News & Views item - April 2010



It's On Again, an Attempt to Make Cambridge University Governance More Top-Down. (April 28, 2010)

The Guardian reports that a proposal to reform one of Cambridge University's statutes  which a number of its academics believe will make it easier for the university to sack and silence "difficult" dons has been passed by the majority of the university's council, which is headed by the vice-chancellor, Alison Richard.


Jessica Shephard writes: "[J]ust over 4,000 members of Regent House the dons' parliament which comprises half the university's staff and includes academics, heads of colleges, librarians, curators and administrators will be asked to vote on the changes. If the reforms are passed, it will mean Regent House will be stripped of its right to approve the names of staff pinpointed for redundancy."


Currently, and essentially since the Reformation, grounds for dismissal are for: "conduct of an immoral, scandalous or disgraceful nature, incompatible with the duties of the office or employment."


The university's council now proposes to replace the grounds for dismissal with "gross misconduct", which includes an "unreasonable refusal to carry out a reasonable instruction". However, along with the change of phraseology would be a change in the form of trial. Cases would be heard by a tribunal of three individuals chosen at random by a head of a department at the university. Until now, academics have had the right to have their cases heard by the vice-chancellor and a committee of seven, which acts as a university court of appeal.


Ross Anderson professor of computer security and a long-time and notable gadfly at Cambridge says: "I am afraid that some people will see this as an easy way to deal with [funding] cuts. My deep concern is that once tenure goes, the culture will change. We evolved as a bottom-up university, a place driven by the academics. Our administration tries in dozens of little ways to make us more top-down and to replace the culture of academic self-governance with one of managerialism, targets and box-ticking. Giving the managers the power to hire and fire would be a huge step along that road, and must be resisted if Cambridge is to remain great."


In strong support is the general secretary of University and College Union, Sally Hunt, who told the Guardian: "We will resist any attempts at Cambridge, and beyond, to reduce the protection of the rights of academic staff, which is the cornerstone of any university. It is no coincidence that those universities with the highest academic reputations worldwide tend to be those which are the most democratically governed.," while Mike Clarke, reader in therapeutic and molecular immunology at Cambridge asks rhetorically if the reforms will be used to weed out academics who "don't toe the party line," and adds, "In a university, we need to protect the rights of individuals to fall out of line and speak out against things they are concerned about."


On the other hand William Brown, professor of industrial relations and master of Darwin College, claims there are no plans to sack any academic but agrees that the university is freezing a number of positions when they fall vacant because of funding constraints. However, he also makes the point that at present resolving grievances are: "lamentably slow... Our university's procedures are no longer fully adequate. The absence of effective time limits means that grievances have been slow to resolve. Precisely the same right [of academic freedom] remains enshrined in the statutes."


The arguments made in favour of the new procedure are that they would impose time limits precluding delaying tactics, and would make more use of mediation to resolve disputes. And academics would also get a right of appeal against disciplinary judgments made by departmental heads.


However, the fact remains that UK universities right across the country are preparing to axe thousands of teaching jobs, close campuses and abandon courses, and were the Cambridge's university council's proposal to come into effect, finding grounds to sack its academics would be simplified.


As David Abulafia, professor of Mediterranean history at Cambridge says: although his department is large, his biggest fear is for "small departments that might be zealously shaved off the university in the name of financial necessity".



Note: The University of Cambridge claims "it has more Nobel Laureates than any other institution in the world", 87.  It also states: "In 1991, Harvard University created its own spoof of the Nobel Prize, called the 'Ig Nobel Prize'. Ten prizes are awarded each year 'for achievements that make people laugh, and then make them think'. The University of Cambridge has had no winners."