King's looks for more support for new chair

College advertises new palaeography post despite scrapping the original position, writes John Morgan

July 14, 2011

King's College London is advertising for a new professor of palaeography, but private funding is yet to materialise after the controversial decision to scrap the original post.

In February 2010, King's said it would abolish the UK's only chair in palaeography, the study of ancient handwriting, as part of a plan to cut 205 jobs across the college and save £ million over two years.

The decision became a flashpoint in the debate over higher education cuts, with one Harvard University scholar warning that abolishing the chair - then occupied by David Ganz - was "an unforgivable act of cultural iconoclasm, nihilism, philistinism and shortsightedness".

Following the criticism, King's set up a palaeography working group, which recommended in June 2010 that the college should establish a new chair.

The working party said that the old chair was only part-funded and recommended the college "look for philanthropic monies to establish the fully endowed chair".

King's, which accepted the working party's recommendations, has now invited applications for a "chair in palaeography and manuscript studies" to start in September 2012.

But on fundraising, the college's spokeswoman said: "We are exploring possibilities of securing philanthropic support. In the meantime, the new post will be funded from the college's core budget."

One academic expert in the field, who asked not be named, said the most likely source of donations for the chair would have been "alumni with particular interests in the medieval period...who had noticed the negative publicity".

They said King's may have realised "it would be a bit hard to ask the very people who had expressed so much distress at the original decision...to then turn around and give money for a new chair".

The academic described the affair as a "PR disaster" for King's, but said its revised position of providing general funding for palaeography was "a very positive outcome".

The college spokeswoman said Professor Ganz, who is now emeritus professor, "opted to take early retirement". Critics say he had no choice.

Teresa Webber, senior lecturer in palaeography at the University of Cambridge, said she "cannot discern any significant differences in the scope of the discipline (the new chair) outlines from the remit of the former chair". But the King's spokeswoman said the new post "has a broader remit than the previous chair, as indicated by the change of title", highlighting the focus on "leadership" and "digital techniques", the commitment to teaching summer schools and supervising research students, as well as "a formal requirement to take an active part in the intellectual and administrative life of the school".

Keith Hoggart, vice-principal (arts and sciences), said King's "acknowledges the many scholars across the college in a range of academic areas whose research involves palaeographic expertise" and hopes the appointment "will take this important interdisciplinary field to the next stage of its development at King's".

john.morgan@tsleducation.com.

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