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What do we do?

Summary of the Proctors' duties

The duties of the Proctors have evolved over the centuries, but not by as much as one might have thought after the passing of 800 years. In short, these days, among other things, we:

  • ensure good order and discipline in the University;
  • maintain the right to free speech in the University;
  • oversee examinations, and investigate allegations of cheating;
  • serve on a number of University bodies, committees, and boards;
  • attend Discussions of University business at meetings of the Regent House,
  • administer the registration of University Societies;
  • and our presence is essential at Congregations of the Regent House, the University's governing body, for the conferring of degrees.

In the academical year 2015-16, we have a Proctors' Surgery at 15.00 on the Wednesdays of Full Term, open to junior and senior members of the University who wish to consult us.

For a longer answer, read on.

The Proctors' early duties

The earliest manuscript we have of the Statutes of the University of Cambridge, the 'Angelica MS 401' manuscript (c. 1236-54), goes into some detail about the Proctors and their duties. The section De officio rectorum describes various duties, such as assessing the values of houses, ensuring that bread and wine and other essential foods are sold at a fair price and not subject to agreements between tradespersons to fix an artificially high price.

The Proctors also disciplined errant members of the University:

...et in uniuersitate male factores inobedientes et contumaces per se et per alios diligenter inuestigent, ut eorum nomina referant cancelario grauiter puniendorum' (...and [the Proctors must] be diligent in seeking out by themselves, or through others, those in the University who are evildoers, disobedient, and stubborn, sending their names to the Chancellor for severe punishment!)

The earliest surviving financial accounts, from the 14th century, were also kept by the Proctors and they continued, with the Vice-Chancellor, to keep the university accounts until the 1880s. In pre-Reformation days, they were also responsible for the due observance of official exequies and other religious services. Apart from the regulation of rents, their earliest recorded duties also continued into the nineteenth century, the supervision of the market ending only in 1850s, and the ordering of lectures and disputations evolving into the conduct, later assisted by moderators, of university examinations.

This last was part of their function as the representatives of the Regent House, the body of teaching masters, and the chief legislative body of the university, whose meetings they could under certain circumstances convene. They had custody of the University Statutes, not the obsolete ones which they still symbolically carry, but two succeeding manuscript copies, for many years the only existing versions, which they personally updated, even after the first printing of them in 1785, and which they ‘personalised’ with their signatures and with competitive epigrams on any space available. The bindings were heavily armoured so as to survive affrays.  

On the introduction of the Elizabethan statutes of 1570, which introduced a shift of power from the Regent Masters to the Caput (the Vice-Chancellor, one doctor of divinity, one of law and one of physic (medicine), the senior Non-Regent and the senior Regent Master), the predecessor of the present Council, with power to put (and to veto) Graces, it was the Proctors who led the protests, not least because many of their powers were then curtailed. It is as representatives of the Regent House that Proctors today, whatever their academic degree, wear MA hoods when on duty.

The Proctors were, of course, also responsible for discipline both of members of the university in statu pupillari (which included all those under the degree of MA) and, notoriously, until 1894 of street-walkers, whom they could commit overnight to the Spinning House pending the Vice-Chancellor’s sentence the next day. They continued to walk the streets with their constables, or bulldogs, until 1965, on the lookout for gown-less undergraduates out after dark and fining them on the spot. After the Garden House riot in 1970 the Proctors voluntarily resigned their authority to do such things.

The Proctors' duties today

Today's Statutes & Ordinances are much more reticent, going into considerable detail of how the Proctors are elected, but not saying very much at all about what we do.

Clearly, we no longer seek out monopolists and cartels, nor do we prowl the streets after dark with our constables looking for wicked women to send to the Spinning House.

But we do still oversee examinations and investigate allegations of plagiarism or cheating in exams, and generally maintain good order and discipline in the University, especially among the junior members, the students.

We maintain the right to free speech in the University, serve on University bodies such as the Board of Examinations, the Board of Scrutiny, the Societies' Syndicate, etc, attend as observers at meetings of the University Council, Discussions of University business at meetings of the Regent House, oversee the counting of ballots at elections, administer the registration of University Societies and Clubs, and our presence is essential at Congregations of the Regent House, the University's governing body, for the conferring of degrees.

In fact, our remit is so wide these days that we encourage all members and staff of the University to consult us on any topic; if we are not the right people to deal with an issue or problem, we will know who is.

There are also Proctors in the University of Oxford, with whom we have an annual bowls match.

With thanks to Elisabeth Leedham-Green, Senior Proctor 2003-4.