20 February 2015
On Tuesday of last week I chaired a well-attended meeting of Congregation in the Sheldonian Theatre at which members debated the future of our student housing at Castle Mill. It was a long, civilised and constructive discussion.
As Chair of the meeting, I did not participate in the debate, but many colleagues have read my earlier letter on Castle Mill and I will not rehearse its contents here. Instead I want to reflect on several points arising from the debate and relevant to the postal ballot now being conducted.
As most of you will know, the Congregation meeting had before it a resolution based on a major review of the Castle Mill accommodation, carried out by independent experts and commissioned by the University. This Environmental Statement examines the full range of impacts of the development, on a brownfield site beside the main railway line and close to Port Meadow, which houses more than 300 of our graduate students, including families and those with disabilities.
The resolution put forward by a group of Congregation members focuses on the visual impact of the buildings and demands the implementation of the most radical of three options in the report for mitigating the effect on views of the city from Port Meadow; a course of action that the independent report says would mean removing the students from their homes, demolishing the top-floor of the accommodation, and would trigger costs estimated by the experts at £30 million.
After two and a half hours of debate involving more than 20 speakers, the resolution was rejected by 210 votes to 536.
However, University regulations provide for decisions taken at Congregation meetings, regardless of the margin, to be tested in a postal vote. Supporters of the resolution have invoked that provision; ballot papers have been dispatched, with a closing date for completion and return of Thursday 5 March. The choice is a simple one: to ratify or overturn the decision of Congregation members at the recent meeting.
Early in the debate last week the Registrar acknowledged on behalf of the University administration that aspects of the Castle Mill process, while meeting the formal requirements, could and should have been handled better. We should have explained more and listened more. We regret those shortcomings and have made a clear commitment to learn the lessons. As the Registrar explained, that is already happening with regard to public consultations on planning applications and we are also working hard to improve the way we communicate inside such a diverse and complex institutional structure.
These commitments were welcomed during the debate and it was encouraging to hear participants on all sides of the argument speak of creative approaches for the future. That future, it is important to note, will involve a new planning application to the city authorities, who will make their own decisions on behalf of the entire community of which the University is part.
For Congregation itself, the choice in the postal ballot remains exactly as it was last week. It is the same resolution, in the same words, with the same far-reaching intent. It is a real, not a symbolic, choice.
The independent report on Castle Mill, on which the resolution rests, was welcomed by its supporters. To wish away the scale of the cost and the practical consequences the report describes - or to try to dismiss the reasoned approach of independent experts as mere scaremongering - is not a sensible or realistic basis for decision-making.
The fact remains that the resolution would mean earmarking a huge sum for a purpose hard to reconcile with the University’s core mission of teaching and research, to which it would threaten real and substantial damage.
Just as the resolution is unchanged, so is Council’s opposition to it. Council continues to support the approach proposed in the experts' report on Castle Mill and the balance they seek to strike. Council agrees this can best be done by a range of interventions to help the buildings blend in more when viewed from Port Meadow, not by destroying badly needed student homes at vast financial and social cost to the University and the city.
It was good that Congregation was able to hear directly from the University’s student leaders. The passion, eloquence and strength of their concern, powerfully conveyed in the debate, demands respect. After all, it is our students who would suffer the most direct and immediate consequences of the resolution.
Its longer-term consequences for our University were also debated in Congregation. As several speakers pointed out, those consequences don’t stop at our gates; the University’s reputation and standing in the wider world of funders, donors and policy-makers would also be seriously affected. The deep concerns - measured but insistent - expressed by such highly experienced colleagues as the Master of Balliol and the Warden of Keble were sobering indeed.
This letter, like its predecessor and like those I write at the end of every term, is addressed to all members of University and College staff. The decision of Congregation on Castle Mill will affect everyone, even though the majority of our University community, including our students, cannot vote. We need to be sensitive to this reality.
I mention it in closing because I have been troubled and disappointed by some unfortunate commentary surrounding last week’s meeting, concerning in particular the timing and independence of the participation of some Congregation members. The first thing to say is that it has no basis in fact: the Proctors have found no infringement of Congregation rules or practice. Furthermore, the idea that our fellow members of Congregation might lack the integrity or strength of character and purpose to make up their own minds, and to exercise their vote accordingly in a democratic process, is as inappropriate as it is insulting.
The best possible response lies now in the postal ballot: every member of Congregation is equal and equally free, as always, to vote as they think fit. I strongly encourage them to do so.