Promotions uproar

January 29, 1999

Confidential details of the decision-making process behind Cambridge University's last controversial round of staff promotions have emerged.

Minutes and reports from the 1998 promotions round, which effectively set the career prospects of more than 200 academics, have been obtained by staff and details have been circulated at the university. Some among the 89 staff rejected for promotion this year are furious that: n The promotions appeal committee expressed concern about "inconsistencies" in the evaluation of candidates. But these evaluations, by the candidates' faculty committees, were largely adopted uncritically by the final decision-making body, the general board promotions committee

* Each of the 146 applicants who were considered for promotion received an average of seven minutes consideration by the general board's promotions committee, chaired by the vice-chancellor. Staff believe that seven minutes, and less for some candidates, is not long enough for the committee members to "evaluate applications" and "form their own views", as the rules state

* Although all members of the general board promotions committee are required to be present at meetings, three of the nine members of the committee were absent for the first meeting - including the chair, vice-chancellor Alec Broers - and one member was absent for the second. "Some deemed themselves to have more important business than the consideration of the candidates whose professional futures had been entrusted to their care," staff have complained

* At least one individual on a faculty promotions committee declared an interest but was allowed to sit in judgement regardless. Candidates are not allowed to name those they believe to have a prejudicial interest

* One faculty committee said that some candidates' references were clearly "overgenerous", yet the committee was instructed to take them at face value and adopt them uncritically

* It is admitted in a report that referees were not given reasonable time to reply. Many rushed, and others failed to respond in time

* Although only 20 candidates got chairs, and 37 got readerships, most of the 89 unsuccessful candidates were evaluated as having an "overwhelming" case for promotion under most of the criteria.

These details have been circulated as part of an electioneering "flysheet" by academics who are trying to force major reforms of the promotions system through a ballot of the academic community.

The flysheet has been approved by the university authorities, who have to authorise its formal publication as part of the election literature, and should be published before the end of the month. Cambridge University registrary Timothy Mead this week said: "The university council has today (Monday, January 25) confirmed its authorisation for me to arrange the circulation of the flysheet to members of the Regent House (the academic community). It would be improper for me to comment further on matters which are subject to a ballot of the Regent House."

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