The Future of Oxford

Since university's controversial leader announced his plans to leave, academics reconsider his legacy -- and where the institution is headed.

March 18, 2008

Legion is the number of outside challenges to have been faced by the University of Oxford. The oldest English-speaking university in the world has adjusted its bearings in the wake of peasant uprisings, the Reformation, and, somewhat more recently, a fast-changing international climate in which the dreaming spires of the old global elite find themselves playing catch-up against their relatively youthful American counterparts.

For the past four years, one of the most powerful outside forces at work in the ancient British university has been at Oxford’s own helm: John Hood, the university’s 270th chief executive to date and the first ever to be elected to the position from beyond the institution’s academic body, who recently announced that he will be stepping down from his position in 2009. The vice chancellor, as British university presidents are known, had been under pressure to quit because of his controversial, and now rejected, plans to reform the way Oxford is run.

Hood, a lanky, quiet-spoken 56-year-old New Zealand businessman turned academic, prepares to leave his post as arguably the most significant infusion of foreign blood that Oxford has experienced since Emo of Friesland became the university’s first overseas student. That was in 1190, back when students partied like it was 999, and some say Oxford has remained a little too closely hewed to such far-off eras in terms of its academic mission in the 21st century -- far more so than the University of Cambridge, the other member of the “Oxbridge” pair, whose march toward modernity has generally won more appreciative notices.

Oxford boasts a historically complicated web of governance, even more so than Harvard University, the stateside institution with which it can most usefully be compared. The time-baked British university acts as a sort of federal overlord responsible for providing the overall academic structure and resources, while its 39 constituent colleges function as self-governing member states, with their own traditions, codes of conduct, endowments, and libraries for the university's 17,000-strong student body. Hood’s mission, as he saw it, has been to modernize both aspects of the university, and find better ways of making the operation over all more competitive against its better-heeled American competitors, something he had enjoyed notable success in achieving earlier as leader of the smaller University of Auckland.

"Essentially," laughs Andrew Dilnot, the principal of Oxford’s St. Hugh’s College and a deputy president of the university since 2005 who has worked closely with Hood, "Oxford was looking for someone with the wisdom of Solomon, and all the other attributes of Hercules." Over and above everything else, he believes, "Dr. Hood’s raw intellect has been the great quality he has brought to the position -- he really is a very, very clever man."

Not every onlooker has offered such glowing reviews. As his opponents tell it, the Oxford chief was appointed in something of a panic by people who had, as one put it to Inside Higher Ed, “suddenly realized that the university's financial management was in need of an overhaul, but who were unable to distinguish between the concept of a university being broke and a university's accounting system being broken.”

By giving the newcomer an exaggerated picture of what was needed and what he had to do, Hood himself -- according to the dissenting narrative -- turned out to be a panicker as well, not least on account of his lack of political antennae when it has come to the necessary business of charming parliamentarians on the outside, and mastering “the gentle art of herding cats” on the inside.

That’s been a shame, says one, “because he is a terrific analyst of financial issues, and he in most respects perfectly nice. But utterly out of his depth and in entirely the wrong place. He'd have been a wonderful provost to a good president, but not in the top job here, where painting the right picture and securing belief in it by at least 90 percent of the troops is essential.”

“I wouldn’t know about that,” says Dilnot of the suggestion that Hood failed to win over British M.P.'s. “The parliamentarians I speak with have only the highest regard for Dr. Hood, although I suppose I haven’t met with them all.” Among others he interacts with within the institution, too, “I hear only positive things.” Faculty members, for instance, who might once have been mulling a transatlantic shift on account of better salaries and work conditions, seem “rather less anxious” about things than they might have been earlier in the decade.

Hood’s own background in engineering, the subject of his own Ph.D., has certainly been put to apparent use as well. He has overseen ambitious building projects as large as any of the past century, including a program to greatly expand the university’s “medicine hub,” new improvements in its facilities dedicated to the classics and business education, and the redevelopment of everything from Oxford’s now-swanky science facilities to the upgrade of the world’s oldest university museum, the Ashmolean.

In all, 30 new research centers, including the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, the British Inter-University China Centre and the Oxford-Man Institute for Quantitative Finance, have been established or announced, along with several other significant new interdisciplinary sites. Oxford has always been a research-led institution, of course, but, supporters point out, such developments are significantly forward looking.

Over the past three years, as well, the level of annual gift-giving to the university as a whole has risen to nearly $200-million, a far cry yet from the generosity enjoyed by those American institutions that Oxford sees as its natural international competitors but still nearly double the levels of 2004. The university’s development office is currently putting the finishing touches on a $2-billion fund-raising campaign, the biggest in its history. Excluding the university’s physical assets, which are significant income-spinners, Oxford’s current endowment stands at $6-billion.

But it has been on the administration front, perhaps, that Hood has notched some of his most notable successes -- and failures. The university’s ongoing computer problems -- at one stage earlier in the decade part of its information technology center was run out of an administrator’s bedroom -- appear to have been ironed out, along with what until recently was the lack of any single office devoted to international strategy, maintaining its institutional links and collaborations with other global institutions and organizations, and ensuring a coherent approach is taken to develop them further.

Hood suffered one of his most public setbacks in 2006 after the university’s 4,400-strong ruling body -- the so-called “parliament of dons” -- overwhelmingly voted down his proposal to bring in outsiders to oversee finances.

Fittingly, perhaps, one of the president’s most recent actions, under a new claims procedure whose establishment he oversaw in 2006, was to authorize the return to New Zealand of four sets of 19th century human remains held in the University Museum of Natural History. Hood, who is not granting interviews at this point, is expected to finalize his own repatriation plans to New Zealand later this year after the university’s executive body makes its recommendation for a successor. Whether Oxford gambles again on another “outsider,” Oxford watchers agree that Hood’s tenure has ensured that the next incumbent will almost certainly be in the same modernizing style as the outgoing antipodean.

“The good thing that John Hood's period has done is to make us look seriously at how we operate and why we do,” Nicholas Bamforth, a law fellow at Queen's College and a high-profile critic of the Hood style, told the Telegraph. “Our view has always been that his plans were wrong, but it is good for any institution to think from time to time about how to work best.”

Adds Nigel Haworth, a British-born scholar at the University of Auckland who dealt frequently as both a scholar and academic unionist with Hood in his previous post: “I wouldn’t imagine John has been remotely fazed by what he has encountered at a university like Oxford, whose capacity to confound reform is well known.”

The outgoing Oxford chief “has always been a straight shooter, someone who speaks his mind, which is very much an engineering mind,” says Haworth. “He’s a leader, you know, who goes very logically from A to B, lining his ducks in a row before he moves.” Whether ancient Oxford moves with every aspect of John Hood’s modern academic vision over the long term is, of course, a matter still left in the lap of the dons.

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