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Report of Discussion

Tuesday, 16 January 2001. The remarks made at this Discussion that were held over from the Reporter of 24 January (p. 385) are published below. Under the provisions of Regulation 6 for Discussions (Statutes and Ordinances, p. 113) the Registrary has omitted three words from the remarks made by Dr Evans; these omissions are indicated by square brackets. Under the same regulation and with Dr Evans's agreement the Registrary has made minor amendments to three other passages.

The Annual Report of the General Board for 1999-2000 (p. 249).


Madam Deputy Vice-Chancellor, 1. What is the future of the General Board? We have here a body made up of those who chair the Councils of the Schools, but who are unelected and cannot be taken necessarily to command the confidence of those who work within their Schools (and many of us have reason to complain of habitual lack of any consultation). There are also on the General Board Council nominees. Their names are really chosen by the administrative officers, including the person doing the job of Secretary General at any given moment, and put before the Council for the usual automatic ratification. There is a terrifying lack of fresh air and fresh, let alone 'risky', appointments. The General Board seems a bit of a 'front', and that is dangerous for our academic democracy.

This body of persons has an enormous volume of business to conduct. Members of the General Board, when asked, often cannot even remember whether a matter went through a meeting at all. In practice the Secretary General or his 'acting' or 'deputy' alter ego, or other administrative officers, are doing the work which purports to be done by the General Board. They have a frightening amount of almost unreviewable power. That can have devastating results. Mr Allen has sent a letter [two words omitted] (GBD.0101.0370) on his own 'authority' copied to my Faculty Promotion Committee Chairman, telling him to ignore a decision of the Appeals Committee about the voiding of references.

We might consider replacing this hopelessly overloaded committee with a series of responsible bodies, each with a manageable amount of work which it can really hope to supervise properly, and with a membership which has had the necessary training for the specific task of the new leaner body. The General Board's Annual Report gives smooth assurances about the operation of 'the Board's committees'. The fundamental problem will not be resolved while they remain 'the Board's committees'.

The present, we hope temporary, situation in which the nominal Secretary General is on 'other duties' and others are discharging the operational duties of the office must be rationalized. A vacancy would enable us to tidy up for the future and embody in the Statutes and Ordinances a new structure, perhaps one in which the Divisions, listed on p. 249 at paragraph 2, or something like them, take over portions of the functions of the General Board. If the new Divisions reported to a less amateurish Council (such as Oxford is seeking to create under its new governance arrangements), as well as directly to the University, we might glimpse more of what goes on at present under the surface. Without visibility there can be no accountability. Without visibility you get a CAPSA.

A topical example of unnecessary secrecy. Secret procedures which will run alongside the published ones will never be communicated to promotions candidates. Lawful? I think not. The new Chairmen and Secretaries of Faculty Promotions Committees (though not apparently those members 'appointed' by the General Board to keep an eye on procedure) are shortly to enjoy a private meeting with the Deputy Secretary General. They will not allow candidates to attend. I have asked.

2. Quality issues (p. 249ff.). Again the smooth, confident, flannelly prose. A reader might even imagine that the University of Cambridge has quality matters well in hand and that there are no muddled goings-on at Faculty and Departmental level. In which universe was it that the Law Faculty posted the wrong Tripos results? And my example just now of the complete unaccountability of the Deputy Secretary General who presumes, without training in running promotions procedures, to teach Promotions Committees how to do their job is a quality issue as well as an 'authority' issue and a 'fairness' issue.

3. On behalf of the eleven appellants who have just learned their fate, let me briefly fill the gap in this Annual Report on the conduct of the promotions procedures by the General Board. Next year, any candidates who succeed on appeal will find themselves back before the very General Board Promotions Committee which did not promote them in the first place (did you spot that closing of a further door to a fair hearing between the dazzling pink covers?). The letters which have just gone out indicated incorrectly that that was to happen this year. No member of the Appeals Committee or its Secretary or the signatory of the letters, who was not its Secretary, noticed the error. I pointed it out to them. So they have had to send another letter round to put that right. But the Appeals Committees are supposed to be so familiar with the procedures that they can infallibly identify flaws in their operation. I would be happy to offer the necessary training to these amateurs myself, if they would just let me attend that secret meeting.

When I put in my appeal, I asked for a hearing. I was told that oral hearings were allowed for clarification of 'something in the papers considered by the Appeals Committee'. It then emerged that there was no formal record of the Appeals Committees ever framing a policy on this matter, merely the bush telegraph between Secretaries which depended on recollection and chance remarks. In fact the 'rule', which said 'only for clarification', did not exist. I did not get the hearing, of course.

The Appeals Committee Secretary sought legal advice on this and on the request I also made for disclosure of documents. I was told by the Secretary of the Appeals Committee that 'the legal advice is that you are entitled to see certain of the documents you requested and I will arrange for them to be sent to you, hopefully on Monday'. I asked whether fairness to other candidates did not require them to be given the equivalent documents too. They did not get them and neither did I. (The University follows its expensive legal advice only when it suits it.)

I kept asking to be allowed to see the letters which were being exchanged behind the scenes on these procedural points, on the grounds that the procedures were supposed to be published and candidates had a right to know what they were. I did not get them.

From 4 to 5 December the Appeals Committee Secretary began to be evasive on the question of the promised disclosure. She asked whether I would be satisfied with the General Board Committee's Response to my statement of appeal, which she 'understood' I had been sent. I told her that I would not. I then learned that, far from being sent the promised documents, I was to be expected to put in a request under the Data Protection Act which would require that I be sent a request form and pay a fee and which would give the University forty days to produce the documents. There followed an unsatisfactory correspondence with the Data Protection Officer. I was not even sent the necessary form until 18 December, a week after the Appeals Committee had gone ahead regardless. It arrived via the University Messenger Service on 20 December.

Yet the disclosure was essential. There have, I know, been numerous complaints about the inadequacy of reasons given to candidates and their Faculties in the written feedback. When I put in my appeal the 'General Board Committee' suddenly produced a quite different set of much longer, illiterate, and incoherent 'reasons'. Did these new 'long reasons' derive from agreed Minutes of the General Board Promotions Committee or were they drafted subsequently to its decision-making as part of the response put together over the weekend of 1-4 December, when the General Board Promotions Committee somehow managed, without meeting, to make 'its' responses to all eleven candidates' statements of appeal? In short, were they just made up by the secretariat? If they really existed, why was I not given them in the first place? And why was the explanation why a Litt.D. of the University of nearly twenty years' standing does not deserve a Chair written at a level of composition worthy of a school child we should certainly not admit as a student?

Moreover, it seemed that the General Board Committee had simply rejected my statement that the work was interdisciplinary. This Committee, which is a mixed, all-purpose Committee, drawn from a range of subject areas, claims to know better than I do what my work consists in. This is the equivalent of taking a candidate who says he is a biochemist and saying that no, he is really a physicist, then applying a number of reports obtained from referees who are biologists or chemists but not biochemists and inferring that the candidate is not in fact a very good physicist.

Moreover, the referees can hardly have been selected with due care, since the Faculty Committee, looking at existing references so as to decide whether to go back to earlier references or to choose new ones, failed to notice that an entire year's references were missing. (It is not disputed that they really were missing. Checking up on that is part of the Chairman's job, but of course there was no Chairman.) Yet the General Board Committee relied on these references to evaluate work it had now decided was quite different from what the referees thought it was when they wrote.

I have now learned from the second-stage Appeals Committee that the Faculty Committee had before it the references of 1999 and the references it had chosen for 2000. The General Board Committee had before it references for 1998 and 1999 and references for 2000 which I had said could not stand because the Faculty Committee and all its works had then been voided by the Appeals Committee, stage (a). The Appeals Committee, stage (b) agreed that the references for 2000 could not be used, so it had the references for 1998 and 1999. So each Committee at each stage had different evidence before it in my case, as well as a different 'definition' of the nature of the work. The procedures require that all documentation is considered by the Committees. None of the Committees which considered my candidature this year had the full documentation before it. And from the Faculty stage onwards they were playing games with the voided documentation from the Faculty (in-out-in-out). So I did need that disclosure of documents.

Do you think that was fair? Does this give confidence that there was fairness to others?

I come finally to the unseemly haste of the last-stage appeal. In the case of postgraduate students appeal-ing about the conduct of an examination under the Ordinances, each is allowed a specially constituted committee and a full individual consideration of the case, which can take many months, in order to try to ensure fairness to the appellant.

A single Appeals Committee of five, Professors Mirrlees (who dealt with some of us at Appeals Stage one last year and was hardly likely to come fresh to his evaluation of such candidates as he would not let through then), Humphrey, Calladine (abruptly replaced by Kelly), Reeve, Pepper, was 'appointed' (Deputy Secretary General again?) to consider all appeals in every subject. They were all amateurs in procedural matters. They could scarcely be said to command among them any range of understanding of humanities subjects.

Appeals had to be in by 1 December (Friday) by the end of the day. The General Board Promotions Committee's responses to these appeals defending its conduct were sent out on 4 December (Monday). My copy took four days to arrive by the University Messenger Service, but meanwhile, before anyone had checked that appellants had their texts, the Appeals Committee met on 6 December to consider the eleven appeals.

No provision was made at that stage for the appellants to be given an opportunity to reply to the responses of the General Board Promotions Committee. I suspect that if I had not raised the question of the appellants' right to reply, no provision would have been made for this at all. Appellants were then requested by e-mail at 12.05 p.m. on 7 December (apparently in a bit of a panic) to submit any comments they had on the General Board Committee's response. Replies had to be in by the close of business on Friday, 8 December.

The Appeals Committee then met again, at 9 a.m. on Monday, 11 December, for the morning only. I had been told that 'the Committee is unable to meet during the afternoon because insufficient numbers of members able to attend would be available'. Appellants were likely to have taken immense trouble to draft their comments against the pressure of time in the twenty-four hours allowed them between 7 and 8 December, only (it is admitted) to have them merely tabled with no requirement that the Appeals Committee read them properly and consider them in conjunction with the remainder of the documentation. In my case, the letter makes it clear that they did not read my further submissions at all, although (and this is legally important) they had been solicited. Only [one word omitted] amateurs could be unaware that that conduct was seriously procedurally flawed.

The Committee had a duty to consider all eleven appeals afresh in the light of the new evidence of the appellants' responses. This means that if you appealed this year, the Committee gave you about fifteen minutes on the morning of Monday, 11 December.

The Appeals Committee Secretary admitted to the 'tightness' of the arrangements. She did not, however, explain that in addition to any wish of the Appeals Committee 'to conclude their business as soon as possible so that you are advised of the outcome as soon as possible', there was the fact that she had arranged to go on holiday to California on 15 December and the Appeals Committee could therefore not meet in the following week (18-23 December). That emerged only by accident when I learned in a chance conversation that she had gone away. This scarcely seems fair to candidates in that they were put to an impossibly tight timetable in making their replies to the General Board Committee's responses in a mere twenty-four hours (7-8 December).

There are also important questions about the way in which the Appeals Committee can have 'agreed' its letters to candidates since it did not meet again and the Secretary was away. Letters went out on 4 January over the signature of the Director of Personnel, who appears to have been left holding this baby, although there is no provision of this sort in the procedures.

Should there not be rather more about all this in the General Board's Report if it is really doing that job you foolishly entrusted to it when you left further revision of the promotions procedures and their supervision to the General Board in that ballot a year or two ago? Perhaps you can see why I do not believe the General Board is a fit body to be trusted with so many powers affecting us all.

Among those I include the powers to relieve the History Faculty and me of one another's company, and them of the pleasure of not recommending me for promotion again in this round, for example, by attaching my post to the new Interdisciplinary Research Centre for the Arts and Humanities. The Deputy Secretary General sent me another 'no can do' letter about that, once more apparently on his own 'authority', shortly before the one with his 'instructions' to the Faculty Promotions Committee.

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Cambridge University Reporter, 31 January 2001
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