Resignations hit watchdog

October 17, 2003

The future of UK higher education's champion of integrity, accountability and academic freedom was in doubt this week after members of its governing committee resigned - in a row over integrity, accountability and academic freedom.

The Council for Academic Freedom and Academic Standards (Cafas), which has been fighting the "decay" in British higher education since it was born out of a massive row over standards at Swansea University ten years ago, has been left reeling by the resignations of its treasurer and policy secretary.

One committee member said the council, which boasts Noam Chomsky and Terry Eagleton among its patrons, would not survive their departure.

Treasurer Sara Brown, who has asked The THES not to name her employer, and policy secretary Gill Evans of Cambridge University have been considering resigning for some time over policy disagreements.

The last straw came with the council's submission to the Royal Society's review of peer review and communication in science. The Cafas submission was made by its secretary John Hewitt, without final approval. Both cited this in their letters of resignation this week.

It is understood that some committee members believed the submission was influenced too much by Dr Hewitt's personal experiences of peer review, which they regarded as negative, and they took exception to his claim that leading scientists had published "lies" in refereed journals.

One committee member said that as the organisation was an unincorporated body, with just £6,000 in the bank from annual Pounds 10 subscriptions from several hundred members, Dr Hewitt's submission left them collectively liable to potential action for defamation.

Dr Hewitt told The THES that Professor Evans had threatened to resign over other matters and he regretted that his activities had been used as her final justification to go. He said he had had Cafas committee approval to write the submission but a tight time frame "made further reference to the committee difficult".

"It is a sad departure because (Professor Evans) has been a vigorous, prominent and very effective member," he said.

Professor Evans, a historian and recently qualified barrister who spends two or three hours a day working on complaints from staff and students, said she had been "concerned for some time that we have moved away from the clear focus with which we began and have recently been divided on key matters of principle". She said there was particular concern about the council's position on this year's academic boycott of Israel.

Founding member Colwyn Williamson, a philosopher at Swansea University, has been a vociferous supporter of Mona Baker, the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology scholar who, as part of the boycott, sacked two Israeli members from the board of a journal she edits.

Professor Evans said: "I have not been happy at our seeking to speak as a body on casesI on which our membership is likely to be deeply divided for political reasons. These instances I believe to be symptomatic of an increasing difficulty we are experiencing in working together powerfully and energetically in support of the things we all believe in."

Former Cafas secretary Kevin Maloney said the resignations were "a great shame". "Gill has a courage and persistence which struggling, under-resourced cause groups need to survive," he said.

Ms Brown told The THES she did not think the council continued to be relevant and predicted it was unlikely to survive the resignations.

Professor Williamson said Cafas was "flourishing".

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