When I mentioned to my friend Manjula, who is presently Dean of the Faculty of Law at a prestigious university in New Delhi, that I was traveling to Cambridge to attend a course, she assumed naturally, given my background that it would be somehow connected to the law. I have been connected to law as a practitioner, as an adviser on legal issues with an international organization, and have also taught law at Indian universities. For some years Manjula and I were colleagues.
‘The course is on Law and Leadership,’ I told her.
‘So, is this at the Faculty of Law in Cambridge?’ she asked.
‘No,’ I said. ‘It’s actually at a business school that’s part of the university. The Judge Business School…..’ I waited to see her reaction.
‘So, is this….’ she hesitated. ‘Is this a business school for judges?’
‘Not really,’ I laughed, and explained that the Judge in Judge Business School had nothing whatsoever to do with judges. It wasn’t Manjula’s fault. Firstly, I was doing a law related course and secondly the course itself was being conducted at the Judge Business School. These two facts would make many people draw that assumption. Erstwhile lawyer colleagues back in India also mistakenly and understandably made the same erroneous assumption.
Perhaps one day in the future there will be a business school for judges too which will teach their Lordships and Ladyships to handle their dockets and courts better – and certainly the justice system in India, aside from needing a general overhaul, needs better court and case management by judges. Such a development, were it to ever happen, is however probably still a while away. Judge was the name of the person who had endowed the Judge Business School with a pile of cash; it had nothing to do with judges as such, though the course does qualify you for 24 points of ‘continuing professional development’ under the British Solicitors Regulatory Authority.
My friends in the corporate world would not have made the mistake that Manjula made, for the Judge Business School at the University of Cambridge is currently ranked among the top business schools in the world. It competes closely with the Said Business School at Oxford in terms of ranking, just as the two universities do.
I went to Cambridge after doing some studies at its old time rival, Oxford, so it was inevitable that I would end up making comparisons between the two. Cambridge was clearly less corporate and ‘developed’ as compared with Oxford. There were small, but significant signs of this. For instance, Oxford had an organized shopping page of various academic courses, which classified them like products, (is education a product?) with a convenient system of online payment once you had been granted admission by the University. Cambridge too managed to take credit card payments but instead of ‘shopping’ I had to speak to someone and give out my card details on the phone, the way you can sometimes do with relatively small but reputable establishments. I would therefore have to rate Cambridge a few notches below Oxford in terms of modern day corporate professionalism especially since I was to be attending classes at the University’s business school! I doubt if the lack of an internet shopping platform was responsible for the relatively small size of our class though; it would have certainly been the high fees. We were eighteen lawyers in class or rather people with a legal background, since I, for instance, no longer practiced law.
Tim Bellis, the Program Director, who prior to his new academic avatar had himself been a lawyer with a multinational law firm, was a great leader of the programme. Tim mentioned to me during the course of a coffee break that the Law Firm as Leader course (for that was the proper name of our course) always had a few drop outs at the very last minute despite the stiff penalties that this entailed. You lost half the money, no small sum. Such dropping out was far less frequent with the regular management courses. A sign of the hurried, harried lives of lawyers all across the world! No surprises there.
The Cambridge City Hotel where all the participants on our course had been accommodated was right in the heart of the city within walking distance of the Judge and other colleges. Rather appropriately perhaps it classified the hotel rooms in term of an academic hierarchy. Our rooms were spacious, comfortable and well-appointed but still fell within the classification of Fellows Suites (read ordinary). A notch higher than the accommodation provided to us was the Deans Suite (deluxe) and then finally there was the Masters Suites (super deluxe). No penthouse suites for Vice Chancellors? One also wondered what happened to the readers and lowly lecturers; perhaps they were lumped in with us, the so-called fellows.
While it is true that the university town of Oxford seems larger and more ‘developed’ than Cambridge at the same time this very lack of development is an attraction for some people and the very reason why they prefer Cambridge to Oxford. One of our instructors, Wes Woods, who lives in Foxton, a village on the outskirts of the university, confided to me over a glass of wine that there were people in his village who had never ever been to London, a piece of information rather startling for me to hear. I couldn’t help wondering if the wine had contributed in some measure to that opinion. While I was nursing my drink and musing over the truth of his assertion, another professor who was there at the dinner piped in with the comment that he lived in a village where the people hardly ever went to Cambridge itself! Wes’s neighbor who is in his nineties is a retired Nobel laureate and was the inventor of a special kind of compass.
Our class consisted of a small group of mature lawyers. At Oxford, my studies had been focused on humanitarian issues, and the men had been outnumbered by the women on a ratio of three to one. Perhaps it’s because the law can be such a hard and cold beast, that here it was the other way around. Most participants on the course were male and either English or European. I was the sole representative from India, indeed of the entire Asian continent. Besides me, representing Africa was a lone lawyer from Ghana who kept running out of class to take overseas calls. Even during coffee breaks we found him whispering urgent instructions to associates in his small law firm in Accra. There were three of us who did not work for prestigious or large law firms: the Ghanaian, myself and a charming slender lady who was in a very senior position at the Attorney General’s office in Ireland. My classmate retained the longer and more phonetic version of her name: Caitlin Ni Fhlaheartaigh. With a name so striking, I told her, it was surely only a matter of time before she became Attorney General.
Our classes had an impressive array of instructors. There was of course Tim Bellis, who despite his lawyering past will always remain in my mind the quintessential English gentleman. An erstwhile partner in a large and reputable law firm Tim entered the world of academia rather late in his career. His classes were a pleasure to attend being as well planned as a piece of music, and he impressed us all with his quiet affectionate manner and the way he introduced discipline in the program without hurting anyone's feelings.
Professor Dame Sandra Dawson, the Pro-Vice-chancellor of the University and former Director of the Judge Business School came in to take a couple of classes on leadership where she has acquired a considerable reputation as a result of ground breaking research. Despite her obvious maturity and experience, she had an endearing childlike innocence in the way she simplified things for us and also in the way she interacted with the class. As someone who has worked in many post conflict feudal societies I know that there exist cultures in which people did not expect and even wish to see humility in their leaders, even if it happened to be genuine. When I suggested to Sandra that the so-called generic leadership quality of 'humility' might need tweaking in a non-Western context she immediately understood where I was coming from. Only recently she advised a senior corporate honcho who had assumed leadership in Kazakhstan that he could retain his sense of authenticity while yet dispensing with doing the photocopying and dusting of his table himself.
Des Woods had spent many years working for a large law firm just like Tim and made a late entry into the world of academia. A great raconteur he kept us on the edge of our seats trying to guess what would happen next in case studies of leadership, corporate intrigue and one-upmanship. I recall in particular one such real life story and career graph of a rainmaker who brought in tens of millions of dollars of business into the consultancy firm he worked for but while this gentleman was a great hit with his clients he managed simultaneously through insufferable, arrogant and rude behavior to antagonize all his colleagues. Clearly Wes enjoyed telling the tale as much as we the listeners enjoyed hearing him. In other words he told us our case studies in a suspenseful manner much the way a thriller writer would have penned his novel.
Young and handsome Mark de Rond came in and provided us with unusual presentations of fairly dramatic events he had participated in. In one adventure, he worked closely with world champions of rowing. In another, he rode through the fast flowing and dangerous waters of the Amazon in a tiny boat. For our purposes the adventure itself was secondary; what mattered more were the lessons about leadership and teamwork that Mark had garnered from those experiences. Mark was no editor of truth and so we watched slides of him and his companion standing knee deep and butt naked in the waters of the river, something incidentally that the local Cambridge paper was quick to seize upon. After all it’s not every day that the paper’s student readership would get to see their teacher caught with his pants down! Mark had filmed his experiences so half the lecture consisted of watching visuals and video snippets.
Some in our class commented that while the videos were interesting, they felt that Mark had intelligently found a way to deal with his lack of corporate experience by undertaking a series of adventures and deriving so-called management lessons from them. Could a series of high profile adventures undertaken during the course of a few months make up for say a decade or two of real life corporate experience? Possibly, yes. Mark’s lessons learned had been published in the form of articles in high ranking academic journals.
Mr Mister is not a common name. In fact it’s the first time I came across such an unusual name. Mike Mister had done a fair amount of teaching on the other side of the Atlantic at American universities and so, despite the fact that we were using a traditional classroom he combined the best of American style of teaching with an understated British wit.
My overall enjoyment of Judge would have been considerably lessened had it not been for wonderful support that was provided by Stacey Clifford and Hannah Winchester who worked in business development and programming. During the course of coffee breaks and dinners I remember enjoying chats and discussions with Hannah and Stacey that were full of good cheer, clever talk and humor.
Regarding the relative lack of development those at Cambridge were quick to point out that they had an important I T hub close by which was worth billions. Besides the local Cambridge newspaper carried a story, during the time I was there on how George Osborne the Finance Minister had earmarked 500 million dollars for the development of the city. So perhaps with the development distinctions between Oxford and Cambridge diminishing, Cambridge would lose its reclusive and exclusive character? While many would rejoice were that were to happen, there would be some who would mourn the passing away of that greater quietness that currently distinguishes Cambridge from Oxford.
I noticed a sense of rivalry present among professors as well as students. Julie, one of the regular students studying at St Catherine’s College was convinced that Cambridge was better. It was consistently ranked higher she maintained. Besides, she argued, Cambridge had more Nobel laureates, some 41 or 43. The latter argument she advanced could have been challenged by a votary for Oxford pointing out how traditionally Cambridge had been more focused on the sciences and Oxford on the arts despite the considerable overlap. This emphasis on science at Cambridge may have contributed to the variance in Nobel prizes, since they are given more for science.
For decades if not centuries, it would appear that Oxford and Cambridge have been more rivals than collaborators. A Head of Department at Oxford told me that sometimes plans for the two universities to collaborate start to shape up, but inevitably fall through before ever fructifying. Someone could make the case that this is actually a very healthy rivalry that exists between the two universities which encourages each to outdo the other and therefore promotes excellence. On the other hand universities are surely not like football teams, and it could be argued conversely that a true seeker for truth – which the learned professors are supposed to be, at least in theory – willing surrenders to the joy of learning rather than try and out-perform or out-debate the other in an ego driven trip. Rivalry may be all right in schools but at university level should it not be more about collaboration and less about competition? As things stand, despite their physical proximity there isn’t even a direct rail link between two of the leading universities of the world. And this while collaborations are being set up across the world between institutions which are tens of thousands of miles apart!
When I entered the Judge Business School building I expected to find a modern corporatized building similar to the Said Business School of Oxford. To my surprise I found walls painted in bright, pastel colors that could have equally suited a primary school. No reason why the conduct of business and the teaching of business management should be dull, I suppose.
I found myself comparing Oxford and Cambridge, but also comparing the best British Universities with the best American universities, say a place like Harvard. In terms of overall excellence I believe that American elite institutions would currently trump the British ones. Despite the excellent teaching that I personally experienced at the Judge in Cambridge and at the Refugee Studies Centre at Oxford, I believe that at Harvard, the Americans have the edge in many subjects.
During my time at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government I discovered that the professor is quite often a performer, an actor even, who tells the students stories and tries his best to keeps their attention riveted. The Americans appear to understand better than the British that the creator of a piece of outstanding research might not always be the best person to teach it. I am reminded of Narendra L, a friend who teaches at one of the high ranking management institutions in the UK. Now Narendra has a deep baritone, a tall, lanky frame (personality can help in teaching) and a great understanding of his subject. He has been an excellent communicator for as long as I’ve known him. On the other hand his research output is neither path breaking nor extensive. His teaching skills are so good, that he has Americans inviting him to the US to speak on research that they have carried out!
‘You teach what I’ve written better than I can,’ confessed one such management guru, ‘and this is the reason I’m more than happy to arrange for first class air travel across the Atlantic and pay your fee for the sessions you conduct with corporate executives!’
Under the present British system of evaluation an outstanding teacher at university with limited research output would certainly not be rated as highly as some of his colleagues who may be more prolific in their research output, even if they happen to be terrible communicators and teachers.
Question: Why are there fewer backbenchers in American universities?
Answer: Under the American system the speaker is quite often in the 'pit' so to speak like a gladiator of olden times. The students circle him as if they were all ticket paying spectators in a ring. As a result of this circular area approach it is not possible to have 'backbenchers' in the American system.
Jokes apart, during my time at the Judge we used a combination of different approaches. We sat around different tables of four participants each, in teams so to speak. We also attended classes in the traditional classroom style. Some of the classrooms at the Judge were at a steep gradient so students and teachers had clear visibility of each other but yes, in England and under the English system, you could still technically be a backbencher so to speak.
This more dramatic American approach is useful in general but particularly more so with respect to subjects that used a case study method of teaching such as law and management or even with drama itself or theater studies.
At British universities they focus on research but the Americans somehow manage to focus on both research and quality of teaching. It may be the higher wages at American universities that are responsible for this. After all even professors need incentives.
In most of our Indian universities they focus on neither research, nor quality of teaching, sad to say. The reason why Indian universities have such poor ranking in global surveys is that we have very little research output, and what exists is often of poor quality. If the English need to re-emphasize teaching skills, the Indians need to insist that the teaching staff at universities produce quality research if they are to be considered for promotion! But this is not an essay about the Indian university system….
Back to the British, it is a difficult thing to monitor and evaluate – this thing called ‘quality of teaching’ but you always know it when you experience it. Researchers who cannot teach well, may have a bias towards those, who, like them, are good at research but not at communication. And then there will be those who can teach well, who will be biased in favor of those who can teach well, but are not great researchers. There will of course be some people who can do both: be excellent communicators and also excellent researchers. A case can be made out that institutions of higher learning should ideally be headed by such people, who have both these skills.
American universities such as Harvard and Yale are very rich and handsomely endowed, and their British cousins are poor in comparison. Resentment smoldered within the teaching population of both Oxford and Cambridge. A professor at Cambridge told me about how Yale had tried to ‘steal’ one of his brilliant colleagues by offering him piles of cash, but that his colleague would never think of it, no matter what the offer. A don at Oxford told me another story of how they tolerated an association with a mediocre American professor from a second rate American university only because of the money she managed to bring in through collaborative projects. Such stories have more than a grain of truth to them, but also reveal latent snobbery. And of course snobbery is never good, and if it were only possible for the elite universities both in the UK and the US to be somehow purged of this vice, which does exist in their elite institutions to an unhealthy degree, they would be still greater.
It is true that those who teach at Oxford and Cambridge might not be paid nearly as well as those teaching in comparatively low grade American universities, not to speak of the premier ones, but there is something to be said for that grand ambiance that students enjoy in these ancient universities. Tradition does matter; money is not everything after all. In Oxford I had stayed in somewhat cramped student accommodation within a stately sixteenth century construction, but in Cambridge we were accommodated in an upmarket hotel because of the high fee that was being charged. Most meals that I ate at Oxford were inside a 16 century dining hall with oil painted portraits of eminences of the past covering the walls, and that was charming, but at Cambridge we got to sit on the other side of the fence and sit together with the dons. Our small class ate dinner and sipped wine with the professors and instructors in cozy dining halls at different colleges. We supped at St Johns, Peter House and St Catherine’s, in small high-ceilinged rooms with subdued lighting and wonderful ambiance, as good as or even better than any of the five star hotels I may have dined in. After class evening meals were generally very classy. Conversation flowed as did the wine. The average Englishman is a good communicator, but the current over-emphasis on research output has resulted in a dilution of teaching skills. After all if a professor is to be evaluated only on his research, and teaching ability is not considered, is he not likely, even somehow reverse incentivized to neglect his students? The English need to find a way to give credit for excellence in teaching, while retaining focus on quality research which demonstrates the continued involvement of a teacher with his subject. And then they can give the Americans a run for their money. The best of the British may be down, but they are certainly not out.