Toby Young Toby Young

Could J.K. Rowling be Oxford’s next chancellor?

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Among my generation of Oxford graduates – late fifties, early sixties – there is currently a great deal of talk about who the next chancellor should be. In February, the present incumbent, Chris Patten, announced he was stepping down at the end of this academic year, thereby triggering an election to find his successor. The electorate consists of anyone with a degree from the university, which is about 350,000 people.

In addition to the predictable runners and riders – Tony Blair, Rory Stewart, Imran Khan – three ex-Conservative prime ministers are in the mix. The chancellorship of Oxford is one of the few remaining elected offices in the UK in which a Tory still stands a chance. Former holders include the Duke of Wellington, the Earl of Derby and Harold Macmillan. So, incredibly, David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson have all been mentioned. One of the reasons they haven’t been ruled out is because the chancellor has very little power. Like a constitutional monarch, he or she plays a part in selecting the person with actual power – in Oxford’s case, the vice-chancellor – but beyond that the role is largely ceremonial.

My friends and I may nominate J.K. Rowling, then we can bring a legal case against the university 

The chatter has increased exponentially in the past couple of weeks thanks to some eye-opening shenanigans by the university authorities. The first bombshell took the form of an announcement in the Oxford University Gazette that a committee had been set up to vet the candidates and, among other things, it promised to have ‘due regard to equality and diversity’. Just as we were recovering from that marmalade-dropper came another thunderbolt: anyone who is a member of a legislature or ‘active in politics’ would also be excluded. That rules out all the front runners, save for Blair and Stewart. Faced with that choice, even I would be tempted to vote for the silver fox.

The existence of this committee and its high-handed stipulations has provoked outrage. For the past 300 years, any candidate could put themselves forward if they’d been nominated by 50 graduates of the university. Now, they’ll only be allowed to stand if they pass muster with this self-appointed group of guardians.

To be fair, the ‘equality and diversity’ rubric may just be a nod to the public sector equality duty, i.e., a promise not to discriminate according to race, religion, sexual orientation etc. But why announce that they’re not going to break the law? Shouldn’t that be taken for granted? Not surprisingly, therefore, it has been interpreted as saying that only those who pay fealty to current progressive orthodoxy will be allowed to stand.

If that is what the committee has in mind, there’s a risk it may be unlawful since it’s a breach of the Equality Act to discriminate against prospective employees because they don’t hold particular beliefs. Whether that would include a commitment to ‘equality and diversity’ has yet to be tested in the Employment Tribunal, but I wouldn’t bet on Oxford winning. The Tribunal recently found in favour of a former Acas employee called Sean Corby, ruling that his colleagues were wrong to discriminate against him because he’d rejected critical race theory. My friends and I are thinking of nominating J.K. Rowling on the assumption that she will fail the ‘equality and diversity’ test because of her insistence on ‘misgendering’ trans women. We can then bring a legal case against Oxford for discrimination.

Since the news broke of this committee and its gerrymandering, the distinguished members have tried to row back. The vice-chancellor, Professor Irene Tracey, wrote to the Times to deny that they were involved in any kind of ‘stitch up’. ‘In considering eligibility we will of course comply with equality legislation but there is no question of positive discrimination,’ she said. As someone who’s been involved in numerous legal challenges to universities who’ve attempted to present their enforcement of woke ideology as compliance with equalities law, that is far from reassuring. In addition, a spokesman for Oxford told the Telegraph that when the university registrar sent out a round-robin email announcing the ban on people ‘active in politics’, she misspoke. What she meant to say, apparently, is that only those who plan to be an elected member of a legislature during their term of office as chancellor are banned.

This flurry of U-turns won’t be enough to quell the anger. In all likelihood, a group of disgruntled dons will force a vote on the new rules at the next meeting of the Congregation, the university’s governing body. Let’s hope that common sense prevails.