Friday, January 19, 2007

Peter Sutherland for Chair of LSE Court of Governors

There is currently a debate going among LSE students over Peter Sutherland's appointment to replace Lord Grabiner of Aldwych as Chair of the LSE Court of Governors and Council, the major non-executive decision making bodies of the school. This debate spilled over into direct action when a group of students blocked a speech he was due to give.

Interrupting the speech was a blatant violation of Sutherland's right to freedom of speech at the university. This deserved sanction but the Student's Union continued its run of failing to censure officers, even after a sabbatical vandalised the King's College Strand Campus last year, and did nothing about its trustees taking part in the protest. Now the debate is over whether someone with Sutherland's corporate connections should be offered such a prominent position and whether or not his appointment should be subject to student approval.

Sutherland's corporate connections are that he was Chairman of British Petroleum and Goldman Sachs. British Petroleum is proving the more contentious of the two and is the reason I wrote this piece in defence of BP for the LSE student newspaper earlier this year which details how, of course, the production of oil does, in the end, result in carbon dioxide emissions but if we accept that the supply of oil is currently both legal and necessary then BP's environmental record starts to look quite good.

There are more specific allegations; many are by proxy through its, non-controlling, share in Petro-China, problematic but not exactly a BP operation and their divesting would not improve matters. In another case Colombian Army units paid to secure BP sites against the FARC appear to have gone a bit off the rails. Baku-Tsibilsi-Ceyhan is a big project and there are concerns about compensation being paid to some along the route but given the size of the project there isn't too much reason to assume this is a systematic problem. What has to be remembered is that BP is a vast company with diverse operations dealing in developing countries; the only way to 100% avoid the risk of these problems is not to deal outside the developed world but this isn't exactly conducive to international development. Of course, BP should always do more to ensure integrity in its operations but to condemn Peter Sutherland for his involvement with the company is overreaction in the extreme.

His corporate qualifications make him an excellent candidate for the job with both experience in senior management of major organisations and the reputation to make an excellent ambassador for the school. It is hard to imagine a candidate with a more impressive CV short of a head of state. His time as Attorney General of Ireland may be controversial because of his role in assisting the preparation of an anti-abortion law but Attorney General is a neutral, civil service, role so this is not fair. That he has been in such a senior government role increases the depth of experience he brings to the job even further. His role at the WTO is even more prestigious although I understand that it upsets the extreme end of the anti-free trade movement. This is the kind of person who bolsters the reputation of the school; a reputation which matters to its student's futures and the school's academic potential.

The case that the students deserve to have a say in the appointment of the new chair is a little weak. The appointment comes from the executive staff of the school and is a part of its management. No one is forced to go to the LSE and its public money is conditional on government oversight not a general stakeholder involvement. Efficiency is ensured through competition with other universities rather than democratic accountability. Other school decisions are not subject to democratic vote either and it would be make management next to impossible if they were.

Sutherland is an excellent candidate for Chair of the Court of Governors and the minority of hard left students attempting to stop his appointment should appreciate that even if students were consulted they are more likely to be impressed by his CV than appalled. LSE is not a socialist infested institution anymore and looking at the numbers attending the events they run Goldman Sachs, at least, is rather popular with LSE students.

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