London, March 11 (Reuters): Oxford University has concocted a potent academic cocktail with four intriguing ingredients as it gathers to choose its next chancellor this weekend.
The prize is one of the British establishment’s great positions, an unpaid but high-profile job for life with academic cachet to die for.
The candidates are Hong Kong’s last governor, a former Lord Chief Justice, a parliamentary “sleazebuster” and a comedienne.
“No pay, no power and the pleasures of the High Table,” was how The Times summed up the job which gives the winner a chance to parade around in splendid robes handing out degrees.
But the well-stocked wine cellars of the university colleges are not the only perk. “In the way of so much of The Establishment, the chancellorship offers an ill-defined position of authority from which to command public attention for anything one cares to talk about,” The Times concluded.
By far the most intriguing name once being bandied about for the honorary post was former US President Bill Clinton, who as an Oxford Rhodes scholar tried marijuana but, famously, said he did not inhale. His daughter Chelsea is currently at Oxford.
Clinton’s fund-raising powers would have been immense but he declined to enter the race, leaving the field much more evenly balanced.
Anyone with an Oxford degree can come and cast their ballot and, in a break with tradition, they no longer have to wear their academic gowns to vote.
The chancellorship fell vacant with the death of centrist politician Roy Jenkins in January. Now, with electioneering hotting up, former Conservative Party chairman Chris Patten is 7-4 favourite.
Patten, the European Union’s external affairs commissioner, is bidding for one of the great bastions of the British establishment after presiding over the demise of another — he was the governor who handed the colony of Hong Kong back to China in 1997.
The 9-4 second favourite is Lord “Call me Tom” Bingham, the senior Law Lord and former Lord Chief Justice of England.
He insisted: “The chancellor’s role is not just a business of dressing up in funny clothes and drinking the best claret the colleges have available. There is a job to do.”
Next, at odds of 11-4, is Lord Neill who oversaw a watchdog looking into parliamentary sleaze.
Despite the dreaming spires of Oxford, he is keen to dispel the university’s elite and effete image so memorably conjured up in the Evelyn Waugh classic, Brideshead Revisited.
The outsider at 3-1 is comedienne and broadcaster Sandi Toksvig — a graduate of rival Cambridge university.
She won the support of undergraduates by opposing higher “top-up” fees for students. The problem is that undergraduates are not entitled to vote for chancellor. That is the privilege of graduates alone.
The result of the election is expected to be announced on Monday.