The Chancellor race: on the home straight
We are voting for the new Chancellor on Friday and Saturday. The candidates, as some readers will know already, are (in alphabetical order): Abdul Arain (the grocer from Mill Road), Brian Blessed (actor and national treasure), Michael Mansfield (QC) and David Sainsbury (mega-grocer and ex-Labour science minister).
A few months ago, at the start of the race, I posted that I was minded, on this occasion for once, to vote for the establishment candidate (that's Sainsbury) -- albeit with not huge enthusiasm. Since then I had a bit of a wobble and thought I might cast my vote for Mansfield. In the last week, though, as I'll explain, I have come back to Sainsbury -- but now with pretty firm confidence, commitment and even a touch of enthusiasm.
The underlying question seems to me to be what you think the Chancellor of the University is FOR.
Now let me say that almost all my election research has been done from written sources. I haven't 'interviewed' the candidates (though I have recently met Sainsbury briefly)...
On that basis I have easily ruled out (as I already had a few weeks ago) Abdul Arain and Brian Blessed. I think that, by getting nominated, Arain has staged a great publicity coup against the big supermarket barons. And that far, I'm right behind him -- but no further; I'm certainly not behind him right up to the chancellorship.
The same but different for Brian Blessed. Again, he's great at what he does (acting -- for those of us who remember Z Cars and I, Claudius). But he is the students' favourite, because they imagine that the Chancellor of Cambridge is like a Scottish University Rector, a sort of student mascot. Now maybe they have a point and Cambridge should invent some such mascot position; and if we did, Blessed would be a very good person to fill it... but he isn't a chancellor as I see it. (His supporters' campaign case is here)
Of course, having had a royal filling the post for the last 35 years (and so making it largely ceremonial), it's not entirely clear what the job is, or how far those of us who work in the university share our expectations of what this man (not a woman in sight here, note) will, or should, do for us. And that, I suppose, is where my wobble came in.
When I read Mansfield's "manifesto" for the post, it was full of an awful lot I agreed with -- deploring cuts in education funding, and the effect of very high fees on poorer students, inter alia. But then I thought: 'hang on'.
It's not really a question of Mansfield not quite being the knight in shining armour that he is cracked up to be (true, he has some landmark civil rights cases under his belt; but remember that he also represented Al Fayed, 'in his pursuit of the truth surrounding the death of his son, Dodi, and Princess Diana', as his own website tactfully puts it). The bottom line is that -- however much I might agree with it -- we dont want a Chancellor with a 'policy' for the university. We already have 'policy-makers' at Cambridge (the Vice Chancellor, the democratic institutions of the place, and us); the last thing we need is an 'official' elected by all the alumni of the university (or, to be precise, those who bother/can afford/live close enough to turn up at the senate house) who thinks he should be influencing our educational policy. (Sorry alums, but that's far too much power to you as a body).
So what should the Chancellor be doing? Probably, if not a royal, rather more than Prince Philip could do, in his position. But it should be an enabling role, not a politically directive one. I am looking for someone who might help in opening up the space for us to discuss widely the role of the university and educational priorities with government, funding bodies, and the media -- and who might help us get across our aims and policies better. Not someone who wants to tell us what those policies should be. (Just fast forward a few years to a dystopian future when some single-minded alums decide to put loads of money and influence behind a candidate who wants to raise fees to £30k a year and abolish bursaries... then the chickens really would have come home to roost.)
That is where Sainsbury's brief nomination statement has got it much righter. He sees the duty of the chancellor as championing the university, not trying to guide its policy.
As it happens, when I talked to him, I found his views on many things (from access to RAE/REF) much much closer to my own than I had expected. And that is, if I'm honest, what adds a little enthusiasm to my vote. But it's not what actually commits me to voting for the guy in the first place. The key thing, for me, is that he correctly sees what the 'job' of the chancellor is.