It was announced last week that Lord Sebastian Coe, star of numerous hilarious Yaks (back when Yik Yak was worth looking at) and all round BNOC, is to be our new University Chancellor.
Is this a good thing? You’d certainly think so from a cursory glance at social media. The University went so far as to accompany the Facebook post announcing the news with a smiling emoji. The post was then shared far and wide by the same sorts of people who can be depended upon to disseminate news of our university league rankings to their friends via the platform.
Now, I’m not going to say that Lord Coe’s appointment is necessarily a bad thing. What I plan to do is to scrutinise the man (and his new role) somewhat, so that we can pause for reflection before deciding to accept blindly that this decision is a cause for celebration.
Let’s begin by giving Lord Coe his dues: after graduating from Loughborough (which doesn’t actually seem to be a pre-requisite to becoming Chancellor) in 1979, he went on to win Olympic gold in the 1500m the following year. He repeated the feat in 1984 in LA, where he also won 800m silver for a second time. Since then, he’s also been mentioned on the news as a key member of the successful London 2012 bid for the Olympics. He ascended to his current role as President of the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations) in 2015.
While his pedigree as a sporting figure is widely recognised, you won’t have seen any mention of Coe’s politics in the University’s press release. He’s currently on a leave of absence from the House of Lords, but when he was present could be depended on to vote in line with the Conservative whip. This shouldn’t be too much of a surprise given that he represented them in the Commons as the MP for Falmouth and Camborne for five years until 1997. However, conversations with local representatives suggest that party politics is of less importance to Lord Coe than the sporting issues about which he is most passionate, which is encouraging and potentially advantageous to our University given its specialism.
What’s concerning is that the University has made no effort to publicise its new figurehead’s political past. At a time when we have taken a decision as significant as leaving the NUS, and following another round of almost completely apolitical executive elections, it would have been nice to have been informed of such a development. Here’s hoping that Lord Coe will be able to work collaboratively with our Students’ Union and have productive conversations with former colleagues which will be in the interests of our students as well as the institution which they attend.
Problems at the IAAF
The word ‘embattled’ is often used to describe Coe’s current role as President of the IAAF, which I wrote about in depth for Label last summer. There are questions about his ascension to the top job, with some alleging that he received assistance from his corrupt predecessor’s son in securing critical votes. For his part, Coe denies any wrongdoing, saying that he was ‘civil’ in his dealings with Papa Massata Diack but always ‘wary’ about his motives.
The allegation which lingers is that Lord Coe had more knowledge about doping practices in Russia than he has confessed to. An email sent to him by a British colleague in 2014 would have revealed the full extent of the scandal, but Coe told a Parliamentary committee a year later that he was “certainly not aware of … specific allegations”. Since last summer, his ‘friend’ (Coe’s word choice, not mine) and former IAAF Deputy General Secretary Nick Davies was expelled from the organisation after failing to disclose a £25K ‘personal payment’ allegedly linked to Russian doping. In January of this year, Lord Coe refused to attend another Parliamentary committee to discuss the scandal, saying that he had “no further information to provide to the inquiry”.
As a member of the House of Lords, Coe cannot be forced to appear before MPs, and has said in the past that he did not open the previously mentioned email (which is key to any allegations of wrongdoing) before forwarding it on to investigators. With Lord Coe unwilling to appear to discuss the matter, it’s possible that we’ll never know the full story of his involvement, and this has led some to question his integrity. Next year, UK Athletics chairman Ed Warner will publish a memoir which many expect to be critical of our new Chancellor, so chances are that these allegations are unlikely to be forgotten any time soon.
The Role Itself
Do we actually need a Chancellor? Sir Nigel Rudd (Coe’s predecessor) left the post in July 2015, so we haven’t had one for over a year and seem to have managed pretty well, with many students assuming that VC Bob Allison was the most senior staff member. In fairness, it seems that it was unusual for us to be ‘Chancellor-less’ over this period, and I’d be interested to hear why this was the case for such a long time.
In fact, I’d like to know a lot more about Lord Coe’s appointment: the first I heard of it was via email on the day of the decision. While I don’t know whether the Students’ Union was involved in the decision-making process, it seems odd that students more widely didn’t have a chance to have their say about who should be chosen as our University’s most high profile ambassador. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not asking for a contest akin to the selection of Glasgow University’s Rector, previously won by Edward Snowden and in which Milo Yiannopoulos was a candidate this year. However, the opportunity for students to make their views known would have been helpful: offering the chance to have this discussion prior to the announcement, rather than in its aftermath.
Here’s the bit that bothers me: prior to Lord Coe, we had five Chancellors. They were all white men who (at the time of their appointment) were already knights of the realm and more than 60 years old. Lord Coe is a man who turned 60 in September last year, who was a knight prior to gaining his current title in 2000. With literally thousands of successful former students and people connected to the University out there, why have we never celebrated anybody who does not satisfy these privileged criteria by asking them to be Chancellor?
We’ve never had a female Chancellor. Or an unknighted Chancellor. Or a Chancellor under the age of 60. Or an openly LGBT+ Chancellor. Let’s hope that Lord Coe’s successor will buck that the trend. In the meantime, good luck Seb. You can count on Label to keep an eye on your progress throughout your tenure.
Liam David Hopley
Head of Design
Note: This article was amended on 27th April 2017. The original version stated that “we’ve never had a BAME Chancellor” and described Coe as a “white man” – whereas in fact it should be recognised that Lord Coe is of mixed heritage: his mother was of Indian descent and his father had Jewish heritage. I’d like to take this opportunity to apologise unreservedly to Lord Coe and his family for this inaccuracy and any upset or offence caused by it. (LDH)