be changed. The rotating and part-time members of council are unable to deal with the ‘array of academic, financial, commercial, control and organisational issues’. He adds that governance has not been his prime concern in the past five years. Instead he has concentrated on advancing Oxford’s ‘core research and teaching mission’, which has been a resounding success. Undergraduate applications are up 24 per cent and graduate applications 80 per cent. The campaign to raise funds has reached £770 million of the target of £1.25 billion and Oxford tops every domestic league.

This is his legacy; although he does not spell it out, nobody mistakes what he is saying. His voice is strong as he moves on to the ritual thanks and accounts. As he finishes there is a very long ovation — an insider later tells me that it is unprecedented — led by Patten. Then, with several doffings of the mortar boards, he is invited to hand over the seal, the book and the huge bunch of keys of office. At this point in the old ceremony, he would have been led from the Sheldonian, but instead he sits down to listen to his successor’s short but far more orotund speech, which includes a good joke about two men running from a bear. Then we all file out into the rain, unexpected after sitting under the cerulean ceiling.

John Hood may not have that playful and caressing wit which is said to distinguish an Oxford man, but he was unmistakably the right man for the times. I owe him an apology.

Oxford owes him both an apology and a debt of gratitude.

Justin Cartwright’s This Secret Garden, Oxford Revisited, one in the ‘Writer in the City’ series, was published by Bloomsbury in 2008.