Cambridge's dreaming aspirers attack outdated promotions system

May 24, 1996

Cambridge University dons are up in arms over the university's outdated professorial promotions system, condemning it as "humiliating", riven by "favouritism" and tarnished by "skulduggery". Senior academics are warning that, unless the vice chancellor acts quickly, Cambridge could lose some of its finest minds to rival universities and jeopardise its world-class international reputation.

Cambridge boasts 226 professors, 156 readers and 720 lecturers. It is set to appoint nine more professors and 30 more readers. But leading university figures say this is not enough. History don Gill Evans estimates there are some 200 top academics who should be appointed to readerships and professorships this year but who will be disappointed by a system that seems to be awarding senior academic posts on the basis of affordability rather than academic distinction.

One distinguished scientist, Anthony Edwards, recommended by his faculty for a professorship, has been turned down four times. In a debate with top academics, published recently in the Cambridge University Reporter, he called this "an unwarranted humiliation".

Reformers object that the process is shrouded in secrecy, and academics, who cannot propose themselves but must wait until their faculty board thinks they have sufficient merit, are never told why they fail to be promoted. "In the last resort," said Dr Edwards, "we want to know whether it is because we are not good enough or whether it is because the university doesn't have enough money."

The university risks losing its rising stars. In the case of Clive Holes it is too late. Belatedly awarded a readership in Arabic from September, he is to move to Oxford as a professor in January.

Reformers are divided on the way forward. Nicholas Handy, professor of quantum chemistry, has suggested all lecturers and readers should be granted the title "professor". But this wins little support from other reformers. Another solution, from Dr Evans, is the promotion of the 200 or so eligible candidates, which could cost the university over Pounds 1 million a year.

David Livesey, the university's secretary general of the faculties, said the vice chancellor this week met senior advisers to thrash out a compromise solution.

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