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Not a CEO

  • 22 September 2023
  • By Gill Evans
  • This post was kindly authored for HEPI by Gill Evans, Emeritus Professor of Medieval Theology and Intellectual History at the University of Cambridge.

New Vice-Chancellors have taken office in Oxford and Cambridge since the beginning of 2023, Oxford’s in January and Cambridge’s on 5 July.  The Committee of University Chairs’ Code of Governance requires a governing body ‘to appoint the Head of Institution as Chief Executive’. Oxford and Cambridge do not belong to the CUC,  having no ‘Chairs’ to make them eligible. Two decades ago their governing bodies (Congregation and the Regent House), numbering thousands of their academic and academic-related staff, decided that their Vice-Chancellors are not ‘Chief Executives’.  

Both had recently decided to change the tradition of having Heads of House act in rotation for a few years and now appointed new-style salaried fixed-term Vice-Chancellors.  On 26 June 2002, a Report of the Council on governance was published in the Cambridge Reporter. That led as required to a Discussion. Speakers argued against an amendment which would have made the Vice-Chancellor a Chief Executive. The Regent House agreed, and voted against it. In Oxford similar ‘modernising’ governance changes were proposed by John Hood when he became Vice-Chancellor in 2004 and voted down by Congregation in 2006, after much debate. In his demitting Oration of 2009, Hood accepted defeat.

Oxford and Cambridge Vice-Chancellors are left largely to determine their own job descriptions. They will find little guidance in their Statutes. There are some instructions, but they omit any mention of Chief Executive powers, though for both various Chairmanships of committees are expected. Cambridge’s new Vice-Chancellor at least could be forgiven for any confusion about who was responsible for what in the complex structure of the University in which there are thirty-odd independent colleges. A circular sent around in mid-August offered help for administrators, describing the ‘silos and hierarchical layers’.

 The appointment of Irene Tracey, former Warden of Merton College, is Oxford’s first return to the tradition of appointing Heads of House. At her Admission on 10 January, she described her task as one of ‘service’. Deborah Prentice could scarcely have been less of an ‘insider’ to Cambridge, having spent her career in the USA, chiefly at Princeton. She has mentioned being warned that she is not a Chief Executive. Prentice too gave an address at her Admission on July 5, explaining that she had been in Cambridge since April on ‘ an immersive course of study on all things Cambridge’. She said she saw her ‘role as enabler’, working ‘with the extraordinary Cambridge community’, focussing ‘on what this place does best: nurturing academic excellence’, though ‘of course, academic excellence does not emanate from the Vice-Chancellor’s office’. 

Louise Richardson, soon to depart from office, set out her own thoughts about Vice-Chancellorship at the World Academic Summit a year ago. ‘University leaders,’ he said, ‘must be able to manage economic partnerships, and investments, and building projects, of a size and complexity that were once extremely rare and are now increasingly commonplace’. They have ‘in certain respects, to behave like CEOs of large companies’,to be keen-eyed and tough negotiators’, though with ‘a diplomatic role, as much as a managerial one’.

She was critical of Oxford’s democratic governance. Instead of its ‘ancient and decentralized’ system, she advocated training for leadership, by ‘connecting junior members regularly with leadership and with their own potential to become leaders’. She was conscious that  ‘management’ was ‘a term of abuse in some universities’, but she saw ‘leadership’ as managerial, with managers ‘holding the centre’.[1] 

Prentice’s predecessor, Stephen Toope, had left two years before his permitted seven years ended. He had certainly not been met by ‘deference’. In May 2022 there was student criticism in Varsity. [2][3] The Regent House had to be asked to approve a change of wording in the University’s free speech code on his recommendation. It said no.

As Acting Vice-Chancellor Anthony Freeling, President of Hughes Hall, filled the months after Toope’s departure in October 2022 until a new Vice-Chancellor could come into office.  He was interviewed about ‘A Vice-Chancellor’s Life’ by CAM, the alumni magazine, for its issue in Easter Term 2023.[4] ‘Leading Cambridge’ as ‘a community of scholars running their affairs through a combination of committees, boards and other groups to the benefit of all’ was, he said, ‘intricate and challenging’. He put first ‘the Vice-Chancellor’s job to make sure that the community works – now and over the very long term’. ‘I am in the room making sure’ that ‘discussion happens’. ‘That’s where the Vice-Chancellor’s influence lies.’  He said he spent ‘a lot of my time suggesting to person A they need to talk to person B – sometimes with me in the room, preferably without me in the room. The key is being able to make the connections’. All in all ‘this is a leadership role, but one in which it’s crucial to take people with you’. However, ‘being Vice-Chancellor is like a firehose. An enormous amount of information pours through every single channel, straight at you. You have to be good at absorbing that information. And more importantly, you need to work out which bits of information you’re going to even spend time trying to absorb’. ‘What’s really important is the people and the brilliant things they do – and the Vice-Chancellor’s role is to enable them to do them.’ [5]

On 21 August, Cambridge’s Registrary circulated an ‘all-staff’ message which saw a role of ‘leadership’ for the ‘new Vice-Chancellor’ in providing  ‘academic and administrative leadership to the whole University’. Each administrative division has its own executive head, called a Director or Chief Officer. In that context there are administrative ‘Chief Executives’ in parts of the universities’ work. In both universities the senior administrative roles are now recognised to be advisory as well as supervisory.

Both universities now have subsidiary Pro-Vice-Chancellors with portfolios, six in Oxford, five in Cambridge. In Oxford these are not necessarily career academics and may be appointed from outside the University. These have areas of responsibility involving something much closer to the ‘executive’ than is allowed to the Vice-Chancellor.   Cambridge’s part-time Pro-Vice-Chancellors are normally its own senior academics. They have their own ‘executive assistant team’.   

Both universities have begun to use the expression ‘senior leadership’, especially in relation to their Pro-Vice-Chancellors, but often including the academic Heads of Oxford’s four academic Divisions and Cambridge’s six counterpart ‘Schools’.  This is not a concept recognised by their Statutes.  What goes on in the many meetings, emails and phone calls among all these administrators, the Pro-Vice-Chancellors and the Vice-Chancellor is recorded by no published agenda or minutes.  However, Congregation and the Regent House have to be asked for their consent before major and many minor decisions may be taken. Having spent many years as a member of Congregation Tracey already knows she has only one vote as Vice-Chancellor.  Prentice too will have one vote like other members of the Regent House.

[1] Louise Richardson, ‘University leaders must be Janus-faced’, World Academic Summit, October 2022,

[2] Samuel Rubinstein  ‘It’s adieu, Monsieur Toope, not au revoir’, Varsity, May 5, 2022.




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