In April, I asked Denise Riley if I could put her name forward as a possible Oxford Professor of Poetry. To my delight, she agreed; not because she wanted to win, or believed she would (we soon learned that Alice Oswald was in the running), but because, despite her strong reservations about the culture of literary competition, she thought that it would be good to present a field of female candidates. But Riley’s name did not appear on the ballot. Like several other potential candidates, Riley turned out to be ineligible because of her age.
A group of Oxford students are petitioning to have John Finnis, emeritus professor of law and legal philosophy, 'removed from his academic position' on account of his 'discriminatory views against many groups of disadvantaged people'. In his published writings, Finnis has claimed that gay sex is an 'immoral sexual act' akin to bestiality, that being gay should count ‘at least as a negative factor, if not a disqualification’ for adopting children, and that governments should 'discourage' citizens from homosexuality. The petition has its problems.
This morning the vice chancellor sent a message to all staff of the University of Oxford: Dear Colleagues, I am writing to follow up on yesterday’s meeting in the Sheldonian which my colleagues have told me about. I was very sorry not to be there myself but I had scheduled a trip to New York on university business before the meeting of Congregation was called. In light of the depth of feeling of so many colleagues we will convene a special meeting of Council today at noon and will be recommending that Council reverse its response to the UUK survey in line with Congregation’s resolution.
As feared, 21 people stood up in Congregation today to block a debate and vote on revising Oxford's position on pension reform. At least some of the 21 were university administrators, and included the pro-vice chancellor for diversity, as well as other members of Council (the university's executive body). The vice chancellor was not there.
At 2 p.m. today the University of Oxford's legislative body, Congregation, will meet in the Sheldonian Theatre. All academic staff are members of Congregation, and any twenty of them can propose a resolution for debate. For consideration today is a resolution that would revise the university's submission to Universities UK's September consultation on staff pensions. Oxford, along with Cambridge, was among the 42 per cent of employers who called for the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) to take 'less risk', which in practice means a shift from a defined benefit to a defined contribution pension. It now appears that one-third of the employers calling for 'less risk' were constituent colleges of Oxford and Cambridge.
One-third of Oxford colleges admitted no black British students in 2015. Oriel admitted one black British student over a five-year period. What explains these numbers? The Labour MP David Lammy believes that Oxford and Cambridge are engaging in social apartheid; others have blamed the admissions system, suggesting that the early application deadline and the interview process discourage many students from applying. Still others note that black and minority ethnic candidates tend to apply to newer universities in Britain’s big cities – a view that holds black British students responsible for their absence at Oxford and Cambridge.
Plausibly, nothing much matters. Among human beings, opinions differ about how much things matter. A surprisingly common defence of the status quo is to say of some institution arraigned for affronting reason or decency that it doesn’t matter – because it’s purely 'symbolic’, say – but it's very important not to change it. So having a royal head of state doesn’t matter, because she’s a figurehead, but it matters that the post is not filled by sortition, say, because then any fool might do the job. Again, with free speech, words are mere hot air, unlike sticks and stones; but it matters intensely that people get to vociferate them. And so it is with statues.
The first time I set eyes on Oxford was on a day in December 1964, when I came up for interview. It was one of those bright clear days we sometimes get in winter, and it drew the honey colour out of the stone buildings and set it against a brilliant blue sky, and I fell in love with the place. What had made me think I could come here? I was the first member of my family to go to university; I was the first pupil from my school, a local comprehensive in north Wales, to go to Oxford. Simple: I thought I could come because tuition was free, and because Merionethshire County Council gave me a grant for my living expenses. The extraordinary benevolence of those facts now looks like something from a golden age.
As an undergraduate at Oxford I came across a gang of mischief-makers who liked nothing better than to climb in and out of places they weren’t welcome. A dangerous activity and not my thing at all. But once, once, they got me drunk enough to join them. Wearing black tie, high on egg-nog and P.G. Wodehouse, we gatecrashed the Corpus Christi College ball by climbing in over a wall that backs onto Christ Church Meadow. I can’t remember quite how we managed it. There was a straining of a groin, a tearing of a tuxedo, a collapsing in a dishevelled heap on the ground. We then spent a paranoid couple of hours running away from bouncers – a terrible evening, all things considered. But for those goatier of foot, and hardier of soul, Oxford is a playground of drainpipes and dormers, chimneys and stanchions. Cambridge too – more famously so,
Something that seems to have been overlooked in all the fuss about who is and who isn't going to succeed Christopher Ricks as the Oxford professor of poetry is the new benchmark that's been set in voter apathy. After Derek Walcott pulled out of the race, Ruth Padel defeated Arvind Mehrotra by 297 votes to 129: that's a decisive ratio of 7:3, the kind of winning margin that political leaders, apart from those with the power to fiddle the results, can only dream of. On the other hand, since all graduates of the university are enfranchised, and there must be, at a conservative estimate, at least 100,000 of them walking the earth, the turn-out of 426 amounts to less than 0.5 per cent, which hardly counts as an overwhelming mandate.