Selling a soul

With the news in of Lord Sainsbury’s election as chancellor of my Alma Mater, the phrase Faustian Pact sprung to mind. But only fleetingly: Faust sold his soul not for gold but for (according to variants of the legend) knowledge, experience,  youth, and a bit of totty. Sainsbury is unambiguous: £127 million so far to the University (Wikipedia), and many eyes doubtless focussed whence that came.

The Chancellor is a purely ceremonial role, with the chief executive post being that of Vice Chancellor.  So it is, one might reasonably argue, well-suited to a man born to the highest privilege with the effortless self-assurance that brings, and accustomed to habitual ceremony.   Sainsbury’s predecessor (who was Chancellor in my time there) was the very embodiment of that role: he is of course married to the Queen.  But whereas the Duke of Edinburgh was a neutral/inoffensive choice for the post, Sainsbury is anything but neutral.  He is famous for having bankrolled the most blatantly corrupt UK government in modern history, which awarded him a peerage and a post as Science Minister.  Before that, his chairmanship of Sainsbury’s supermarkets saw its decline from our undisputed biggest and most successful grocer to a shrinking third place.

Call me a sentimental old fool, but I still care enough about the old place to find this mildly upsetting.

What was, in a sense, more interesting about this event is that it was a contested election.  The story is that a local grocer popular among some university folks was first nominated to stand against Sainsbury: I can only presume that his supporters feel as I do about ones soul.  I know nothing about Abdul Arain, though the quotes from him that have appeared in the national press sound like a splendid fellow!  His left-field candidacy drew in two other high-profile candidates, both of them well-qualified for a top ceremonial role by virtue of their careers in public performance: Brian Blessed as a splendid actor, and Michael Mansfield as a top QC.  If Arain was no more than a stalking-horse then Blessed was surely the most acceptable candidate.

Posted on October 17, 2011, in cambridge, education, rants, uk. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. The entire process of electing the Chancellor is deeply flawed. Whilst all members of the University have a right to vote in theory, they can only do so in person on site at Cambridge on the appointed day. So in practice virtually all members are disenfranchised. Were the University to make the process more democratic and accessible, perhaps with online and/or postal voting, then there might be some proper competition for the role and we wouldn’t have a sleazy character like Sainsbury representing the University for the next few years, backed by the votes of his local lackeys. With a proper vote, and more “ordinary” members of the University participating, I reckon Sainsbury would have had the boot and we would have got someone more honourable.

  2. With the deepest respect to the world’s finest university… I don’t think having a privileged political favourite buy his way into the role is at all inconsistent with its traditions.

    Wikipedia (of course) has a page entitled “List of Chancellors of the University of Cambridge”. Follow the links and read about such past luminaries as Stanley Baldwin, Thomas Pelham-Holles and Spencer Cavendish. I suggest the present Lord S would feel right at home in their company.

  1. Pingback: Stealth Republic? « niq's soapbox

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