Council bypassed in Cambridge row

April 24, 1998

More than 70 academics at Cambridge University have rallied to usurp the governing council and try to end the dispute over "secretive and unfair" appointment procedures, writes Phil Baty.

In an unprecedented move, staff have invoked a four-year-old managerial procedure that allows them to initiate new legislation, a grace, if they can collect at least 50 signatures.

As The THES went to press, Cambridge constitutional expert Anthony Edwards and veteran promotions campaigner Gill Evans had collected at least 72 signatures on a petition to try to force the council to set up an independent review body to "consider the structure of academic offices in the university and the procedures to be employed for promotion".

The five-year dispute between the university and Dr Evans, who claims that Cambridge's procedures for promoting academic staff are "outdated, secretive, arbitrary and unfair", had led to Dr Evans winning leave in the High Court for a judicial review.

Dr Evans has not gone to judicial review, and Cambridge had agreed to mediation. The mediator, Sir Brian Neill, a court of appeal judge, proposed that a review body be set up "to consider procedural reforms relating to the promotion of academic staff".

In February he reached a settlement under which the university would "acknowledge that Dr Evans's untiring work has acted as a valuable stimulus for reform" and Dr Evans would agree to withdraw her legal proceedings, however, the university executive has yet to agree. University registrar Tim Mead said that the council, which will meet next week, is still discussing whether to accept the independent mediation. But Dr Evans, who accepted the plans immediately, has interpreted the delay as a rejection of mediation.

Dr Evans's petition accuses the council of "side-stepping" the review body proposal. It demands "that a syndicate be appointed to consider the structure of academic offices in the university and the procedures to be employed for promotion within that structure".

Dr Edwards, a reader in biometry at Cambridge, said: "This move is an important precedent. Over the years, the council always had the last word, even though the Regent House is the ultimate governing body. This will remind people in the central bodies where the ultimate authority lies."

With the signatures collected, the council has three options. If it accepts the grace, it could become law within ten days. If it rejects the proposal, it will have to publish its reasons, and there will be a ballot of the Regent House - all 3,000 academic staff.

Mr Mead said: "The delay in agreeing to Sir Brian's mediation does not mean it has been rejected. The council will look at the whole business next week and decide how it wants to proceed."

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