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Did Oxford reject "reform"?

On 28 November Oxford University's Congregation, the governing body of the University, rejected a set of proposals that were intended to rearrange the way it would be run. Why? Some have called these proposals "reform." Is that a good description, and why were they rejected?

Was it reform or not?

Reform is largely in the eyes of the beholder. They were largely a response to one particular change in the laws of the UK. Oxford will now be regulated as a charity, rather than an "exempt charity". The vast majority of charities are nominally controlled by a board of external, unpaid, trustees. Oxford is not. This kind of governance structure is generally thought of as "best practice," by our future regulator, HEFCE. Thus, there was a natural desire to "reform" Oxford to match "best practice."

But, there is a real question as to whether or not the things called "best practice" are indeed best. In my view, they are designed and good (perhaps even "best") for a typical strongly hierarchical organisation, but not for a relatively democratic, decentralised organisation like Oxford. [Discussion]

Other aspects of the "reform" are less clearly improvements. Certainly, there are things about our current governance structure that people are unhappy with. Unfortunately, the working party on governance didn't really identify the problems, and didn't show how the new structure would fix them.

In other words, the proposed new governance structure was not supported by any real reasoning. This is, and should be, a terrible crime (especially at Oxford). There was a near-total lack of a logical connection between the stated goals of the proposal and the detailed statues. There was a remarkable lack of explanation as to why it would improve things.

So, was it reform? Ultimately one of the problems that killed the proposal was that no one could tell if it would really help. And, if it's not a clear improvement, why accept it? Why risk messing up Oxford? Changes always have unintended consequences.

What else was wrong?

The second fatal problem was that Second, many people disagreed with a few crucial points in the proposed structure. Primarily these:

The final fatal problem was that it was developed and presented badly. It started badly: the University had requested the working party to produce a report on how things were working, and recommendations. Instead, we got no evaluation and a completed plan.

A small closed group developed the new plan, and input from the university as a whole was not enthusiastically solicited, and suggestions were grudgingly incorporated. Or, so it seems, anyways; it was hard to tell because all but one of the meetings of the working group were closed. (It is beyond my understanding why such a thing would be necessary.) Then, the administration pulled some last-minute manouvers, including suppressing some amendments on dubious grounds. Finally, the entire proposal was pushed as a package, all or nothing.

Basically, considered as an undergraduate paper, it didn't answer the question posed, and it didn't show the work, jumping from desires to hoped-for solution without the glue of logic. I was far more impressed by the verbal debate than the written presentations of the governance working group, and it was very clear that their positions were not well supported by hard evidence. I saw faith and hope that the proposal would work, but I wanted to know why.

Some of the proposal will come back. It has some good parts, and Oxford needs to do some renovations to its governance. Partially for internal reasons, and partially to adapt to changed regulatory circumstances. So, we'll be voting again.

Management Structures

In the mean time, we remain a worker's collective. An anomaly in the modern age, yet surprisingly successful. One can't avoid wondering that if "best practice" were so important, why isn't everyone else doing better? After all, of the top 1000 universities worldwide, the two worker's collectives (Oxford and Cambridge) have an average rank of about 5. The 998 universities with a corporate management structure have an average rank of about 499. That's not proof of anything, of course, but it might make one think.

Much as I am an economic free-marketer, and much as I used to associate worker's collectives with scruffy pony-tailed guys in green Mao jackets, I have come to realize that free markets do not imply corporations and corporations do not imply hierarchical management.

Ultimately, hierarchies are ways of forcing people to accept a uniform standard. The guy on the top decides, and everyone follows. Uniformity can be very important sometimes. Consider a car. If the guys on the left side of the factory use 48cm wheels and the guys on the right side use 50cm wheels, the car will disappoint the customers. So, the whole factory needs to agree on exactly what they are building.

But, hierarchy is not the only way to create uniformity, and some businesses are more tolerant than others about a little non-uniformity. Like universities, for instance. It's not necessary that the Linguistics courses exactly match the Chemistry courses. (Even if one could define how to match Chemistry to Linguistics.)

Consensus can work remarkably well for approaching uniformity (as long as one doesn't need to reach perfect uniformity). People naturally borrow good ideas from their neighbours, when they see them working. Look at the spread of English, for instance. Who enforces it? No one. Yet it spreads because it's a good idea. Not that English is such a perfect language, but it's the language that the greatest chunk of money, science, power and technology speak. So, people (almost-) uniformly speak some English because it is in their advantage to do so.

And hierarchies can impose too much uniformity, and can make too many decisions. Moreover, they don't have any obvious monopoly at making good decisions. Uniformity has its costs, in addition to its advantages. One-size-fits-all solutions generally don't quite fit most people. Making decisions has costs, too. Each decision means that people tear down partially-completed projects, pull up roots, and spend time learning new techniques. Too many decisions can leave an organisation permanently holding meetings and writing mission statements, rather than actually accomplishing anything.

So, I'm actually enjoying being part of a slightly anarchic, somewhat decentralised, system. Everyone here knows what they need to do, people take responsibility for themselves, and it all works pretty well. Let's hope it stays that way, even after we do a bit of reform.

[ Papers | | Phonetics Lab | Oxford ] Last Modified Thu Jun 5 06:29:53 2008 Greg Kochanski: [ ]