International scholars decry the 'madness' of King's

Protests warn that cuts will damage reputation and research standing. John Morgan reports

February 11, 2010

Planned cuts at King's College London have sparked an international outcry, with scholars warning that the institution risks "disastrous" damage to its reputation and the loss of crucial research.

King's is consulting on plans for 205 job cuts across 13 departments.

Proposals to make redundant two leading computational linguists, Shalom Lappin and Wilfried Meyer-Viol, and to abolish the UK's only chair in palaeography - the study of ancient scripts - have become rallying points for campaigners.

A Facebook group, "Save Palaeography at King's London", which includes a letter of protest by Jeffrey Hamburger, chair of the medieval studies committee at Harvard University, had attracted about 4,500 supporters by 8 February, while an online petition has more than 5,500 signatures.

In addition, academics have sent more than 20 letters to King's management protesting against the treatment of Professor Lappin and Dr Meyer-Viol, members of the department of philosophy, which was rated in the top three for its subject in the 2008 research assessment exercise.

One of the letters is signed by 335 international scholars, led by Thomas Wasow, chair of the department of linguistics at Stanford University. It warns: "Dismissing senior researchers held in such high esteem by their peers will be disastrous for King's College's international reputation ... We are aghast."

Steven Pinker, professor of psychology at Harvard, has written to underline the importance of Professor Lappin's research to computing technology.

In a letter to Keith Hoggart, vice-principal (arts and sciences) at King's, he says the importance of the field "cannot be overstated".

"To give the boot to a scholar like Lappin is an act of madness," he writes.

Helen Beebee, director of the British Philosophical Association, warns in a letter to Rick Trainor, principal of King's, that "few people are happy to work in an institution that treats its staff in this way", warning that other scholars may "seek employment elsewhere".

Academics have also warned that the loss of the palaeography chair, currently held by David Ganz, will have wide-ranging implications.

Daniel DiCenso, Gates scholar in the department of music at the University of Cambridge, said that the plan would leave "manuscript-rich England without a hub of palaeographic study, giving way to centres in the US and Canada".

Cuts continue to hit hard elsewhere in the sector. At the University of Leeds, talks on job cuts between management and the University and College Union broke down just 24 hours after union members voted to support industrial action if negotiations failed.

At Aberystwyth University, up to 70 jobs are to go through "restructuring" in the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences.

And the University of Portsmouth plans to close its course in property marketing, design and development as part of a review at its School of Environmental Design and Management.


The first strike over the recent cuts to higher education funding has moved closer after academics at the University of Leeds scheduled a series of one-day stoppages.

Members of the University and College Union are to hold strikes on 25 February, 2 March and 4 March unless Leeds commits to avoiding compulsory redundancies.

Leeds’ management plans to make £35 million in annual savings, which the UCU said would result in 700 job losses.

The union wants to agree a “structured process designed to enable the university to avoid compulsory redundancies”.
But talks between management and UCU representatives, held through the Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service, broke down last week.

Members of the UCU had previously supported industrial action in a ballot.

Malcolm Povey, Leeds UCU president, said the union “continues to believe a negotiated solution is possible”.

“While we prefer dialogue to conflict, we are determined to protect our members’ jobs and the long-term future of the university we helped to build.”

Alongside strike action, there will be a regional rally and demonstration on either 4 or 5 March as part of the union’s “Defend jobs, defend education” campaign.

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