Azara Blog: Sainsbury elected as next Chancellor of Cambridge University

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Date published: 2011/10/16

The BBC says:

Lord Sainsbury of Turville will be the next Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, replacing the Duke of Edinburgh who stood down in June.

Lord Sainsbury will become the 108th chancellor in the university's history and was the official candidate.

He took 2,893 of the 5,888 votes cast, winning on the first count.

He was challenged by actor Brian Blessed (1,389), lawyer Michael Mansfield (964) and Cambridge grocer shop owner Abdul Arain (312).

Well, 2893+1389+964+312=5558 so it looks like 5888-5558=330 people spoiled their ballot, or something. Sainsbury received just under 50% of those who cast votes, but just over 50% of the votes reported, so the single transferable vote system did not need to be used. In any case, the establishment candidate won and the joke candidates did not.

What is most surprising is that Blessed received so few votes, and barely beat out Mansfield. Blessed had received quite a lot of free publicity in the media, more than any other candidate. Quite possibly most of the people who blustered via twitter or facebook that they would vote for him did not bother showing up. And indeed, the requirement to show up at the Senate House to vote no doubt put a lot of potential voters off. The university was expecting up to 10000 people to vote, so that is another indication that a lot of people decided not to bother in the end.

In some sense, all is well that ends well, but this election could easily have gone to Blessed, given the nature of social media. Why was Blessed the preferred candidate of the new media chattering class and not some other random celebrity? Well, just because some random person pushed him forward and he happened to be the first that obtained some traction in the media, and then all the sheep followed suit.

Interestingly, the Wikipedia article on the election says (or said):

On 7 October, IT analysts speculated "a failure by Cambridge University administrators to understand online campaign techniques may result in the defeat of their preferred candidate for the next university chancellor - Lord Sainsbury of Turville", and predicted a possible victory for Blessed. Cambridge alumnus Anthony Zacharzewski, a democracy analyst and founder of the Democratic Society, argued that the University's failure to engage with online campaigning and to adequately publicise the candidates' web presences, "plays into the hands of the Blessed vote", since his supporters had the best-organised online presence. The same analysts also predicted "gridlock in the city centre" on the election days.

It seems in Cambridge that sanity can sometimes trump the web. And why anyone would have predicted "gridlock in the city centre" (any worse than normal) is a mystery. The only "gridlock" was in the Senate House, because each person voting had to be looked up in a list (a long list, in the case of people who were not members of the Regent House).

It will be interesting to see if the university changes the voting rules for future elections. There is no good reason why the vote should not be limited to members of the Regent House. If the rules remain unchanged then it is pretty obvious that there will be plenty of candidates in future who either some joker decides would be a good laugh to support (e.g. Blessed this time around), or who are just in it to get some free publicity for some cause or other, no matter how little it has to do with the university (e.g. Arain this time around).

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