Cambridge music job advert strikes discordant note in academia

Academics are divided over whether it was right to use unusually specific criteria when seeking applicants for new post

December 24, 2015
Busker playing guitar upside-down
Source: Rex
Specialisation: some have questioned the openness of the hiring process

When a highly coveted academic job is landed by an internal candidate, questions are frequently asked about the hiring process and whether outside applicants stood a fair chance.

However deserving the successful applicant may be, those who missed out often wonder if they had, perhaps, wasted their time in applying.

The issues this scenario raises have been rekindled by a notably specific job specification posted for a current vacancy at the University of Cambridge’s Faculty of Music.

The post of a “Senior Lecturer in Wagner, Liszt and the Cultural History of Technology” prompted one music scholar to contact Times Higher Education and point out that while many music scholars study the two 19th-century composers, those who combine this expertise with an interest in the “cultural history of technology” are far less common.

However, in this case there was, he said, one potential internal candidate whose research interests and CV match the job specification remarkably closely, prompting questions about whether it was, in fact, drawn up with this individual (whom THE has chosen not to name) in mind.

The disgruntled observer also pointed out that the time frame involved for filling the post was surprisingly short – just one month from the vacancy being posted to the job’s start date on 1 January 2016 – which he said raised further questions about the openness of the process.

This example of such an apparently laser-targeted hiring process was questioned by some others in the classical music world and academia, too.

“The extremely narrow and unusual specialisation ensures that there is only really one person in the world who is qualified for the job – and, by an amazing coincidence, that person is already at Cambridge,” one leading music scholar, who did not wish to be named, told THE.

When asked about the advert, Nicholas Cook, head of the music department, said that it was for a “strategic appointment”.

A Cambridge spokesman added that it had “advertised to fill an identified need for a specialist academic role” and an “open application process, which includes a rigorous interview stage, is ratified by our human resources team and is fully in line with UK employment law”.

Of course, Cambridge is not alone in its approach, and there’s certainly no suggestion of any impropriety on the part of the individual who appears so qualified for this particular job.

But the example has sparked comment among other academics, whose departments routinely claim that new hires are “strategic” and “specialist”, yet appear to take greater pains to open up the field to as broad a range of potential applicants as possible.

One scholar, commenting on the Slipped Disc classical music blog, said that they had “come across this kind of situation more often than I can remember” and that “it still leaves an unpleasant taste in my mouth”.

“I hope it is made clear to anyone who makes an enquiry that a strong internal candidate will apply,” he said.

However, others have more sympathy with Cambridge, stating that it was better to deter applicants with a highly specific job advert if the post specifically required the applicant to hold grant funding.

“Much more pernicious would be to advertise as if it were open, then waste a lot of time and raise a lot of false hope in the process,” said one commenter.

Another went further, asking: “Why can’t departments hire who they want? Why does it have to go through such a ridiculous process through human resources to find the best candidate for the job description?”

While the job advert is unlikely to have breached any law, such as the Equality Act, it may not measure up to best practice laid down by the European Commission if the post is a research one, according to Dennis Farrington, co-author of The Law of Higher Education (2012).

All UK universities will have signed up to the Euraxess Code of Conduct for Recruitment, which requires the highest levels of open, transparent practices and, specifically, not making posts so specialised that suitable applicants are deterred, he said.

“I do not know whether Cambridge has made compliance with the code of conduct part of its human resources policy, but, if it has, then some sort of internal challenge may be possible,” he said.

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Print headline: Cambridge music job advert strikes discordant note

Reader's comments (5)

The candidate invited the Cambridge Department of Music to create a post for him because he was in receipt of a very large research grant. Had he not had such a grant, he would have been ignored. His treatment of his own university is despicable.
At least Cambridge chose to advertise, even if in a way which made it clear that this job had been created for a specific person. Sadly the Higher refuses to list those people who are appointed to unadvertised posts. King's College London has an outstanding record of such appointments, but there are many others, and the UCU is cravenly silent.
I cannot comment on the candidate or his department. I would not underestimate, however, the poverty of the whole system of the humanities in the English-speaking world. Except for very well remunerated professors, the sums are light. Departments have long--presumably always in the modern era--accepted funding from outside sources for faculty positions. The example of a faculty candidate already funded and otherwise suitable seems to me to differ from the practice I mention in no way at all.
Philopoetis has not understood the situation, the University of Cambridge is allocating between £ 52,219 and £55, 389 per annum to fund this post, presumably because the person for whom it has been advertised is a crony of the Professor, and their skill in obtaining research awards and prizes is thought an asset to the Department. Whether that makes the candidate not only 'suitable' but preferable to any other musicologist is not entirely clear, what is clear is that no other Cambridge Humanities Department would have behaved in this way.
This sums up what's happening all over British academia. We are back to patronage and the old friends' network where people get jobs because of who they know, not how good they are.

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