As some of you may have noticed, on Friday and Saturday Cambridge University held an election for its new Chancellor. The new Chancellor, replacing Prince Phillip who is (frankly) getting on a bit, is Lord Sainsbury. I have Issues with this, mainly connected to what I worry will be an overly business-orientated approach to the higher education model, but I’m willing to be proven wrong. I also know that there’s a strong argument to be made about Lord Sainsbury’s contacts within a network which may yield wealthy donors to the university, and I have some sympathy with that approach in times when it looks like universities are going to have to face up to constrained budgets, never mind how I feel about the policies that create that environment.
I personally felt that while the Brian Blessed camp were going to put up a strong fight, Sainsbury was probably a foregone conclusion (one which Mary Beard is quite glad about). Rather than mull over the results, I wanted to talk about the experience of being part of this election. My time in Cambridge as an undergraduate and an MPhil student was, ultimately, a shockingly unreflective one; coming back as an alumna to be part of something so ancient and ritual-laden as an election of a chancellor after six years in a very different institution gave me some perspective on the whole process.
I’d decided I was definitely going to be in Cambridge to vote because this is a historic occasion; it’s not quite a once in a lifetime thing, but it may be a long time before there’s another election, and I felt I wanted to be part of the process. Because, you see, in order to vote you had to be present in person. No postal or electronic voting – physical filling-out-the-paper was all that would do. (This creates obvious problems for alumnae with parenting responsibilities or disabilities which restrict their ability to do the commute, for example.) My friend Jo and I met up in town at 11am on Saturday morning; the poll had opened at 10am and would be open until 8pm, and we figured we would be beating the crowd if we made it early. Our college was also putting on an afternoon for alumnae, and we wanted to be on time for that. When we met up, I was wearing my formal gown – because the university required all alumnae to be wearing their Cambridge academic gowns (not, note, any other university, so even if I’d had my scarlet Rutgers doctoral robes to hand, I would not have been able to vote in them). Thankfully, anything roughly the right length seemed to be getting waved through, so my MPhil gown got me through alright despite not technically being the right gown for the Cambridge degrees I hold. (Wearing my own gown was a deliberate choice – I’m the sort of person who fancies being able to say “I voted for the Chancellor of Cambridge University in this gown!”. For those who are less nostalgically-minded, the University had a pile of rented robes that eligible voters were put into before entering the Senate House and which were retrieved when they left.)
So we pottered along to the Senate House (in the photo, although not on the day – Mary had the foresight to take a camera and so has some better shots), and thankfully there wasn’t much of a queue. The university had assembled a covered queueing area, rendered unnecessary by the beautifully mild weather. Access to voting was controlled by proctors and other figures of university authority in traditional dress, although no dress code was required of the voters themselves. We were moved along the perimeter of the Senate House lawn in small groups, since apparently the system could cope with about five people at a time. At the first stage we were handed a small but comprehensive booklet explaining the procedure and a sample copy of the form; waiting to move to the second stage gave you enough time to read that, before you were given a rather nice Cambridge university crest pin (mine is on my jumper as I type), and then asked to do a bit more queueing. This queue lead you into the bag and coat check area, for nothing except you and your gown got into the Senate House; this was the stage to be begowned if you weren’t already. Then a little more queueing, and into the Senate House… for more queueing to be directed to the table dealing with the portion of the alphabet in which your surname appeared.
This was the final check, and once you’d given your name, college and address, you were issued with your STV form and sent off to a voting booth. (I was quite glad to see that the young man who had brought his toddler with him to vote posed no problem at all for the staff overseeing events, which I thought was a credit to the university. So, for that matter, was the sense of cameraderie in the queue – even though we didn’t necessarily agree with each other’s voting intentions, there was still a rather jolly school-outing feeling to it all.) Once you had filled out your form, you dropped it into the sealed box at the Senate House exit, passed off your hired gown if necessary, and went to enjoy the university’s hospitality in the form of tea and cake.
I think what really struck me about this whole process was how orderly and well-controlled it all was. I don’t think I ever saw the queue go more than a few people outside the Senate House main gates, and I walked past the place a few times during the course of the day. The combination of the archaic and arcane (in-person only voting, traditionally costumed guardians of order, standards of academic dress) with the modern and efficient (printed records of voters, those rickety voting booths, the ‘hospitality tent’, the cloak room) seemed to sum up more or less everything that I experienced during my time at Cambridge and just assumed was normal. We were intincted with this meld of ancient and modern, of pomp and circumstance in the oddest places – and presumed its normalcy. One of the first things I did when I was preparing for going to Rutgers was to ask whether I would need my gown and if so what sort of gown I should bring – a question which, I think, raised a bit of a chuckle. Cambridge’s normal is not everyone else’s normal. But I’m glad I had the chance to go back and be part of the synthesis for this historic occasion. And while I don’t hope there’s another contested election in the near future (this was the first serious contest since 1847), it will be interesting to see what lessons have been learned if I am around for the next one.