Cambridge dons confront 'furtive' board over merger

FoI brings plans for library and Language Centre out into the open. Melanie Newman reports

August 20, 2009

The University of Cambridge has been accused by dons of acting "furtively" after failing to consult them on plans to merge its Language Centre and library.

The university's general board carried out a review of teaching and learning support services last year, but did not make its conclusions public.

However, at a recent dons' debate, the board came in for heavy criticism after a member of staff obtained the review documents under the Freedom of Information Act.

They reveal plans to turn the university's Language Centre, which supports language teaching and learning throughout the institution, into a sub-department of the library.

Other FoI requests uncovered opposition to the move from schools, faculties and departments following a restricted consultation in 2008.

Speaking at the debate, Peter Kornicki, professor of East Asian studies, asked: "Why all the furtiveness if there is nothing to hide?"

Professor Kornicki noted that the general board had described the responses from schools as "offering a broad level of support", and added: "This interpretation of the responses does not reflect the clear discomfort expressed."

Anny King, director of the Language Centre, argued that there was "little academic synergy" between it and the library.

She pointed out that in 2008, the faculty of modern and medieval languages said that "no genuinely convincing case has been made for bringing the Language Centre, with its extensive teaching role, under the wing of the library".

The faculties of English and Asian and Middle Eastern studies, the School of Arts and Humanities and the library itself also disapproved of the move.

Julian King, head of Unix support at Cambridge's computing service, who organised the discussion last month, said the university had failed to "operate under a sound open-governance process".

"I urge the general board to issue a statement of intent that it will adhere to a much more open practice with regards major decisions in future," he said.

Responding to the criticisms, Andrew Cliff, professor of geography and chair of the general board's review committee for teaching and learning support services, said that the committee had based its recommendations on a "broad range of information", including the opinions of the heads of the institutions involved.

"Those likely to be affected by the implementation of the review are fully involved in the development of the implementation phase, which is being undertaken in a measured and collaborative manner," he said.

"The general board indicated in its annual report for 2007-08 that it would where necessary seek the university's approval for the implementation of substantive changes arising from the implementation of the report ... this remains the board's intention."

Professor Cliff added that the review's recommendations would strengthen the university's teaching provision.

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