Financial fiddles in Cambridge colleges

My last career before becoming a full-time novelist was managing a digital archive founded deep within the library system at the megaversity, the University of Texas at Austin. For most of those twelve years, my salary depended on my ability to obtain grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Getting that first grant requires a great project and evidence of good planning; getting the subsequent grants requires proof that you managed your first grant correctly. That means you must learn to navigate a vast and complex bureaucracy. Not alone! There are whole offices devoted to helping faculty and staff manage such funds. It helps not to thrash against the complexity and the opacity and the multiplicity of forms. Don’t even think about trying to fiddle them; it can’t be done. fiddles

Don’t ask why. That was my motto, until I read Victor Morgan’s A History of the University of Cambridge. Volume II: 1546-1750 (Cambridge University Press, 2004.) I’ve raved about this book already: the clarity of writing, the breadth and depth of scholarship, the wit and understanding displayed in the selection of anecdotes. In this post, I’ll look at some of the reasons we draw clear, bright, shining lines — in triplicate — between grant-funded activities and everything else.

Universities have long memories. In olden days, like Tudor times, there were no regular audits. (At UT, we were audited by the university, the state, and the federal government.) Audits could happen, in theory. Audits might be proposed or even threatened, but they rarely actually came to pass. There were no Accounting Departments or Offices of Sponsored Projects to disburse your funds after you fill out an elaborate and mysterious form for each specific expenditure. I(“Not eligible for bsp” is my personal favorite. This note had to be included in every salary assignment.)

In the sixteenth century, heads of Cambridge colleges managed their college’s funds directly; often to their own advantage. Colleges were funded by endowments. Endowments these days are usually stock portfolios. I had no idea which widget factories, service providers, or cornfields produced the $1.5 million in grants we won for the archive in my years there. Somewhere underneath the numbers there must have been an actual something, one supposes. But the head of a college in a university in the sixteenth century knew exactly where his funds came from. In fact, if you were the recipient of a Bacon scholarship, you could probably ride out to the field in Norfolk or Cambridgeshire and have a look at the crops that would pay for your bread and beer next term.

Wealth meant land, so endowments were gifts of estates. The college would then lease the estate to a tenant who would farm it and pay the college an annual rent. The bursar of the college rode out to collect the said rents, as well as the fines (fees) for renewing leases. Leases could be for odd lengths of time, by our standards. Their standards were shifting from a long, stability-oriented perspective to a short-term profit perspective. From medieval to modern, in other words. Some leases were for “lives,” which originally meant actual lifetimes and then gradually boiled down to twenty-one years or even just seven. I can’t explain that process. The upshot is that some tenants held leases of valuable property at absurdly low rents, especially in those inflationary times.

So there was pressure to renew leases for the legitimate reason of keeping up with the cost of maintaining the college. But there was another pressure built in to their personal-management system: profits from leases, such as new fees, were divided among the resident masters of the college and the head of the college. The head took a bigger share, naturally. Teaching masters only lived in the college for a few years, so they had an incentive to trade a stiff entry fine for a long-term reduction in rent. That could be a big chunk of money right when you needed it most, to buy nice clothes for your new position as the vicar of Somewhere.

Heads of colleges had a lot of influence in all directions. Their recommendations could be crucial in landing that plush vicarage in a rich Suffolk wool town rather than being sent to minister to the poor on some Yorkshire backwater. They could also finagle cheap leases on college properties for courtiers who would later do some great favor, like deflecting that audit that’s been pending for years. The Corn Act of 1576 required that a third of college leasehold rents be paid in corn, the price of just kept on rising. This was another windfall for colleges to exploit.

These bricks aren't free, you know
These bricks aren’t free, you know

Bursars were elected by the masters as a group, but the Head could apply pressure there as well. With the right sort of bursars (corrupt and/or oblivious) you could skim money off the top of every payment that came through the college. Some heads bought rental properties around Cambridge; others charged the college for the support of their fine horses.

Colleges brewed their own ale and baked their own bread. They sold these fine products, dividing the profits among the faculty. That gives a whole ‘nother meaning to the library’s annual bake sale. Maybe we should bring this back. “Linguistics Department Pale Ale” available here!


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