Dons warn over constitution

June 23, 2000

The tradition of open discussion by Cambridge academics on all matters of university policy and topics of concern is under threat.

The university council wants to cut the length of individual speeches from 15 minutes to five, to restrict irrelevant comments and stop discussions being reported verbatim.

Dons have lined up to warn that these restrictions would destroy Cambridge's constitution, in which the community of 3,000-plus academics - known as the Regent House - have ultimate decision-making powers.

Discussions on policy-making reports and on any other matter raised by at least ten members of the Regent House are held on Tuesday afternoons. All remarks are considered by the appropriate university authorities and are published in the university Reporter.

The council's consultative report on the new arrangements for discussions was published in May. It suggests giving the vice-chancellor or his delegate greater discretion to restrict comments not deemed directly relevant. It suggests that a summary of comments be compiled or that editors of the report have more power to exclude comments from the public record.

Anthony Edwards, a former senior proctor at Cambridge and an expert on the university constitution, told the Regent House that the move was part of a shift away from government by the dons towards rule by the "old schools" - "the amalgam of administrative officers, teaching officers and heads of house that has steadily eroded the constitution".

He said the decline of the university's constitution "rests on the illusion that democracy is a dispensable luxury.

"The traditional democratic processes have been almost entirely destroyed," he added.

Council member Donald Laming said: "I believe this university needs a forum in which individual members of the Regent House can publish criticism of university policy, and where other members can read it and make up their own minds on the issues raised. Discussions fulfil this function well, so I think there should be rather little change in existing arrangements."

Most agreed that the proposals have been prompted by the repeated use of discussions by lecturer Gill Evans to pursue her campaign for reform of promotions procedures and to raise areas of general concern with a view to causing maximum publicity.

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