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Electing a Chancellor for Cambridge University

Senior members of Cambridge University have the privilege of electing a chancellor in the first poll since 1847 this Friday and Saturday. In this post I examine the candidates and explain my thoughts on my own voting intentions. I would be interested to know what others think in the comments.


HRH The Duke of Edinburgh served as chancellor for 35 years until he resigned this year. Personally I think Prince Philip is the ideal chancellor: he knew what the role was and what it wasn’t; he is dignified; he has stature; it appears that he can command a witty and erudite conversation and he understands quality. He will be a hard act to follow.

Enter the nominations committee. A large number of people, including I and many other alumni, was hugely disappointed that the official nominations committee came up with the name of Lord Sainsbury of Turville. It smelt of a stitch up, not solely because of his generous financial contributions to the university but in combination with the absence of a reputation for the other qualities one might expect in a chancellor. The cry was consternation that the committee was apparently unable to find a really impressive candidate that would be admired by all quarters.

So soon we had three challengers to the official nomination, none of which is a Cantabrigian. I attended all four hustings this week at the Union Society. Despite having held strong views throughout the campaign and indicating likely support for one particular candidate I tried to adopt an open approach to the talks. This is how I found the candidates:

Abdul Arain

It is widely thought that Mr Arain’s candidacy is a self-interested protest at competition for his Mill Road shop from a Sainsbury store. Mr Arain denied that this was a dominant reason for his standing but did spend the vast majority of his speech talking about the balance of independent trading in the City of Cambridge.  He had very little to say about the university and what he did say was really just motherhood and apple pie. He did not offer a convincing answer to some one’s question about his passion for academia.

Mr Arain is quite right to be advocating improved consideration by the university for the city and I found the character on display to be affable, but on any other metric he did not appear to have anything to offer as a potential chancellor.

Brian Blessed

Mr Blessed was the only candidate to attract a large audience, mostly of enthusiastic undergraduates. He put on a passionate defence of aspiration, exploration and learning. The great disappointment for me was that many of the more serious questions about the chancellorship were answered poorly. Mr Blessed was magnanimous towards the other candidates and did have an awareness of what the role was not, which I think is important. I had been advocating Mr Blessed as the “only non-political candidate”.

Michael Mansfield QC

Mr Mansfield is a high calibre candidate who shares with me the concern that universities need to have a broad culture of enquiry. I think he would instinctively understand why a graduand from a science or engineering Tripos subject becomes baccalaureus in artibus. Mr Mansfield is renowned for his extreme (and extremely wrong) political views and my fear was that he would abuse the platform to advance these views; I still believe that this would be the case but he did a good job of attenuating my fears. He professed a willingness to defer to those with responsibility for running the university and to respect tradition.

I think I would regret Mr Mansfield being the chancellor and fear that he would make changes with which I didn’t agree, such as abolishing the MA (which has performed a particular function within the university long before other universities instigated confusion by awarding it for other purposes) but I have to admit I was impressed. I liked his intention to limit his own term to five or six years, although I don’t think it ought to be up to him to do so for his successors.

Baron Sainsbury of Turville

I was quite impressed with Lord Sainsbury for demonstrating hard-headed logic, not moderating his content to curry favour with his audience. Unfortunately this went hand-in-hand with an unattractive, hauty, arrogance typified by his refusal to retract a criticism of his fellow candidates from an interview in the Cambridge News.

I was previously dead against Lord Sainsbury becoming chancellor because I considered that having been a minister in the Labour government he would be considerably partisan. I have to admit that was not the impression I got from his speech or his answers to questions. He recognised failures of the previous government that most other people in the Labour party would refuse to recognise. I do not suppose that I would agree with everything Lord Sainsbury says but he struck me as perfectly qualified for the role.


Immediately following the final husting I hastily compiled a table of scores for the four candidates based on a number of qualities that may be relevant to the chancellorship. They were not weighted scores and there are changes I would like to make in retrospect, but once I’d summed the columns it would have been difficult to adjust anything without being influenced by knowledge of how it would affect the final score.

Arain Blessed Mansfield Sainsbury
Advancing reputation of university 1 2 3 5
Helping access 3 4 2 1
Understanding limits of the role 2 3 4 5
Not abusing platform for politics 3 5 2 4
Understanding what a university should be 1 5 5 3
Understanding the needs of the university 1 2 3 5
Niceness 5 4 3 1
16 25 22 24

The outcome of this exercise was Blessed and Sainsbury running neck-and-neck with Mr Blessed having the edge.


Deciding how to vote in this election has been extremely difficult for me. For most of the campaign I have been strongly supporting Brian Blessed but the other candidates have eventually shown qualities that I had not initially appreciated.

The bottom line for me is that by far the most important requirements are for the chancellor (1) to convey intellectual rigour; (2) to be capable of bringing in substantial funds and (3) to understand the university’s uniqueness and needs. Lord Sainsbury is the only candidate who fulfills all these, and by some considerable margin. I think this is more important than being likable and a multitude of other desirable qualities, which are in any case highly subjective.

I shall be most likely to vote as follows in the STV ballot:

  1. Lord Sainsbury
  2. Michael Mansfield
  3. Brian Blessed
  4. Abdul Arain

My decision will undoubtedly make me unpopular with friends with whom I was until recently keenly advocating Brian Blessed. However, I look forward to the voting this weekend. MA gowns at the ready!