Whistleblowers: Snubbed Cambridge scholar is rewarded

January 4, 2002

Cambridge University has overturned a decision to deny astronomer Roger Griffin promotion to a personal chair after his rejection prompted a flood of protests from around the world.

An appeal committee found that the physics and chemistry faculty promotions committee had "overlooked or misapprehended significant facts". The faculty committee failed to acknowledge the importance of his work and his field. It had also made a procedural error.

The appeal committee criticised the faculty committee chair for making "trivial and patronising" comments about Professor Griffin's work.

Professor Griffin's promotion was turned down in June last year, although it was his last chance for a professorship before his retirement after more than 40 years at Cambridge.

After being rejected for the fourth consecutive year, Professor Griffin complained in a letter to his colleagues: "Not only I, but also my work and even the subjects that I work on, appear to be held in contempt here."

The faculty committee had accepted that Professor Griffin was a "world leader" in his field, but gave him a poor grade under the criterion of "intellectual leadership".

Professor Griffin had also failed to endear himself to the university establishment during a vociferous and high-profile campaign against new sports facilities, which he feared would damage astronomy through light pollution.

The rule book is clear: "A professor is appointed in recognition of an established and significant international reputation for what is widely acknowledged to be outstanding research and scholarly distinction in the forefront of the relevant discipline."

Professor Griffin complained: "To be classed as a world leader more than fulfils that criterion. Whatever more can the committee want?" The faculty committee chair, Colin Humphreys, said that although Professor Griffin was "extremely distinguished in his field", the field itself - the study of binary stars and their orbits - was not important enough to warrant a chair.

The field Professor Griffin led was "not seen as a leading topic by astronomers in the UK", he said, although he admitted that he could "give no expert comment on this since I am not an astronomer myself".

In a comment that was criticised by the appeal body as "trivial and patronising", Professor Humphreys gave an example: "If one was a world leader in the history of Churchill College, Cambridge, then this would not necessarily qualify one for a professorship."

More than a dozen international scholars complained to Cambridge and testified to the fundamental significance of the field and of Professor Griffin's role in it.

One scholar suggested that Professor Griffin had been a victim of the fact that his field was "not currently fashionable" in the UK but he said it was flourishing internationally.

As one astronomer put it: "Half the stars in the sky are binaries." Another said: "The study of binary stars is quite fundamental to modern astrophysics."

Many others testified that Professor Griffin was one of the finest scholars in the field. He made a revolutionary advance in the measurement of stellar velocities when, in the 1970s, he invented the Griffin radial velocity speedometer. His citation level is also huge.

In July, an appeal committee threw out the faculty's decision to reject Professor Griffin. It said the faculty committee had relied too heavily on one slightly negative reference among 13 otherwise glowing endorsements - a negative reference that could be easily shown to lack credibility.

"The appeal committee considered that the 12 remaining references described remarkable intellectual achievements by Dr Griffin, and they agreed that the award (of a low grade for) intellectual leadership was inconsistent with the overall import of the references. Accordingly, the committee unanimously upheld Dr Griffins' appeal."

The appeal body said that there had been a procedural error, as Professor Griffin had been given a low mark for teaching, when teaching formed no part of his duties.

"No mark should have been given for this criterion," it said.

Professor Griffin was finally awarded his personal chair in late October.

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