Cambridge admits errors in filling positions

March 30, 2001

Cambridge University has been breaking its statutes by accepting external funds to appoint professors without the required scrutiny of its academic community, the university has admitted.

A number of top research professors whose appointments have been ruled technically invalid will have their positions put up for approval by the university's dons, it is understood. A number of planned appointments have also been put on hold.

The university this week confirmed that its practice of accepting funds from outside sources, including research councils, to appoint people to fixed-term "unestablished" academic posts, with the title research professor or reader, is in breach of its statutes.

The appointments were made without formal scrutiny and endorsement by the Regent House, the community of scholars at Cambridge, as required under statute.

The university's admission came in response to a formal complaint against the practice that was made by a member of staff more than two years ago.

In 1999, Anthony Edwards, an expert in Cambridge's constitution, invoked statute K5 to complain that the university was acting outside its powers, as laid out in a 1923 act of Parliament.

He cited two appointments as being invalid: that of Nick Day as a Medical Research Council-funded research professor in public health, and that of S. B. Laughton as a professor of opto-electronics, funded by Rank Research.

The university's general board has now reported: "A legal opinion on [Professor Edwards's] representation was accordingly sought, which confirmed that the practice was ultra vires ."

"There are at present a number of persons currently holding posts carrying the title of research professor and one carrying the title of research reader," the board explained.

It said it would now take "remedial measures to regularise the position" of those whose appointments were made in breach of statutes. It is understood that this will mean that their positions have to be confirmed by a "grace" of the Regent House: a formal endorsement by the university's 3,300 academics.

"The board is also aware of several proposals for appointments to unestablished research professorships, and in these casesI it has not been possible to make progress until the statutory position is resolved," it said.

Professor Edwards said he did not believe that there was impropriety or "anything sinister" in any of the invalid appointments, but that they were probably the result of "sloppiness". He said the statutes provided an important safeguard against abuse and patronage, allowing proper scrutiny of appointments.

The university said that it wanted to continue the practice of creating such posts as "there are considerable opportunities for obtaining external sources of income to support research appointments at professorial level". But it would change procedures to conform to the statutes.

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