Phil Baty reports on the final rounds of a lecturer's long legal fight to open up Cambridge's promotions system
"I'M SURE the Cambridge managers would like to drop me in the river in a plastic bag with stones in it," says Gill Evans, Cambridge University history lecturer, academic freedom campaigner and full-time thorn-in-the-side of its governing body.
Dr Evans has just hurled the biggest rock so far in her three-year, David and Goliath-style campaign against her employers. She thinks that Cambridge's procedures for promoting academic staff are "outdated, secretive, arbitrary and unfair", and deny legitimate opportunities for research-active staff. So last week she dragged the university through the High Court, turning what would normally have been a 20-minute leave hearing into a two-day inquisition.
Using her expertise in "medieval logic", she is alleging that the university has breached its ancient statutes, as well as its more modern mission statement, which pledges "rewards and incentives" for research-active staff. Her High Court mission is part of a wider attempt to expose the university's selection procedures to public scrutiny, and have them changed. Regardless of the result - which was pending as The THES went to press - she intends to fight on.
The High Court battle is not the only, very public, attack to which she has subjected her institution. Dr Evans has also applied to the Equal Opportunities Commission to mount a sex discrimination claim at an industrial tribunal against Cambridge, and she expects a preliminary hearing in the next month or so. She has also effectively frozen Cambridge's Pounds 250 million 1997/98 budget, collecting 50 signatures to force a ballot of the university's governing body, the Regent House, to revise this year's cash allocations to allow for more promotions. The university is operating on an emergency grace, pending the vote in the autumn. She has even written to the Duke of Edinburgh, Cambridge's chancellor.
Her case is straightforward, she says. "It is manifestly unfair to be selecting a tiny number of staff for promotion when the university has admitted that a lot more people deserve it." On financial grounds, Cambridge creates about 30 new readers a year, and 12 professors, "an artificial limit", she says. Dr Evans believes that there are about 300 lecturers who have been waiting in vain for the promotion they deserve, including herself.
She admits a vested interest. She has been with Cambridge's history department since 1980. In 1986, Dr Evans was given a British Academy readership. She has published 13 books with the Oxford and Cambridge presses, as well as about 20 others, and has contributed to her department's research assessment exercise. Yet she remains a lecturer. "The reason I've been sticking my neck out so far is that there is pretty solid evidence that this is not fair," she says. "They've been promoting people who have just had one book published." At Cambridge, the final decisions on promotions are made by nine people, including the vice chancellor and two externals.
Dr Evans claims that it is unfair that "an astrophysicist on the committee might have to judge the worth of a linguist against a fellow astrophysicist", there is nothing to show how the committee made its decision. "If they could show that I haven't been promoted because my work is rubbish, then fair enough. I just want to see exactly why I've been passed over. It has to stand up to examination," she says.
"It sounds pious, but I'm now at the point when I'm genuinely more interested in the broader issues. They're never going to want to promote me now, and a court cannot force them to. But there are issues about accountability for everybody in higher education."
Dr Evans says she has felt persistently bullied, "but I've been ostracised for so long, I'm used to living with it."
She is also a founding member of the Council for Academic Freedom and Academic Standards, and enjoys the support of fellow members outside Cambridge. "There are many people who quietly support me, without putting their heads above the parapet."
But, she said that all the bitterness could have been avoided. "I'm not lily-livered about having a good argument. But personal animosity is a different thing. I've been trying to keep this all civilised, but it is the university's arrogance that has really got to me. They should have been willing to sit down and examine my case with independent people. I suggested at the very beginning that we set up an independent review body. But they didn't listen."