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Report of Discussion

Tuesday, 7 November 2000. A Discussion was held in the Council Room of the following Reports:

The Report of the General Board, dated 4 October 2000, on the establishment of a Centre for Research in the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences (p. 114).

Professor D. H. MELLOR:

Madam Deputy Vice-Chancellor, I very much hope that the recommendations in this Report will be accepted by the Regent House. The University has long needed a centre, to facilitate research in the arts, humanities, and social sciences, like those in Berlin, Canberra, Stanford, and elsewhere. But if we cannot be the first, we can still be the best, since we can learn from the experience of these other institutions.

The proposals before us owe much to many people, but especially to Drs Robert Tombs and Ulinka Rublack of St John's College, whose presentation of the case for such a centre is what first put it on the University's agenda. The University is also greatly indebted to Professor Quentin Skinner, my predecessor as Pro-Vice-Chancellor, and the distinguished group of people whose support and advice he enlisted, and whose advocacy has brought about the rapid and widespread acceptance of the need for this Centre.

When I was asked if I would take on my present job, by far the most attractive aspect of it was the prospect of helping to realize in practice this important and well-argued project. And since then, one of the pleasures of the job has been the unstinting help I have had in doing this from many very hard-pressed members of the administration, and the generous support of the Vice-Chancellor, the General Board, the Newton Trust, and St John's College.

The Report's detailed proposals for how the Centre will work are intended to make it fulfil two main functions. First, it will be a research facility supporting major projects, involving the best people in their fields and attracting national and international funding. As a location for this, the attractions of Cambridge are obvious, with all the material and intellectual resources of the University Library, of the Colleges, and of the Faculties, Departments, and other institutions of the Schools of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences.

But the Centre will also supplement and support, rather than compete with, all these institutions and the world-class research they already carry out. This it will do in two ways: first, by supporting projects, mostly but not exclusively inter- or multi-disciplinary, that would not otherwise be done here, where they can benefit our own staff and institutions; and second, by helping the University's Research Services Division to assist our staff and institutions in formulating and raising funds for their own projects.

The Centre's proposed structure is meant to ensure that it will in fact serve both these purposes, without which it would not have been supported, as it has been, by the Councils of the two Schools primarily concerned. Hence the roles on the one hand of the external members of the Centre's Management and Policy Committees and, on the other, of the Colleges' Committee and of the Councils of the Schools in making appointments to these Committees.

But important though this structure will be in holding the Centre to its remit, of course what will really determine its success is the ability and dedication of those who will run it. And here we are very fortunate in being able to call on the services of Professor Ian Donaldson, with his unrivalled experience as the founding Director of the immensely successful Humanities Research Centre at the Australian National University, and subsequently as Convenor of the King's College Research Centre here. A new and untried centre of this sort would never have attracted the funding required to set it up had its funders not known that it would be led initially by so able and experienced a Director. Hence the General Board's decision to appoint Professor Donaldson to that position, a decision that I hope will reassure the Regent House, as it has reassured the Board themselves, the Newton Trust, and St John's College, that the proposal deserves their support.

Professor J. S. MORRILL:

Madam Deputy Vice-Chancellor, I have just celebrated a silver jubilee of service within this University and I have decided to break the habits of half a lifetime by speaking on a Report of the General Board to the University. You might well fear that I must be especially enraged and affronted to do so. Quite the contrary: instead of my usual stance of mildly agreeing with a Report of the General Board, or more occasionally mildly disagreeing with it, I find myself tremendously enthused by this Report. Here was something not only timely and necessary but extremely well thought out and pregnant with possibility.

I have no doubt that it is timely and necessary in the context of this University's development. I do not resent or moan (as I fear some of my colleagues have been heard to do) the immense success of the big battalions in the sciences in raising big bucks, though sometimes at the cost of modifying the relationship of their part of the University to the world outside. But being in a Humanities School, and, therefore, so much the poor relation, does have its worrying side, and the need for major structural initiatives in the relevant Schools has been clear for some time.

This is just such a major initiative and it is a bold and imaginative one. In the absence of a structural approach such as this one, we have been sluggish as individuals, as groups, and as communities of scholars to make our own moves in the arts and humanities towards a broader sense of what it is to do fundamental research in the twenty-first century. And that is where I wish to share briefly my own experience with you. I would like to illustrate my sense that we have been reacting sluggishly from my experience as a member of the Arts and Humanities Research Board of the United Kingdom (AHRB), and as convenor of panel 4 of its Advanced Research Programmes arm. Under the dual funding arrangements for government-sponsored research in the Higher Education sector, there are now, for the first time, significant sums of money available to support research in the arts and humanities. Although the sums will still seem piddling to those with access to the coffers of the Research Councils, it is real money nonetheless - just over £10m last year, rising to £25.5m by 2002-03. Members of this University are not flocking to take advantage of the opportunities provided. In the year covered by the recent AHRB Annual Report, only four members of this University applied under the Research Leave Scheme, which matches and extends sabbatical leave from the University with leave paid for by the Board. All four were successful; but there were more than four applicants from each of twenty-five other UK universities. There was not a single applicant from Cambridge for the bold and imaginative Research Exchange Scheme, which encourages academics to collaborate with and learn the skills of scholars located in the museum, gallery, and library sectors. As far as I can see, there were few applications from Cambridge for the recently-introduced Resource Enhancement Scheme, which seeks - primarily through the new technologies - to create and to make far more accessible existing or new research resources. Certainly in the areas I already know about, there were four Oxford applications for every one from Cambridge. The largest and most demanding of the schemes is the Large Grant Scheme, providing funding of up to £100,000 for each of five years. A large proportion of the funded proposals are precisely the kind of multi-disciplinary, even inter-disciplinary projects, often involving scholars from several Higher Education institutions (HEIs), which the Report before us envisages as being at the heart of the proposed Centre for Research in the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences. The Centre proposed in this Report will encourage precisely the kind of enterprise which the AHRB is keen and able to support. In the past year four Cambridge applications were awarded grants totalling £321K. Few HEIs had more successful bids and our ratio of successful to unsuccessful bids was also high. But we bid low. Once more we lay twenty-fifth in the league table for the amount of money awarded. Universities which se-cured more than double what we received included Manchester, Sheffield (each securing more than £1m), UCL, Edinburgh, and Glasgow. Five London colleges and institutes each secured more than this University. I am not, of course, advocating the death of the single-scholar mode of glorious, lone research to make way for collaborative projects only; nor am I saying that our achievement should be particularly measured by the amount of money we raise by competitive tender; simply that there is a glorious opportunity for us to combine our traditional forms of study with new, exciting interactions with colleagues across this fragmented University, and throughout the academic world. This Report calls for the facilitation of just those kinds of interaction. In the absence of a Centre such as it proposes, we are likely to continue to fail to mobilize ourselves to make these interactions happen of their own accord, and we are missing out on opportunities offered to us in and through the AHRB and other bodies.

Nothing but good can come of this Report. The proposed structures for its development and management seem to me very well thought out. We have every reason to believe in the appropriateness of the first of the two aims identified in the Report, i.e. that the Centre would 'support and supplement research in existing institutions' - both 'support' and 'supplement' are crucial terms, surely. I just hesitate slightly over the second aim - that the Centre should 'provide a national resource'. Surely we should say 'national and international'? Many distinguished scholars already spend significant periods in Cambridge and many Colleges provide visitors in the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences with admirable facilities and support. Surely this new Centre can support and supplement this activity? Nothing in the Report rules it out; but neither does it put it within its mission.

I hope it will do so. Many of the overseas institutes referred to in the second paragraph of the Report are truly international in their mission. Let us not lose sight of that. We are a world-class university and we can and should encourage world-class scholars to interact with us here in Cambridge. To say I am fed up of having to go to California to interact with international colleagues is an exaggeration. But it would be nice to interact with some of them more of the time here.

You can see, Madam Deputy Vice-Chancellor, that the Report has carried me away to scan even further horizons and to envisage even bolder initiatives than this far-sighted and bold Report does for itself. But to be so encouraged as to dream more vivid dreams is not to be a critic of this Report or of its authors. For once let the carping cease; let us praise the hard work, vision, and commitment of those who are willing to serve us in our central bodies, and who get too little thanks for doing so. Let this Report be given the very strong support that it deserves.

Dr A. D. B. POOLE:

Madam Deputy Vice-Chancellor, let me express a warm welcome for this new Centre. I speak as Chair of the Council of the School of Arts and Humanities (CSAH), one of the two Schools explicitly involved; Dr Pretty, as Chair of the School of the Humanities and Social Sciences, has asked me to express her support for this statement.

The Faculties and Departments which make up CSAH cover a broad range of disciplines, from Architecture to Philosophy and Oriental Studies to Music, and a great deal of interdisciplinary research is conducted by individuals and small groups. There are strong intellectual links across the constitutional boundary which - as it often seems rather oddly - separates us from colleagues in our sister School, as for example in History, Anthropology, Social and Political Sciences, and History and Philosophy of Science. There is a lively seminar culture which attracts all sorts of purposeful vagrants and aspirant migrants from inside and outside the University to mix, as it were, with more local residents. There are exciting new developments involving the deployment of new technologies in learning and research, such as CUMIS (Cambridge University Moving Image Studio) and - though it falls outside the Councils of the Schools - the Language Centre. But up until now we have had no central University resource to provide the sort of support that is largely taken for granted in the Science Schools. That is why the paragraph in this Report that will excite particularly widespread enthusiasm will be paragraph seven, with its emphasis on the facilitation of research in existing University institutions, on dedicated support from the University's Research Services Division, and on the services 'badly needed' - the wording is helpfully blunt - by individuals, Faculties, and Departments 'with less administrative support and information about and access to external funding than is available to scientific Departments'.

At a time when the two Humanities Schools are still recovering from the recent savings exercise, when our administrative, secretarial, and technical support staff are stretched to the limit and sometimes beyond, and when we are steeling ourselves for negotiations over a new Resource Allocation Methodology that will not bring us to our knees, it is heartening to contemplate a Report that speaks of 'more resources and facilities'. There is a great deal of work to be done, to be sure. But the aims of this new Centre and the terms in which it is to be established suggest that these new resources and facilities will be put to the best possible use.

Dr G. R. EVANS:

Madam Deputy Vice-Chancellor, this is in the main a welcome project. Developed open-mindedly, it will do something to address the unlovely situation of scholars in the arts, humanities, and social sciences in the University whose work is interdisciplinary, and who are at present forced to remain chained to single-subject Faculties where they are inevitably misfits. That denies opportunity and wastes skills. So I hope the 'exiles' can find a home here, as well as Visiting Fellows (13), who may otherwise feel somewhat cut off from the University. Indeed, why was that not planned for? Or is it there somewhere in the somewhat opaque wording, which came to the Council at a stage when we could make no suggestions about clarity of expression, let alone matters of substance? All that consultation Professor Mellor has mentioned did not open up this point as far as I know.

In short, can we not second some of our interdisciplinary academic staff from single-subject Faculties to form a nucleus of academic staff with a formal attachment to this Centre, if they wish to try the experiment?

In that connection, I am concerned that the new Centre is apparently to be concerned only with 'projects'. Many of us have well-founded reservations about the appropriateness of 'project-based' research in the humanities. No more following our noses round the Library in pursuit of the answer to a question which has just occurred to us? The researcher in the humanities is usually an individual. I hope that will be the expectation of this new Centre. And we are so cheap to run! We can do so much without special funding. I have had my share of personal British Academy grants and awards, but mostly I just get on with the job and finish the book. The head of the British Academy Research Project, on which I was a Research Assistant nearly thirty years ago, has still not finished it. Teams have their place, but not in every kind of research.

I hope, too, that the interdisciplinary scholars of the University may be able to elect (if they wish) to have their applications for promotion considered within a structure devised for them and linked in some way to this new Centre. It is mysterious that the arts and humanities have deserved so few Chairs this year when Engineering, for example, seems to be so mightily talented. How many of those who identified themselves as interdisciplinary feel that their work was 'evaluated' intelligently by people who understood it?

I challenge the General Board Committee before next week's Discussion to put up a speaker to explain the way in which they dealt with interdisciplinary candidates. Was it systematic? If so, what was the system? What policy did they form? And can they just tell me what they thought my own 'interdisciplinary subject' was? I am sure they will not because I am sure they cannot. Yet you cannot know whether something is good of its kind unless you are clear what kind of a thing it is.

That is pretty shocking, if you separate it from Evans and her repeated expressions of outrage, and just look at it. (I am told that much of what I say makes sense if only my name were not attached to it.) They made decisions; they rated candidates; they damaged people's careers, without being able to say what it was they were rating. Perhaps our new interdisciplinary Research Centre can assist the Promotions Committees in the future?

For this is an immensely difficult area of peer-review in which to achieve fairness, even if you do not rely, as they staggeringly did do, on documentation previously voided by the Appeal Committee. The rank amateurs (still untrained despite the Vice-Chancellor's promises), deciding our promotions with the services of the untrained Acting Secretary General, have made no study at all of the problems. We are entitled to be indignant that this crass amateurishness is to go on for at least another round. That is a project for the new Centre, perhaps? Fairness for interdisciplinary scholars at last? (And something might be learned to speed things up for others kept waiting far too long, who get promoted at last on work which would not do previously. I see one new interdisciplinary Professor on the list who pointed out in a Discussion very many years ago that teaching for five Faculties was not doing him any good. He should have had his Chair two decades ago.)

Another project for the new Centre, Research Centre though it is primarily intended to be, is ensuring that we do not waste our interdisciplinary teachers. For years two, three, four of us, have been lecturing on Augustine in different Faculties, our courses overlapping, with no one taking the trouble to see if we could co-ordinate our efforts across our Faculties, or make the best use of our time and skills for the benefit of students. Faculties borrow papers from one another's Triposes, but they can be hostile to Lecturers who want to meet the needs of students from other Faculties who come to their lectures. My Faculty's bid to prevent me doing so this year has put me in a position where I dare communicate with its academic officers now only through e-mails copied for the record to the Director of Personnel. I have been put in fear of losing my job if I insist on continuing to lecture on medieval intellectual history across disciplines. Is that the way to foster interdisciplinary teaching provision? Is that kind of thing going to help this new Centre flourish?

I am sure that since 'sharing our own experience' is today's theme, what I have just said will fall on friendly and receptive ears.

To constitutional aspects. 'Supervised by the General Board' is never good news. In the impending deconstruction and reconstruction of that megalo-monolith, one hopes those supervisory powers will get a good hard look by the Regent House. Before us is another example of a project progressing to a high state of finish without consultation with the Regent House, or even the Council, until a virtual fait accompli is before us. Not one interdisciplinary scholar to my knowledge has been personally consulted about the needs to be met. Certainly, no one talked to me.

That takes me to the Management Committee and its appointment, and that of the Director and Deputy Director. It seems a little startling that funds were raised on the assurance that Professor Donaldson would be the Director when the Regent House did not even know there was to be a Centre at all. It is not perhaps unacceptable to make a short-term appointment of a caretaker Director to get things going, but surely there should have been some open consultation about this choice, excellent though it may be? I can picture the scene. 'Who do we know who might take this on?'; the furrowing of brows, while someone comes up with someone he knows who is a good bloke or a safe pair of hands, or well spoken of as far as he knows. I am sure that Professor Donaldson is more than suitable, but if no one else got a chance to bid for the job, how can we be sure he was the best choice? As with the Directorship of CMI Ltd, a post such as this should be openly advertised and openly competed for. I hope it will be, at the earliest possible date, and that a permanent Director will be forthcoming by a properly conducted process.

I do not like what I see here about the mode of formation of the Management Committee either. Too much co-opting and nominating. Too much room for the old mutual benefit society to get to work. If a method is secretive, it is not safe. Let me give you an example of the kind of thing it can lead to. At the last meeting of the Council we had before us the latest raft of proposed appointments to committees from the Committee on Committees. The names had apparently been selected by Professor Schofield alone. He alone had attended the meeting of this tiny committee, with one or two officers, Dr Thornton being absent and Sir David Harrison no longer Chair, because he has reached his seventieth birthday and has had to withdraw at last from his various seats (we do wish him well for his retirement). Professor Schofield is also Chairman of the Nominations Committee. A bit of a one-man show, really, the appointment to committees in the University at present. Professor Schofield is also on the General Board. The General Board is to appoint four members of the proposed policy committee for this new Centre. I am not getting at Professor Schofield; I am just making a point about our structures. (He does not have any training either.)

Can there be any hope of getting real live interdisciplinary scholars in there on this Management Committee, with fresh ideas and experience of the political as well as the scholarly difficulties of this kind of work? Not while the ship of the University is run this way.

So to a general welcome for this new plan, I add a plea that it is not allowed to get into the same few hands as everything else in the University. That makes it extremely difficult to require accountability and to take seriously questions about continuance in short-term renewable offices. The Notice proposing the renewal of the Vice-Chancellor for two further years was passed for publication at the same Council meeting. The Council was offered no account by the Vice-Chancellor of his stewardship nor of his discharge of the duties of his office to date. He merely read a defensive justification of his position in the light of the article I was commissioned to write in the Times Higher Education Supplement of 20 October 2000. I was not allowed to put the question whether he had ever been appraised which I wished to move to reserved business. (And when is the University going to learn of his new enlarged salary?) Is the Director of this new Centre going to be required to give proper account at the end of his caretaker period? Is his successor?

I hope this new Centre will be set up. I hope it will be run openly and responsively. That is the best way to make it 'the best' as Professor Mellor hopes. I hope it will help interdisciplinary scholars who are already here to 'interact' and encourage research students to take the risk of doing interdisciplinary work if their interests take them in that direction. Dr Poole hints that that would be valuable. He is, of course, right. I hope it will not sell out to big money projects and play the 'big leading player game' in imitation of the sciences. I hope never to hear of the equivalent of a grant-holding head of laboratory deciding what lines of enquiry are to be pursued. Freedom of research is an aspect of that academic freedom of speech which may irritate, but does apparently get people reading the Reporter, and even commenting that a good deal of research sometimes seems to have gone into the speeches. Interdisciplinary scholars are nature's pioneers and risk-takers and movers and shakers. We are not without our value, though the University has hitherto not done the research to enable it to be clear what that value consists in.

I was implicitly accused (I think) of 'constant sniping' in a recent Discussion, and of 'carping' just now. This is not sniping or carping. It is pointing out when the Emperor is not wearing any clothes. I think the University needs to know that.

Professor W. A. BROWN (read by Mrs S. BOWRING):

Madam Deputy Vice-Chancellor, this proposal deserves the support of everyone in the arts, humanities, and social sciences. During the period in which I was the Chair of the School of the Humanities and Social Sciences I was often made painfully aware of the lack of suitable support for the research activities of teaching officers. Many relatively small subject areas, although academically outstanding, suffered from the lack of assistance in research administration to help them apply for and manage research grants. My experience in the Faculty of Economics, where the Department of Applied Economics provides just such support, has impressed its importance upon me. The proposed Centre also promises to be invaluable in facilitating the sort of large-scale, multi-disciplinary research projects which most of the major funding bodies are now, for better or worse, tending to prefer. It is hard to predict how fast and how far the Centre might develop, but this proposal is an excellent start.

Dr D. GOOD:

Madam Deputy Vice-Chancellor, I speak briefly today to welcome this proposal. I believe the case made for it in the Report we have in front of us is sound, and as other speakers before me have emphasized, there are many more arguments which could be adduced to support its establishment. I do not wish to reiterate what they said; I wish to confine myself to two observations.

First, anyone with any experience of the various institutions listed in paragraph two of the Report will know that they provide good evidence of how valuable this Centre could be for the University. They also provide us with a guide to how to conduct its affairs, both in terms of good practice and bad practice. In paragraph ten, the Report proposes that Professor Ian Donaldson be appointed as first Director. I support this proposal wholeheartedly, even though it conflicts with my view that the appointment to posts should be a matter of open competition. We are indeed lucky to have someone of his experience of similar activities elsewhere, successfully conducted, available and willing to get this initiative off the ground. I find it hard to believe that we would have found a better candidate, even if we had employed an expensive recruitment agency and advertised widely. I sincerely hope that no one will object to this recommendation on the grounds that the Director was appointed via this route.

Second, it is very pleasing to see local resources being spent on a local initiative as a result of a local decision. This may sound a somewhat parochial remark, but too often these days the University finds itself spending its own money on projects initiated by other bodies and agencies. If a charity, a donor, or a government body offers £2m for an initiative of their choosing, provided we spend £2m of our own, what they are effectively doing is buying control of our discretionary funds. This has always to be a matter of concern. In this instance, the situation will very likely be reversed, and for this reason, the development is all the more welcome. We will have chosen to do something; we will have taken a lead, and I believe that many benefits will follow, and we will be glad that we did so. I hope the Report is accepted.

Dr T. J. MEAD (REGISTRARY):

Madam Deputy Vice-Chancellor, may I ask your indulgence to comment on two matters that were raised by a previous speaker. They are not relevant directly to the Report, but I think the record of this Discussion should show the Council's position.

The Vice-Chancellor's reappointment, rather the proposal for his reappointment, was determined by the Council last academical year in his absence and in reserve business. The Notice that came before the Council this time was the formal proposal which could not be put to the University under Ordinances until this term. Secondly, the Vice-Chancellor's stipend was approved by the Council and has been published in Statutes and Ordinances.

No remarks were made on the following Reports:

The Report of the General Board, dated 4 October 2000, on future arrangements for the University Computing Service (p. 118).

The Report of the General Board, dated 4 October 2000, on the establishment of a Professorship of Oncological Pathology (p. 120).


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Cambridge University Reporter, 15 November 2000
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