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Why Oxford University is afraid of democracy

Chancellor of Oxford University Lord Patten pictured last year. Credit: Getty

May 17, 2024 - 10:30am

In a few months, Britain will go to the polls to make a once-in-a-generation choice. I speak, of course, of the University of Oxford’s chancellorship election which, like everything else associated with the country’s ancient universities, attracts disproportionate public attention.

It was no doubt with this in mind that the university authorities attempted to amend the electoral rules, establishing an election screening committee whose job was to screen out objectionable candidates. Details were few, except that the candidates list was to have “due regard to the principles of equality and diversity”. If only one candidate satisfied this and other unnamed requirements, the committee could declare that person elected.

Now, after a barrage of criticisms, the university has backed down, releasing a new set of regulations to “better clarify” what it really meant and swearing that it never intended to disqualify anyone on EDI grounds.

Though I was a participant in the campaign which forced the climbdown, I do in fact believe the university’s explanation. The real purpose of the attempted stitch-up was not to hoist onto the university a diversity ideologue — Oxford has a handsomely-salaried chief diversity officer already — but, rather, to install a bore who was both bland and unobjectionable. An election, by all of Oxford’s alumni, risked ruining that goal; indeed, it risked introducing an element of fun, and hence had to be quashed.

After all, chancellorship elections have historically been unpredictable affairs. At Oxford, at least two former prime ministers have been defeated at the polls because their politics were disliked by the electorate of the time. In 2011, Cambridge briefly risked being ruled over by a local grocer who ran to oppose the opening of a Sainsbury’s by the family of Lord Sainsbury, the eventual winner.

No doubt Oxford’s administrators felt emboldened, having successfully imposed the new Hong Kong-esque electoral system for the Professor of Poetry, the other Oxford job filled by alumni election. This used to be a feisty event, involving a fair amount of backstabbing among literary grandees, with the attendant media coverage. Occasionally, there was a joke candidate who promised to write unartful limericks instead of the respectable contemporary verse the post demanded, but in the end some worthy writer was always elected. No more.

The revised election rules for the chancellorship tell the story. Excluded from the post are students and staff, those disqualified from running a company (all fair enough), but also “a serving member of, or a declared candidate for election to, an elected legislature”.

The carve-out is telling, particularly as there aren’t that many unelected legislatures in the world (the chancellorship is open to anyone regardless of nationality). This is to ensure that peers — and Oxford is filled with life peers and people wanting to become life peers — would remain eligible, while excluding MPs.

This quaintly aristocratic provision reflects modern Oxford’s view of politics as something disreputable, unless done from the sedentary benches of the upper house — several heads of Oxbridge colleges in recent years have been centre-left life peers.

Similarly, having finally recovered from the Margaret Thatcher honorary degree debacle of 1985, it now bars politicians from receiving them. While Hillary Clinton received one in 2021, nothing quite atones for being a politician as losing to someone like Donald Trump. She also has a professorship named after her, endowed by well-heeled American alumni in record speed.

In the age of student encampments and academics with social media accounts, perhaps one cannot blame university administrators for being overly cautious. In 1960, Hugh Trevor-Roper arranged for then-Prime Minister Harold Macmillan to run for the post in order to save Oxford from the “solemn, pompous, dreary, respectable Times-reading world which hates elections (indeed, hates life)”. Today, Macmillan would be barred from the higher office: the broadsheet-reading election haters finally won.


Yuan Yi Zhu is an assistant professor at Leiden University and a research fellow of Harris Manchester College, Oxford.

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Graham Stull
Graham Stull
1 month ago

Fantastic article, Mr Zhu. I love insights into these weird and wonderful corners of modern life.
Despite your apparently successful efforts, I of course am hoping the next Oxford don will be a disabled, black, transgender with severe dyslexia and only pidgin English. Someone we can celebrate on Twitter.
Sorry, ‘X’.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
1 month ago

Everyone claims to love democracy, so long as their side is winning. It’s loving it when the other side wins that’s the challenge.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
1 month ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

The answer is, of course, to love having the opportunity to change the narrative so that next time, you win.

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
1 month ago

The Chinese Century where Western academia follows the authoritarian impulses of the current Maoist regime.
But beware, friends on the Left, the corporatist drive of the PRC and focus on concentration camps, makes the regime essentially Fascist in character.