When the University of Cambridge votes for its new chancellor in October, Lord Sainsbury of Turville, the supermarket tycoon and former minister, will face competition from an unlikely rival: A shopkeeper of Indian descent.
Prince Philip, the current chancellor of the University of Cambridge, will retire from his post at the end of the month.
Abdul Arain, whose family-run shop in Cambridge specializes in international groceries and includes an Indian deli, secured enough support from university staff and former students to have his name added to the ballot. Born in a Punjabi family in Nairobi, Mr. Arain, 46, moved to the U.K. in his teens and has been living there ever since.
The list of contenders, unveiled last week, also includes Brian Blessed, a larger-than-life actor known for his booming voice and Shakespearean performances, and Michael Mansfield, a high-profile barrister. The winner will replace Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, who is retiring from his role as formal head of the university at the end of this month after 34 years.
Once the university’s top job, today the office is largely ceremonial. The chancellor’s main responsibility is to don a silk-embroidered gown and a mortarboard hat to confer honorary degrees once a year.
As the university’s only official candidate, Lord Sainsbury, a philanthropist, is widely seen as the front-runner. In order to be nominated, the other candidates needed the backing of 50 or more members of the university’s governing body and students who obtained a doctorate, a master’s or bachelor’s degree in divinity from the university.
Mr. Arain’s bid to become chancellor has a lot to do with the grocery connection with Lord Sainsbury, who is the former chairman and heir of the supermarket chain that takes his family name.
Rivaling Lord Sainsbury offers Mr. Arain a new stage to campaign against the “Big Four” – England’s largest supermarket chains -, which many say are killing smaller, independent businesses. Sainsbury’s is one of the “Big Four.”
“When large supermarkets move in, the other local shops eventually close down,” Mr. Arain told India Real Time. He mentioned Sainsbury’s plan to open a new supermarket in Cambridge’s Mill Road, where his own shop is also located.
A Sainsbury’s official Tuesday said that the company’s investment plans in the area wouldn’t be impacted if Lord Sainsbury became chancellor. She also said that their convenience stores complement, rather than rival, “specialist traders” on the high streets.
But what does this grocery shop spat have to do with the university?
Mr. Arain explained that as Cambridge’s central institution, the university could do more for the rest of the town: “The University of Cambridge has become dissociated from the city. It would be a positive development if it reconnected to the city and its people.”
A victory for Mr. Arain would also help make the university less intimidating for potential students, he says. “I was born in Kenya, I’m an average British citizen, attaining the position of chancellor of the university would make the whole enterprise a lot more accessible.”
For the past several hundred years, most of the university’s chancellors have been lords, earls, dukes or princes.
Mr. Arain said he received strong support from Cambridge’s South Asian community, including Nobel prize winner Amartya Sen, as well as from other university staff, students and members of the clergy.
Elections are set to take place on October 14 and 15. Although he’s the underdog candidate, Mr. Arain thinks he has a shot at winning. “People ask me, ‘Do you think you realistically have any chances?’ Many thought Obama didn’t have a chance. I believe there is always a possibility.”
You can follow Ms. Stancati on Twitter @margheritawsj.
Via: India Real Time