Oxford University is probably reeling at the arrival of the new Vice-Chancellor, Professor Louise Richardson, who is, fairly obviously, a woman and the first lady to fill that post at Oxford. She has got off to a good start by telling the anti-Rhodes brigade to grow up and get a life. The Chancellor, Chris Patten, has done the same, hopefully returning an air of sanity to a debate that threatened cowardice from Oriel College.
I read that she spent her first day walking the streets of Oxford to identify the 39 colleges that comprise this collegiate university. Now this would have proved quite difficult because many of them provide no external evidence of their identity. This, I believe, is quite deliberate. It is not about the cost of a brass plate. I think it represents an Oxford arrogance that assumes one must know the location of an Oxford college or one is simply a nobody. I saw Oxford town and gown at close quarters for the eleven years I was leader of the County Council and worked with the previous Vice-Chancellor (Chief Executive to ordinary bods like you and me!) who was a great guy and, like his successor, had a Harvard background.
The University and its colleges are fascinating, quaint and frustrating all at once. They remind me of the church at the time Henry VIII started the reformation. Immensely wealthy and powerful, they may not mirror the perversion of the ethos of their founder that happened in many monastic orders but they jealously guard their power and their privileges like the barons with King John. You only need to see the palatial state in which many senior dons live; to dine at high table or to hear their views on the world outside their cloisters to wonder how they escaped the reforming zeal of a Margaret Thatcher or a Kenneth Baker. And that of course, is another issue that I think damns Oxford University. They denied the greatest peacetime prime minister of this century the dignity of an honorary degree. This says so much of this old institution that needs and deserves a jolly good shake by the scruff of the academic neck! Whether the new Vice-Chancellor is up to the challenge remains to be seen but I hope so and I wish her good luck! She will find the entrenched interests of the dons quite powerful and quite challenging. In fact not unlike the union barons that Margaret Thatcher took on and vanquished.