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No 6269

Thursday 7 June 2012

Vol cxlii No 34

pp. 679–697

Report of Discussion

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

A Discussion was held in the Council Room. Pro-Vice-Chancellor Professor Lynn Gladden was presiding, with the Registrary’s Deputy, the Senior Proctor, the Junior Pro-Proctor, and three other persons present.

The following Report was discussed:

Report of the General Board, dated 9 May 2012, on the Senior Academic Promotions (SAP) procedure (Reporter, 2011–12, p. 606).

Professor N. J. Gay (Christ’s College, Department of Biochemistry and University Council):

Madame Deputy Vice-Chancellor, I am very pleased that this General Board Report has come forward. Having said that, it really should not have taken three years to introduce these changes, and it is certainly disingenuous to claim that the scheme as currently constituted worked well. Since speaking out about the deficiencies in the SAP Procedure,1 I have been contacted by a significant number of individuals with justified grievances about the procedure, some of whom, in my view, were treated in a thoroughly disgraceful way. Many of the grievances concerned the practice of grading applicants as having ‘clear evidence’ for all criteria then failing to explain why others who achieved the same objective standard were preferred for promotion. It is to be hoped that the new numerical ranking process will eliminate this and enable meaningful and supportive feedback to be provided to unsuccessful applicants.

There are three matters that remain unresolved by the current review. First is the question of how the budget available for promotions is set. This remains as opaque as a black hole, and the budget itself varies significantly from year to year, with a high of £750k in 2004, and a low of £450k in 2008. Obviously the number who will be promoted is very sensitive to this figure, and some who are successful in one year would not have been in another. The only way to overcome this unfairness is to return to the principle on which the procedure was originally based, that all who reach the qualifying standard will be promoted. I cannot gather any clues about this issue from Finance or PRC meeting minutes, and would welcome a response from the Director of Finance.

The second issue is one that the Board of Scrutiny has raised in its report on several occasions most recently the 15th in 2010.2 At present, the procedure is informal in nature, and the Board has expressed concern that it should be placed within an appropriate framework within the Statutes and Ordinances. In 2010, their recommendation was

(i) That the criteria for Senior Academic Promotions be established by Ordinance and not left vulnerable to administrative change,

but to date, nothing has been done. I urge the Council and the General Board to address this matter, although presumably it will have to wait until the current technical review of the Statutes is completed in Michaelmas, after which Council intends to address substantive changes.

The final question concerns the Appeals procedure. At present this is more in the nature of a procedural review than an appeal that reassesses the merits of the case. Experience suggests that there is more chance of winning the National Lottery than having an appeal upheld. Another serious problem is that the General Board’s main committee is not compelled to accept the Appeal committee’s recommendation. Indeed in one case recently they did not, and although I am unaware of their reasons, on the face of it their decision was contrary to natural justice and undermines the independence of the appeal procedure.

Professor G. R. Evans (Emeritus Professor of Medieval Theology and Intellectual History) (read by Professor N. J. Gay):

Madame Deputy Vice-Chancellor, first a legislative question. Once more I find myself comparing the content of a Report for discussion potentially leading to a Grace of the Regent House with that of a mere Notice, creating legislation for the University without reference to its Governing Body.

The General Board are empowered to create Ordinances in this way under Statute C, I, 2, but what are ‘Regulations’ such as those for the University Library published in the Reporter of 23 May?1 There is no mention of those in the Statute. The General Board make themselves unaccountable by pressing forward in this way with controversial proposals, without offering the Regent House an opportunity for Report, Discussion, and Grace. Has everyone forgotten the furore which prompted a Discussion on a Topic of Concern on ‘The unpublished report from the committee reviewing teaching and learning support services’ in 2009?2 This present set of Regulations ‘stem in part from the phased implementation of the Board’s review of teaching and learning support services (Reporter, 2009–10, p. 260)’ as though no one had raised an eyebrow at all.

The Report for discussion today shows up sharply the dangers in allowing too much freedom to the General Board to make legislative changes of their own motion, and without approval by the Regent House. In 2003, the Regent House consented to a change to Statute D, XVIII to include:

IV. That the General Board be given authority to make such changes in the procedure as they consider necessary from time to time for the fair and efficient management of the promotions exercise.3

It appears to lie within the discretion of the General Board to determine whether to consult the Regent House at all. Fortunately the changes now proposed to the Senior Academic Promotions process are so radical that they must form the subject of a Report, but it would be wise for the Regent House to remember that that was not a requirement.

As a veteran of the battle to establish a fairer Senior Academic Promotions procedure in the late 1990s, I confess to a lack of confidence that increasing the number of ‘grades’ on which a candidate may be positioned from 3 to 10 is likely to make things fairer. It supposes a degree of accuracy and a comparability among disciplines for neither of which evidence appears to exist.

The most important achievement of the battles of the last phase of reform was the acceptance that everyone who deserved it should be promoted. Competition for too few promotions where more are acknowledged to be deserved inevitably leads to unfairness. I venture to point members of the Regent House to the Report of the Council on the Financial Position of the Chest for 1999–2000:

The General Board have agreed that personal promotions should be primarily determined by the assessment of academic merit, without budgetary restriction.4

That was dropped a few years later, but it still, even in financially straitened times, seems to me to be fundamental to the fairness of the recognition of senior academics by promotion in the University of Cambridge.