University Chancellors – a non-political, non-controversial role?

The role of chancellor is one of the oldest identified posts in our universities.  It pre-dates the university, as a key part of the teaching at the early universities of Paris and Oxford was theology, they came under the discipline of the diocesan chancellor.  An early privilege that the universities won was to appoint their own chancellor, rather than be subject to the bishop’s officer.

For hundreds of years, the post of chancellor was held on a short term, but that changed with John Fisher, bishop of Rochester. His engagement with Cambridge was deep: a fellow, professor, president of a college and vice-chancellor, he was elected chancellor in 1504. Ten years later he was appointed for life, a role he would hold until 1535. In that year Fisher was, despite being made a cardinal, executed for treason.

Having appointed its first chancellor on a long-term basis, the University of Cambridge embarked on a spectacular series of appointments of the highest men in the land, many of whom shared Fisher’s fate (but without the saintliness).

  • Thomas Cromwell
  • Stephen Gardiner
  • Edward Seymour
  • John Dudley
  • Reginald Pole
  • William Cecil
  • Robert Devereux

The three on this list who were not executed are Bishop Gardiner, who was deposed both as bishop of Winchester and University Chancellor under Edward VI to be restored under Mary I. Cardinal Pole was appointed to the chancellor’s role of both universities under Mary I after exile under Edward VI. William Cecil, Lord Burlieigh, was a safer choice, but Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex was not. Chancellors of the University of Cambridge in the Sixteenth Century are guaranteed to feature in your favourite Tudor drama.

The Seventeenth Century was slightly more settled for Cambridge, although the Duke of Buckingham was assassinated in 1628 and the Duke of Monmouth executed in 1865. It’s Oxford’s Chancellors who take a staring role in the Civil wars.

William Laud, Chancellor of the University of Oxford

William Laud was, like John Fisher, deeply involved in his university; president of his college for ten years and, as both Chancellor and Archbishop, an active reformer of the University. The Laudian Code, the statutes he reorganised for Oxford, remained in force for over 200 years. Some of his reforms were less welcome; the ‘Popish’ porch he had built for the University Church was cited in his trial for treason, he was removed from the Chancellorship in 1641 and executed in 1645.

Laud’s Successor, Philip Herbert, Earl of Pembroke was removed by the Royalists and replaced by Wiliam Seymour, Duke of Somerset, who was then replaced by Philip Herbert restored to the role. On his death he was replaced by first Oliver and then Richard Cromwell, who left to be replaced by William Seymour restored to the role. Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon replaced him, but had to leave the role when forced into exile (which had an indirect benefit as the funds from his History of the Rebellion were a major benefaction to the university). After his impeachment for high treason in 1715 the University replaced James Butler, Duke of Ormond, with his brother Charles Butler, Earl of Arran. Thereafter it has had chancellors drawn entirely from men who’ve held the highest political offices, with the controversies that comes from that (including Lord North losing the American colonies).

The modern universities joined this tradition, converting the presidents of their governors into chancellors. The conversion from a more active role leading the governors, meant the chancellors were active in the university, Joseph Chamberlain being a driving force in creating the University of Birmingham.

Joseph Chamberlain, Chancellor of the University of Birmingham

A high-profile politician could bring excitement as well as controversy; there’s a Pathe news clip of Winston Churchill being enthusiastically greeted by students at Bristol for his installation as chancellor in 1929.

There were some powers retained by chancellors, in 1922 the Marquis of Curzon tried to limit the term of office of an unpopular vice-chancellor at Oxford. Over time, the direct power of chancellors in universities has declined, but their representative role, especially among members of the House of Lords has been maintained. They may also play a role outside the formal ceremonial aspects of presiding over some graduation ceremonies, often as an ambassador.

Chancellors come from all sorts of backgrounds; academia, arts and broadcasting, business, church, law, politics and members of the royal family. Most of them uncontroversial.

But, at time of writing, I can find no current politicians who are chancellors. Shami Chakrabarti left the role of Chancellor at Essex on appointment to a front bench role in the labour party.

Appointed by the University’s Senate and Council, John will succeed Shami Chakrabarti who steps down from her role after the July 2017 graduation ceremonies following her appointment to the Shadow Cabinet.

Which non-controversial, non-political, figure had Essex found? John Bercow, then Speaker of the House of Commons. Perhaps he’ll have been the last frontline politician to hold a chancellorship or two (he’s chancellor at Bedfordshire as well as Essex).

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