Julie Maxton, an unpretentious lawyer from New Zealand who talks about her role with modesty, has stepped into the eye of the storm that is convulsing Oxford University. She took on the role of registrar in April 2004, just as the anger caused by the new vice-chancellor, John Hood, was reaching a fever pitch. Hood’s plans to streamline the 900-year-old university and install a managerial regime had angered many who believed centuries of academic democracy would be lost.
Maxton had worked closely with Hood when he headed up the University of Auckland and this only placed her under further scrutiny by academic critics. She arrived into a storm of ferocious protest against the building of a new £20m research facility, which had already been halted by activists’ threats. Her role was to oversee the legal measures that the University needed to counter such protests.
As the first woman to hold the post of registrar at Oxford for 550 years, she was responsible for the administration of 18,000 students and more than 8,000 staff over 39 independent colleges. Maxton managed the introduction of new computing systems, which had led to complaints from academics and administrators. She had previously served as the dean of law at Auckland, as well as an acting deputy vice-chancellor.
Despite the turmoil, Maxton was unflustered in her small office. In her first newspaper interview, she spoke of her substantial job with disarming modesty: "One certainly doesn’t want to be a hindrance. One wants to facilitate the academic endeavour and create an environment for people to do what they do best. Over the longer term, the goal is to improve the administrative services in all areas so academics and students can get on with teaching, learning, thinking and research, with a light administrative rein."
Though Maxton was responsible for only 12 people, those that reported directly to her, in reality, more than 4,000 staff reported to her neat desk. She was well-regarded in New Zealand as a person and for her legal expertise, having combined commercial practice with academic teaching and research. She was attracted to the challenge of making a university run smoothly instead of becoming a judge.
The vice-chancellor of Cambridge, Alison Richard, oversaw her appointment to the role of registrar, but rumours spread that Hood was "bringing in outsiders who will do his bidding". Despite this, Maxton remains undaunted and fascinated by the robust debate and contesting of opinions that Oxford offers. She was tasked with organising the vote on Hood’s proposed reforms, which included bringing outsiders to the university’s governing council. The battle over the issue would reach its peak that term.
Julie Katherine Maxton, the first woman to hold the position of Registrar of Oxford University in 550 years, has gained popularity among some critics with her pledge for a light-handed administrative approach and willingness to listen. Though the previous VC struggled to make allies, Maxton’s charming demeanor has won over critics, including one senior academic who describes her as "personally very nice." Although there have been reports of botched IT systems causing frustration, Maxton is credited with attempting to rectify the matter by seeking feedback from those impacted and actively trying to resolve their issues. However, she remains steadfast in her commitment to defending the scientists legally entitled to their work, despite vocal animal rights activists who seek to halt the university’s research facility. Nonetheless, Maxton relishes the prospect of meeting with newly recruited professors and is thrilled to witness Oxford’s myriad developments in cancer and biochemistry research, as well as the critical mass of Chinese scholars. Despite her grueling schedule, Maxton describes her job as "not a chore" but rather "fascinating," revealing that her running regimen now occurs "extremely early in the morning."