Sunday, January 31, 2010

Electing the New Pope

[I wrote this blog posting last spring, but never got around to posting it]

Each of the constituent colleges of Oxford is run by its own governing body, which consists of the “fellows” of the college, meaning essentially the tenured faculty, and a few others (about 40 in total for our college). In fact, in some legal respect which I don’t really understand, the governing body actually owns the college and is completely responsible for everything that happens there. (L’etat c’est nous!) While the head of each college (called the Master, the Principal, the Warden, or whatever, depending on which college you are talking about) is the figure head, and frequently runs the college on a day-to-day basis, the vote of the governing body is the final word on any issue. The phrase “Primus inter pares” (first among equals) is frequently used to refer to the position of the head with respect to the governing body.

These "heads of house” can come from almost any walk of life. Their similarity is that they are all extremely accomplished intellectuals of some sort. Pembroke College Cambridge right now has the ex-head of MI6 (Cue James Bond music).

Dame Fiona Caldicott, the principal of Somerville college Oxford since 1996, is retiring this summer. As such, it is the duty of the governing body of the college to elect a new principal. This process is extremely complicated, with various arcane rules and regulations, which struck me as being similar, perhaps, to electing a new pope. (And Somerville is one of the younger colleges, I’m sure there are some completely insane rules at the 800 year old colleges).

The head of the search committee, Professor Fiona Stafford (yes, many people in this country are named Fiona), did a marvelous job. Some joked that if we couldn’t agree on a candidate we would all agree to draft Professor Stafford. While she had no particular extra power per-se, it was her job to create a process that would satisfy the governing body.

Fiona (Stafford) worked with a headhunting company to target some candidates. I read through the full book of candidate applications (a hundred perhaps) and many of them, on paper, looked spectacular. I am probably forbidden from saying too much about who these people were, but they were pretty impressive.

Eventually the list was narrowed down to about seven frontrunners who were all interviewed. From there, three finalists were selected. Each of these finalists met informally with a fraction of the governing body personally in small groups in the days leading up to the final interview.

To those who do not know the Oxford system, the final interview might seem a bit bizarre, but in fact it is quite similar to the way hiring is done for almost all positions here: The committee (the governing body) sits, in full academic gowns, around a large table. The candidate comes into the room, speaks for twenty minutes, then the committee fires questions at the candidate. The whole thing is over in about an hour. (This is not too dissimilar from the way I was hired).

Once all three finalists were interviewed, the governing body needed to come to a consensus. Like electing a new pope, the governing body was essentially trapped until it came to a conclusion, and white smoke rose from the chimneys. I was psychologically prepared for a very long night. What was surprising to me was how quickly the opinions converged. (Perhaps we are more of one mind than the college of cardinals?). The first thing we did was to go around the table with everyone saying whatever they wanted to say about the candidates. After everyone spoke a straw-poll was taken and one of candidates was already strongly in the lead. A few of the more opinionated members gave impassioned speeches explaining their positions, and a second poll was taken. At the end of the second poll, the majority opinion was extremely close to unanimous. We had decided in advance that we would need a 2/3 majority, but in the end we were essentially without dissent.

And so in just a few hours, the governing body announced that they had tentatively found their candidate. Within a few weeks (after some details were attended to) we announced that the next Principal of Somerville college would be Alice Prochaska.

1 comment:

MC said...

And then the house elves brought claret and you all rose a toast, before you left to hang out in the Forbidden Forest, right?