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For centuries the universities of Oxford and Cambridge have been at the forefront of academia, attracting and training some of the best minds in the world. Their alumni — naturalist Charles Darwin, mathematician Sir Isaac Newton, astronomer Edmund Halley, philosopher John Locke and economist John Maynard Keynes, to name but a few — have transformed the way people see themselves and the world around them. But when it comes to managing their money, the two great British schools have badly lagged this era’s great innovators, their wealthy American rivals like Harvard University and Yale University, which have been at the cutting edge of investment management for the past 20 years.

Now, plagued by chronic budget woes, lackluster investment performance and contentious U.K. politics,

Oxford and Cambridge are looking to radically overhaul their endowment management, reduce their dependence on subsidies from the British government and replenish their depleted coffers by raising hundreds of millions from “old members,” as their alumni are known. The two schools’ vice chancellors — who essentially manage the universities — are taking markedly different approaches. At Oxford, New Zealand businessman John Hood, who has rankled some academics with his proposed governance reforms, has set out to reconfigure the university’s investment committee with an eye to recruiting new members with firsthand asset management experience. At Cambridge, British anthropologist Alison Richard, a former Yale provost, has convened an all-star investment board and charged it with the task of hiring the university’s first-ever chief investment officer, who will be expected to build an in-house team of financial experts in the months ahead.

Both leaders feel a sense of urgency. “While we’re nowhere near a state of crisis, I didn’t come back to Cambridge to preside over a slow slide into something less than a world-class university,” says Richard, 58, who graduated with a first in anthropology from Cambridge’s Newnham College in 1969 and has a Ph.D. from the University of London. “I truly believe that if we get this right now, we will be able to make a huge difference to the university for decades to come.”

Says Hood, “We have a very special mode of educating our students with small-group, tutorial-based teaching, and it is a high-cost mode of education.”

But financial endeavors of any kind — not least international recruiting drives for top-notch investment talent — are fraught with politics, especially in academia. Although Cambridge and Oxford are self-governing charitable entities, each comprises a consortium of affiliated but highly autonomous colleges: Cambridge has 31, Oxford 39. To say that the colleges are politically independent would be putting it mildly; they are their own righteous fiefdoms. Each has its own development officer, its own high-powered alumni, its own endowment, its own investment committee and its own bursar to oversee its finances — basically, everything it would need should it wish to secede.