Hacks, the new Oxbridge heads

Heads of Oxbridge col­leges used to be aca­demics but these days they’re more likely to have had ca­reers in news­pa­pers or the BBC. Si­mon Hef­fer ex­plains why

The Oldie - - CONTENTS -

Not too long ago, any­one who as­pired to be head of house at an Oxbridge col­lege had to have a life­time of em­i­nent schol­ar­ship be­hind him or her, and to have ac­com­plished this with­out mak­ing too many enemies. C P Snow’s 1951 novel

The Masters fa­mously showed the in­ter­nal pol­i­tics that could af­fect such judge­ments: F R Leavis, who dis­missed Snow’s claims to be a nov­el­ist, ex­em­pli­fied the ob­ses­sive bitch­i­ness that once char­ac­terised high ta­bles, and in a few col­leges still does. But then some col­leges broke cen­turies of tra­di­tion and started to look fur­ther afield: former Cabi­net min­is­ters, dis­tin­guished Trea­sury man­darins and highly re­spected am­bas­sadors, for ex­am­ple. And the law got a look-in: Michael Beloff QC was a pop­u­lar mas­ter of Trin­ity, Ox­ford, and Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws has been prin­ci­pal of Mans­field Col­lege, Ox­ford, since 2011.

These days, how­ever, the as­pi­rant mas­ter, mis­tress, pres­i­dent or prin­ci­pal would do well to have had a ca­reer in jour­nal­ism: more specif­i­cally, in the BBC or the Guardian/ob­server group. A prece­dent was set in 2004 when Tim Gar­dam, di­rec­tor of pro­grammes at Chan­nel 4 and a former edi­tor of

News­night, be­came the first male prin­ci­pal of St Anne’s Col­lege, Ox­ford. Six years later, the flood­gates opened. The former con­troller of Ra­dio 4 Mark Da­mazer was ap­pointed Mas­ter of St Peter’s Col­lege, Ox­ford, in 2010, and Will Hut­ton, a former edi­tor of the Ob­server and another old BBC hand, be­came prin­ci­pal of Hert­ford Col­lege, Ox­ford, in 2011.

Roger Mosey, whose long ca­reer at the BBC in­cluded edit­ing the To­day pro­gramme, run­ning Ra­dio 4 and mas­ter­mind­ing the 2012 Olympic cov­er­age, took up the reins as mas­ter of Sel­wyn Col­lege, Cam­bridge, in 2013. Alan Rus­bridger went from the edi­tor’s chair at the Guardian to be prin­ci­pal of Lady Mar­garet Hall at Ox­ford last year, while his colum­nist Jackie Ash­ley moved to Cam­bridge to be­come pres­i­dent of Lucy Cavendish. Most re­cently Brid­get Ken­dall was elected mas­ter of Peter­house, tak­ing up the post in the next Michael­mas term. Why are hacks and broad­cast­ers so at­trac­tive to these elite foun­da­tions? And what is in it for the suc­cess­ful ap­pli­cants?

Most head­ships are con­sid­ered part time, be­cause many of the aca­demics who hold them have ex­ten­sive teach­ing com­mit­ments, and some hold im­por­tant chairs. The pay isn’t won­der­ful, and most masters find that to do the job prop­erly it has to be done full time. But it al­lows time for me­dia types to con­tinue writ­ing that column, or per­form­ing a con­sul­tancy, so en­abling a head of house to main­tain his or her pro­file, sup­ple­ment the stipend and re­tain a bridge to the out­side world.

The nec­es­sary ob­ses­sion of all Oxbridge col­leges these days is money. Even very rich ones, such as St John’s, Ox­ford, and Trin­ity, Cam­bridge (which, own­ing Felixs­towe docks and the O2 arena, is stul­ti­fy­ingly rich, its wealth es­ti­mated at £1.02 bil­lion in 2014), are con­stantly look­ing for new sources of funds and in­come. All col­leges now have de­vel­op­ment – a eu­phemism for fundrais­ing – de­part­ments and di­rec­tors of de­vel­op­ment who, as fel­lows of the col­lege, at­tend gov­ern­ing body meet­ings and take part in fi­nan­cial dis­cus­sions.

Peo­ple from the me­dia are pop­u­lar be­cause they make cred­i­ble and ar­tic­u­late front men or women for the col­lege. Adept at com­mu­ni­ca­tion, they have added value when it comes to lead­ing fundrais­ing ap­peals. They go down well among alumni, and will of­ten be asked to travel the world to meet prospec­tive donors.

Some col­leges that have hired me­dia types are known to be fi­nan­cially strapped. Both St Peter’s and LMH are low in Ox­ford’s en­dow­ment in­come ta­bles; Cam­bridge aca­demics joke that Lucy Cavendish, which pro­vides places for ma­ture women un­der­grad­u­ates, is a ‘wholly owned sub­sidiary’ of Trin­ity, which puts twenty per cent of its an­nual bud­get into sup­port­ing what its web­site tact­fully calls ‘less en­dowed’ col­leges.

No one will be ap­pointed to a head­ship with­out a com­mit­ment to the in­ten­sive teach­ing in which Oxbridge spe­cialises, and to broad­en­ing the in­take of the col­leges in de­mo­graphic terms. Both of these are ex­pen­sive, and ex­plain why col­leges need to keep rais­ing funds. And there is the con­stant haem­or­rhage of tal­ented dons to Amer­i­can univer­si­ties, where pay and con­di­tions are of­ten so much bet­ter.

A head of house must over­see and en­cour­age ‘out­reach’ – en­sur­ing a col­lege’s ten­ta­cles ex­tend into the state school sys­tem, with dons go­ing into schools to en­cour­age prospec­tive stu­dents to ap­ply, so break­ing down the myth of Oxbridge as a re-run of

Brideshead Re­vis­ited. This, too, is time-con­sum­ing and ex­pen­sive. Masters whose previous em­ploy­ers were re­garded, rightly or wrongly, as in­sti­tu­tion­ally Left­ist, may have been elected on the as­sump­tion they sup­ported greater equal­ity of op­por­tu­nity.

Heads of house are not chief ex­ec­u­tives: they are fig­ure­heads for the col­lege, chair­men of their gov­ern­ing bod­ies, and they sit on univer­sity com­mit­tees as rep­re­sen­ta­tives of their col­leges. Any­one who has held a se­nior

ex­ec­u­tive job on a news­pa­per or in broadcasting will take nat­u­rally to these de­ci­sion-mak­ing pro­cesses, though they may find con­sen­sus is more usual at Oxbridge than in Fleet Street or Broadcasting House.

When in­ter­viewed for a head­ship, a can­di­date will have to show an em­pa­thy with the aims of the col­lege, and an abil­ity to rep­re­sent it in the univer­sity and to the wider world. This is some­thing me­dia types are good at. Messrs Rus­bridger and Da­mazer went to Cam­bridge, Ms Ash­ley, Ms Ken­dall and Mr Mosey to Ox­ford; Mr Hut­ton went to Bris­tol, but has a rep­u­ta­tion as a writer and pub­lic in­tel­lec­tual.

Rus­bridger, Mosey and Da­mazer had held se­nior man­age­ment po­si­tions for many years. Ms Ken­dall comes from a fam­ily of aca­demics, grew up in Cam­bridge and did ex­ten­sive post­grad­u­ate study. Her achieve­ment is es­pe­cially im­pres­sive: Peter­house is not only the old­est col­lege at Cam­bridge but also one of the wealth­i­est. It has also spent years try­ing to shake off an ag­gres­sively male, High Tory rep­u­ta­tion: it was dom­i­nated for years by the bril­liant but mis­chievous his­to­rian Mau­rice Cowl­ing, who en­gi­neered the elec­tion of Hugh Trevor-roper as mas­ter, only to sen­tence him to years of per­se­cu­tion by a fel­low­ship that de­tested him.

Any new head of house needs to tread care­fully: the fel­lows have minds of their own, and are will­ing to ex­er­cise them; masters in both univer­si­ties have been pre­sented with the bot­tle of whisky and the re­volver in re­cent years. Mr Rus­bridger has al­ready courted con­tro­versy by ap­point­ing Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch a vis­it­ing fel­low, which some of his Ox­ford peers re­gard as at­ten­tion-seek­ing and pre­pos­ter­ous.

Me­dia types are val­ued for their con­tacts, but they have to be de­ployed tact­fully and with­out sub­ject­ing their ven­er­a­ble in­sti­tu­tions to ridicule. Mr Mosey has in­vited some of his friends from the out­side world to din­ner to meet fel­lows and stu­dents. This has gone down well, pro­vid­ing a glimpse of the life be­yond Cam­bridge and mak­ing Sel­wyn seem a more at­trac­tive and in­ter­est­ing place for prospec­tive stu­dents and teach­ers, with a vi­brant in­tel­lec­tual life.

No doubt Pe­tre­ans can ex­pect to meet Ms Ken­dall’s diplo­matic con­tacts at High Ta­ble, so ob­tain­ing a more in­formed view of in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions; and were I a sixth-former seek­ing a ca­reer at the BBC I’d ap­ply to Sel­wyn, hop­ing a few mas­ter­classes from Mr Mosey would put me on the right track. The me­dia types have not just added to the gai­ety of life: they have been a pos­i­tive in­flu­ence in open­ing up of our an­cient univer­si­ties. By ap­point­ing such peo­ple, the fel­low­ships have con­firmed just how clever they are.

From left to right: Will Hut­ton, Brid­get Ken­dall, Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch, Alan Rus­bridger and Jackie Ash­ley

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