Whistleblowers: Book awards fuel BA's image as old boys' club

June 20, 2003

The row over "old boys' favouritism" at the British Academy intensified this week as The THES found that all three of the academy's prestigious book prizes have so far been awarded to BA fellows and last year's 16-strong shortlist did not include a single female academic.

The THES reported last week that the BA prompted angry allegations of favouritism after awarding its biggest-ever single research grant - the £1 million centenary prize - to one of its fellows, and withheld another £1 million that had originally been available.

This week, a member of the 2002 prize-judging panel called for a review of the institution's decision-making procedures after admitting the panel had concerns about transparency and fairness in the process and in the BA in general.

Marilyn Strathern, mistress of Girton College, Cambridge, and a BA fellow since the 1980s, who sat on the five-strong judging panel for the £2,500 prize, said the academy should take the "opportunity" to review its procedures following scrutiny by The THES .

Last year's book prize went to Stanley Cohen, a BA fellow at the London School of Economics. The THES also found that three of the final six on the shortlist were BA fellows drawn from an all-male list of 16 candidates.

In 2001, the first year of the prize, an award was made to two fellows, Ian Kershaw of Sheffield University and Rees Davies of Oxford University. Then, five of the six authors on the shortlist were BA fellows.

No one has questioned any of the winners' suitability for the prizes but there is concern about the process.

Professor Strathern said that there was no question of bias in the book prize, as the judging panel was made up of fellows and non-fellows. Last year, it included three fellows - Professor Strathern, Dame Gillian Beer and historian Noel Malcolm, and two non-fellows. She said the panel had not been aware that the winner was a fellow until the decision had been made, prompting her to "groan with embarrassment" when she realised.

But she said that there should be more scrutiny and accountability at the initial short-listing stage, when the BA's academic divisions, made up of its fellows, help produce a list from submissions from publishers.

"Embarrassingly, there were no women on the list," she said. "I would say we could scrutinise further what happens earlier on in the process. It is not a question of pushing fellows in favour of others, but you could say that people of particular temperament will prefer people of a similar temperament. We should be more wary about what is coming through to the final stages."

Stephen Rose, professor of biology at the Open University, who sat on the panel as a non-fellow, said that the group was uncomfortable there were no women on the list of 16 books they looked at. "I think it is fair to say that the absence of female authors was commented on with some regret - and not just by the female panel members."

"I don't know much about the BA as an old boys' club but have heard complaints to that effect from some female fellows," Professor Rose said.

Last year's book prize winner, Professor Cohen, said the judging was done by an "entirely independent panel" and had run for only two years. He pointed out that he had won the American Society of Criminology International Division Award for outstanding publication of 2000-01 and other prizes.

He accepted that in the wider context the BA had some problems. He said that these reflected equality issues in the sector as a whole. He added that there was clearly more scope for personal prejudices or friendships to come into play when fellows elected new fellows, compared with university appointments procedures, which were more transparent.

Professor Davies, a winner in 2001, said that he was not aware his book had been under consideration until he learnt it had made the initial shortlist and said that in his academic section of the BA, non-fellows were nominated.

Professor Kershaw was unavailable for comment as he was in Germany on research leave and not contactable.

The British Academy declined to comment.

Want to blow the whistle?

Contact Phil Baty on 020 7782 3298 or email him on phil.baty@thes.co.uk

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