Four years after a handful of disaffected dons began their abortive plotting to oust Dean Martyn Percy, the college’s charitable foundation has so far spent at least £3 million of its funds on legal, PR and other dispute-related costs. It has also thrown away another estimated £3 million of lost donations because a number of wealthy past and present philanthropists, including Christ Church’s greatest benefactor Michael Moritz, are withholding any future gifts until the toxic Tom Quad antics have ended.
No such end is in sight. The latest bulletin to alumni has coyly skated over the news that the Employment Tribunal, one of the half dozen courts, tribunals, or regulatory bodies currently engaged with investigating or judging aspects of the college’s legal quicksand, will not even begin hearing its Christ Church cause célèbre until 2023.
During these shenanigans the college’s academic results have nosedived. Christ Church, which used to be one of the regular leaders of the all-important Norrington Table, has this year come almost bottom in 34th place out of 37.
Far from any self-examination for the teaching and lecturing disappointments that must be partly responsible for this debacle, the self-congratulatory dons on the governing body have just proposed a handsome increase in their salaries and allowances. Only one member, a non-academic, dared to oppose this largesse and walked out of the meeting after strenuous opposition.
The consequences of these recurring failures of judgment are that my alma mater, once so proud of its Oxonian pre-eminence, has suffered the worst reputational damage in terms of negative media reporting of any college in living memory. The hurt is likely to last for a generation at least.
How did this combination of tragedy, comedy, incompetence, and farce happen? Attempted Head of House coups d’état are not unknown at Oxford. One or two succeed. Most fade away. None have ever been as expensively and publicly mishandled as the continuously failed efforts to defenestrate Dean Martyn Percy.
Why was the coup attempted? The answer to this £6.4 million and rising question is at best opaque and at worst pathetically unconvincing. That latter view appears to have been taken by the retired High Court Judge, Sir Andrew Smith, who was appointed by the college in 2017 to chair a tribunal to decide whether to dismiss the Dean. Under the statutes, the head of the college — which is what the dean is at Christ Church — can only be fired for conduct that is “immoral, scandalous or disgraceful”.
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