Stephen Hawking professorship in cosmology a ‘threat to meritocracy’

Cambridge to put plan to set up new chair to vote after $6 million donation from Avery-Tsui Foundation

January 30, 2014

Source: David Fowler/

It sounds simple: setting up a professorship in cosmology in the name of Stephen Hawking, at the University of Cambridge, with a $6 million (£3.63 million) donation.

But Cambridge has been forced to put the plan to a vote of its governing Regent House – and it must return the money if the proposal is voted down. Opponents called the highly paid post a “threat to meritocracy” and warned that it would set a precedent for donors to demand “special arrangements” in return for their money.

The donation is “structured to circumvent the salary structures of the university in order to guarantee an outsized payment to the chair-holder”, says a leaflet circulated by some members of Regent House urging voters to reject the plan.

It urges the university not to “enrich someone at the top of the academic ladder when the vast majority of others have not had a decent pay rise in years”.

The suspicion among critics is that the post will offer double the basic salary for Cambridge professors – equating to pay of around £140,000 – and that it is aimed at luring US academics, who tend to be on higher salaries.

The donation to create the Stephen W. Hawking professorship of cosmology comes from the Avery-Tsui Foundation, set up by the late US philanthropist Dennis Avery, who was a personal friend of Professor Hawking and the heir to a family fortune made in peel-off labels.

According to the gift’s terms, $2 million is for “the core endowment for the professorship”, funding salary, while the remaining $4 million will fund an additional salary supplement up to £67,000, according to a report on the plan from the university’s general board. The donation terms state that the salary must be “equal to or greater than the average salary and benefits” for other professors “of similar years of service, or rank” in the department of applied mathematics and theoretical physics.

The university has received the donation subject to Regent House approving its terms before 1 March. The vote – the first in Cambridge’s history to be held electronically – will open on 14 February and close 10 days later.

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Reader's comments (1)

Another problem is that one suspects there are many distinguished cosmologists who would not necessarily want to be known as a 'Stephen Hawking' professor - named professorships are usually used after somone is deceased.