Should the Chancellor be a politician?

After 21 years in service, the current Chancellor, Lord Christopher Patton announced he will be stepping down at the end of the year. Since then, the University has made changes to the nomination process. Previously, a nomination by at least 50 members of the University was the basic requirement to stand for the position of Chancellor. Now, potential candidates will need approval from a panel of selected internal University representatives. If two or more candidates receive approval, an online vote will take place, during which members of the Convocation, mostly comprised of all former alumni, will be eligible to vote.

The rule changes have been decried by politicians and the media. Current Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, warning that this election process is “divisive”, and former Secretary of State for levelling up Neil O’Brian compared the changes to an “eastern [European] bloc-style ‘managed democracy’.” The Times even accused the University of committing a woke “stitch-up”.

The derision of the changes appears heavy-handed as the elections for Chancellor have never been the most democratic. During the last two elections, the votes had to be cast in person, so the turnout did not exceed 9,000, which should likely be shattered with online voting.

The internal pre-screening process can also be compared to political parties choosing their own leaders. In most democracies, voters do not get to pick the nominees for the highest office, unlike the United States. Instead, they choose among the elected party leaders. A charitable interpretation may assume that the pre-screening even eliminates the risk of unserious candidates acting as spoilers in an online election.

A couple of weeks ago, a leaked email also revealed that members of “legislatures or those active in politics” will be barred from running for Oxford University chancellorship.

Indeed, the four most recent Chancellors were active politicians when they were elected. Lord Patten was a European commissioner; his predecessor Roy Jenkins was an MP; Harold Macmillan was still prime minister, and Lord Halifax served as education secretary.

As the Chancellor is the titular head of the University, it is mostly a ceremonial and ambassadorial role which includes advocacy, advisory and fundraising work. These duties would not necessarily appear conflictual with the responsibilities of a senior politician in their twilight years, but maybe the University simply wishes to avoid any risk of the perception of impropriety. Ironically, the decision to impose a ban on active politicians may have inadvertently triggered suspicions of foul play.

In practice, the rule should have little impact on who is elected Chancellor. Traditionally, the role has been reserved for senior politicians like prime ministers, foreign secretaries, and European commissioners. Under the current rules, two of the speculative frontrunners, Boris Johnson and Theresa May, would not be prohibited from seeking the office as neither is expected to be an MP following the next general election.

All the fuss simply seems to be much ado about nothing.

Image credit: Cameron Samuel Keys

Image description: photo of the Radcliffe Camera