Should Oxford dons keep their word or are they privileged ?

Should we keep our word, our promised commitment? We all know that we should, and we all know that there are times when we don’t. Sometimes we have reasonable excuses, but they tend to revolve around releasing ourselves from our obligations or duties. In doing so, we fail to consider others – their interests, their needs; we place our own convenience first.

Should university teachers keep their word ? May we expect a higher standard of personal morality from such people, or should we cut them the same slack we allow ourselves ? Does their position of trust as educators of the young oblige them to maintain a more exemplary standard regarding their moral, educational responsibiliites ?

Should the heads of Oxbridge Colleges be expected to keep their word ? Does their position oblige them to operate according to an even higher standard of personal trustworthiness than their academic colleagues ?

When we reinforce our word with a solemn declaration or oath, should there be a higher standard required and therefore a greater sanction imposed when we fail to keep our word ?

When a person witnesses in a court of law, they are required to make a solemn declaration – or an oath before God – obliging them to tell the truth. Is it reasonable of us to expect that they should therefore tell the truth as far as they know it ? Or are they then permitted to forget their declaration or their oath, and say whatever they please ?

Most people have a moral conscience. They don’t need doctorates in ethics to know what is right and what is wrong.

But the Governing Body of Exeter College in the University of Oxford evidently have their own particular view of such matters.

All the dons on the governing body of that College were required to take a solemn, and presumbly binding declaration before taking up their posts as Fellows of the College and therefore as custodians responsible for the administration of the College according to the Statutes and the intentions of the Founders and Benefactors of that College.

The Statutes required them to retire at a certain age, normally before the age of 68. The head of College known as the Rector was also required to make such a solemn commitment and to retire before the age of 68. As the person who is effectively the College’s executive leader, the Rector has particular responsibilities under the Statutes to settle disputes and make critical decisions.

The Rectorship carries a particular responsibility, then. As you might expect.

What are we to think then, when the person who occupies that position is still in post 5 years+ beyond his required retirement ? What are we to think when such a person takes the view that he is not required to uphold and maintain the Statutes of the College with regard to his own position and his own retirement ?

What are we to think when he makes himself judge in his own cause ? What are we to think when he refuses to acknowledge his obligations to the College – freely entered into with solemn declaration – and chooses instead to remain in post; to remain entitled to receive a 6 figure salary with rent free accomodation and certain expenses paid by the College Charitable Trust ?

What are we to think of the Fellows of the Governing Body of the College who refuse to trigger the Statutory process for removal of a man in breach of his obligations under the Statutes of the College ?

What are we to think when both the Fellows of the Governing Body of Exeter College, Oxford and the person occupying the Rectorship agree together to revise radically the Statutes of the College, using that occasion to legitimise a circumstance which is in breach of their obligations under the pre-existing Statutes ?

Are we to view this as observing the Rule of Law ? Or is this a breach of the meaning of the Rule of Law ?

Is this an example of how business should be done in our Universities – is it a worthy and just way of doing business in what is arguably the nation’s principal University ?

Is this an example to emulate ? Is this what we should set up as an example to the young and to future generations ?

Is it ‘legitimate’ for dons already extremely privileged by virtue of their natural gifts and their exceptional position in this world, to claim yet more personal  advantage by pleading their own personal Rights under Equality law ?

Graham R. Catlin

alumnus of Exeter College, Oxford

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