Promotion farrago

May 26, 2000

How does Cambridge University decide who to promote to one of the tiny number of esteemed personal professorships each year? Judging by a transcript of a taped formal feedback session given to a now-notorious failed candidate, history lecturer Gill Evans, the process would appear to be very ad hoc.

Candidates are given a mark out of four on each of seven criteria, including the quality of a candidate's publications, "intellectual leadership" and contribution to the advancement of knowledge. In Dr Evans's feedback session, with committee member Peter Burke, it was established that: n The promotions committee was unable to distinguish clearly between two of the assessment criteria. Dr Evans was given the highest possible grade for her "contribution to the advancement of knowledge", but was given the second-highest grade for the "originality of her research". She said the criteria were impossible to distinguish and asked for the definition the committee had used. Professor Burke said: "I sympathiseI because if I had been asked to draw up these criteria, I would have made some of the same points you're making." The committee gave out grades without "formal definitions" of the criteria.

* Other criteria were defined by the committee more rigidly, but the definitions were not communicated to candidates or referees. The rating for "intellectual leadership" was based in part on the number of conferences the candidate had organised. No evidence to quantify such initiatives was solicited or obtained.

* Every candidate in the history faculty was automatically given top marks for teaching quality, without evaluation. "I sympathise with your criticism of (that) system," Professor Burke told Dr Evans, but "this is the system within which we are required to operate."

* Cambridge's rules require promotions committees to take into account all documentation supplied by the candidate. But Professor Burke said he had been instructed to "foreground" the referees' reports with less emphasis on CVs and personal statements.

* When asked about his grasp of the procedure and questioned about a procedural change apparently outside the rules, Professor Burke said: "I received no written instructions. As a newcomer to the committee, I was told this was the procedure." Professor Burke had served on a previous year's history promotion committee, but had been brought late onto the committee this year, to hear Dr Evans's case. Later, when asked about one of the committee's decisions, he said he "imagined" it was procedure. When pressed, he said he did not know where that supposed procedure appeared in the rule book.

* Committee members were not required to justify their decisions. "How can I possibly know what other members of the committee were thinking and on what basis they arrived at the different statements they made in the committee meeting?" asked Professor Burke.

* Under the university's rules on natural justice, the history faculty promotions committee should not have heard Dr Evans's case, it emerged during feedback. Dr Evans had objected to the history faculty dealing with her application on the grounds that the hearing would not be fair, as she had been involved in several grievances and legal actions regarding promotions procedures. Christopher Bayly, chair of the faculty promotions committee, accepted that it could not consider her case and he expected that a specially constituted body would take over her case. But Cambridge's acting secretary-general vetoed the rule book and insisted that the committee consider her case. The committee had to recruit five extra members to make it quorate because so many declared an interest in the case.

Cambridge's registrary, Timothy Mead, said this week: "I cannot comment (because) the details of an individual's application are confidential; and this year's process has not been completed and our procedures provide opportunities for the applicant to appeal."

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