February 9, 2024 - 7:00am

Rory Stewart’s career is a thing of wonder. He’s popped up in a bewildering variety of roles: soldier, diplomat, travel writer, academic, broadcaster, member of Parliament, minister, candidate for leader of the Conservative Party, would-be mayor of London and, er, podcaster. Time after time, he’s risen to dazzling heights, exploded in a shower of sparks, and then gone dark before the next burst of brilliance. It’s not so much a resumé as a fireworks display.

Is there any reason, then, why he shouldn’t be a candidate for chancellor of Oxford University, as he reportedly is? For a start, there is his stature problem. The outgoing chancellor, Lord Patten, was the last governor of Hong Kong, a European commissioner and a senior Cabinet minister. Patten’s four predecessors as Oxford chancellor were Roy Jenkins, Harold Macmillan, Lord Halifax and Sir Edward Grey — each a significant figure in 20th-century politics.

For all the colour and variety of his career to date, the same cannot be said for Stewart. The worthies of Oxford University do have other options. Tony Blair, Theresa May and Boris Johnson are all said to be in the running (and, if nothing else, they’re all former prime ministers). Then again, they do have baggage: Iraq in Blair’s case, failing to get Brexit done in May’s; and getting Brexit done in Johnson’s.

Stewart, though — having not risen to the level of making history-changing decisions — constitutes relatively undamaged goods. What’s more, he has the right kind of politics — namely, centrist dad with a flash of originality — and the right kind of style (clubbable with a dash of eccentricity). But are vibes an adequate substitute for gravitas?

Looking down the current list of Britain’s university chancellors, there’s an awful lot of vibing going on. For instance, some universities prefer the patronage of royals, others opt for ex-ministers or, alternatively, showbiz types such as the Reverend Richard Coles (Northampton), Sir Lenny Henry (Birmingham City), and Gyles Brandreth (Chester). In choosing Stewart, Oxford would be getting a three-for-one deal — part posho, part politician, part celebrity.

Of course, the chancellorship of a university is a largely ceremonial position, and the vice-chancellor calls the shots. Yet perhaps it’s time for that to change. Let the VC get on with the admin, but choose chancellors who offer genuine intellectual leadership. It’s certainly needed. 

Across the Western world, universities — especially the most prestigious names — have been coasting along on their reputations. Yet despite the advent of the information age, in which knowledge is supposed to flow freely, higher education has become a dangerous bottleneck. Costs are rising out of control, fuelled by student debt; in spite of public funding, access to university research is toll-gated; and in defiance of democratic values, campuses are the ground zero of free speech restrictions.

Above all, we’re living through an era of intellectual stagnation. Compared to the 19th and 20th centuries, scientific progress has slowed to a crawl and the humanities are in crisis.

Something is clearly rotten in academia — and we need genuine reformers, not establishment patsies, to give the ivory towers a wobble. If he’s chosen, let’s hope that Rory Stewart is the loose cannon he’s cracked up to be. 

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.