The silence of the ordinances

January 23, 1998

Procedures for making appointments, particularly to chairs, are surprisingly informal, says Richard Clogg. He calls for Scandinavian-style openness

The THES's campaign to introduce an element of glasnost into the often mysterious processes of peer review is welcome but there are a number of other aspects of British academic life that could profit from the glare of publicity.

One such is the whole area of academic appointments. The subject has interested me ever since publishing one of the few detailed studies of an academic scandal, an account of the establishment and subsequent implosion of the Koraes Chair at King's College, London after the first appointee, the young Arnold Toynbee, fell foul of the rich London Greeks who had put up the money. But such exposes are few and far between and, for the most part, we have to fall back on anecdotal evidence and gossip or wait for those regrettably all too rare occasions when academics who have fallen foul of the intrigues of colleagues are prepared to spill the beans.

One does not need to have much acquaintance with academic life to be aware of appointments that are mystifying, perverse and sometimes downright scandalous. Patronage, the manipulation of the composition of appointments boards, the rigging of shortlists, deference to the wishes of donors, the pulling of strings in favour of spouses, all happen.

A disquieting recent development is that donors or their nominees are sometimes actually permitted to sit on boards. Some appointments, indeed, are so flagrantly manipulated as to call to mind the old Romanian joke that the elections had had to be postponed because the electoral commission had lost the results. Yet once an appointment has been made there is no right of redress. Moreover, restrictive libel laws and the pervasive culture of secrecy in British public life make it difficult to expose machinations that can only be described as byzantine.

One encouraging development in recent years is that procedures have generally been tightened up throughout the university system. This, however, is possibly offset by the fact that the rules governing the making of such appointments are often surprisingly informal. One example of informality I have been struck by is the contrast between the detailed regulations laid down by London University for the conduct of PhD examinations and the sketchy nature of the ordinances relating to elections to chairs which are filled after competitive application and interview.

These ordinances prescribe that appointments boards must contain at least two experts external to the college at which the chair is based. The role of these experts is to provide essential specialised knowledge in the field in which the appointment is to be made. A further, unstated, reason why London, along with other universities, provides for external experts or assessors is presumably to offer some kind of safeguard against attempts to stitch up appointments internally.

Thus I was surprised by the answer I received when I recently had occasion to write to Graham Zellick, vice-chancellor of London University, about the role of the external experts. Specifically, I asked whether the ordinances required the presence of the experts when the interviews were held and the appointment made. Gillian Roberts, the academic registrar, replied on his behalf that the ordinances were "silent" on the matter.

I took this to mean that the external experts need not be present but wrote back to Professor Zellick asking him to confirm that my understanding is correct, and pointing out that, whereas the ordinances specify that references shall be available to the board, they are "silent" as to whether they should actually be read. I might have added that the ordinances are likewise "silent" as to whether the other members of the board are required to be present. There is no mention of a quorum. The reply, again from Mrs Roberts, was to refer me back to the "silent" ordinances.

Search committees in the United States tend to be more rigorous and are much less prone to making "sudden death" appointments after all the candidates in contention have been interviewed on one particular day. Under the British system considerable, indeed disproportionate, weight is attached to performance at interview. But, given that so much emphasis is placed on interviews, can it really be acceptable that appointments to advertised chairs in one of our leading universities can be filled in the absence of those who, in theory at least, have the greatest degree of expertise in the subject of the chair that is to be professed? Are professors of neurosurgery appointed in London in the absence of expert neurosurgeons?

Has not the time come when we should consider following the example of our Scandinavian colleagues? In Scandinavian universities the ultimate in academic glasnost has long prevailed. Appointments boards are required to publish a reasoned statement not only as to why they favoured a particular candidate but why they rejected the other applicants. This can make painful reading for the runners-up and is time-consuming for the electors. But at least electors are required to make a proper, written, and public, case for their decision and the scope for perversity, or worse, is correspondingly lessened.

Richard Clogg is a fellow at St Anthony's College, Oxford.

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