Does the system fail women - or did this woman simply fail?

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The Independent Online
The ancient university of Cambridge is riven by an acrimonious dispute over staff promotions. At the centre is the diminutive figure of Gillian Evans, who has been engaged in a David-and-Goliath struggle with the institution for four years. She has four lawsuits outstanding against the university and won't give up, she says, until procedures are made open and fair and lecturers get the jobs they deserve.

Next Tuesday, Gillian Evans, a history and theology don, will again address Cambridge University's Senate or parliament with her customary mix of logic and fury. She is a woman with a mission. Fired with a burning sense of injustice, she is determined to bring reform to what she calls "the old exercise of patronage and fixing" at the ancient university.

Aged 53, Dr Evans is slight in build and polite in conversation. She is also extremely determined and articulate, annoying a number of people with what they regard as persistence bordering on obsession. "This clearly is a cause that has taken over her life," says academic Joan Whitehead, president of the Cambridge Association of University Teachers. "Because Dr Evans keeps on taking the university to court, it is very difficult to have public discussion of issues in case she ends up using these discussions as evidence against the university."

Dr Evans argues her own case in the courts. Last year she won a legal battle in the High Court when she sought judicial review of the university's promotion procedures. Mr Justice Sedley ruled that she had a case on some points and gave the university one year in which to make the necessary changes. She was not so successful with a sex discrimination claim: that one was thrown out by an industrial tribunal for being out of time. But Dr Evans is planning to appeal.

The author of a new book to be published shortly on accountability in higher education, Dr Evans has been seeking promotion for years. She is an internationally renowned expert in medieval history and theology, the author of more than 20 books and a practising Anglican, someone the Church of England consults for advice. During the 1980s she was awarded a prestigious British Academy readership. Under a gentlemen's agreement, the British Academy expects its readers to be made readers (very senior lecturers) of the institution at which they work. But this didn't happen in Dr Evans's case, despite the fact that she also had a higher doctorate, a DLitt from Oxford and from Cambridge.

The Cambridge system at the time was that academics could not apply for promotion. They had to wait to have their names put forward. "They flatly refused to put me forward year after year after year," Dr Evans explains. "They wouldn't tell me why. Another thing that was wrong with the system was that there was no feedback. The faculty committees were not obliged to give any reasons to candidates whatsoever."

Dr Evans made a fuss and, in 1992, her name was finally put forward for promotion. She didn't get it, however, just as many of her colleagues didn't. One of the big problems at Cambridge has been the age profile of staff. Large numbers of dons are in their fifties and sixties. Eminent in their fields and internationally known, they are stuck in lecturer jobs, earning the basic grade of pounds 29,000 a year (as against a professor's pounds 41,000) and competing for a tiny handful of senior posts.

After that her name wasn't put forward again. So, she decided to complain. "It became clear to me that waiting patiently and asking nicely was going to get me nowhere," she says. So, she wrote to 25 university vice chancellors, asking them for details of their promotion procedures. (That particular research produced a pamphlet.) Second, she brought a grievance case under the university's procedures complaining about personal attacks made on her by the history faculty.

"I had a real grievance because I had been personally attacked," she says. "I did nothing to provoke it whatsoever."

Third, she called a Discussion or debate of the university Senate. When that yielded little, she decided to embark on a concerted campaign. She threatened to call a ballot, which persuaded the university to send out a questionnaire on promotions procedures. The response was overwhelming. Academics said they wanted to be able to apply for promotion, they wanted feedback and they wanted an appeals mechanism - in other words, they wanted an open and fair system.

There was no doubt that the system needed reform - and reform began. From last autumn, a new set of procedures has been in place. But Dr Evans has also been pushing for more senior jobs to be created for dons and it was over that issue last summer that she forced a vote on the university's budget. Normally that goes through on the nod, but Dr Evans stopped the budget in its tracks by collecting enough votes for a ballot on whether the university should spend more on new posts. As a result the university had to take emergency powers to sign cheques. It was greatly inconvenienced and received considerable adverse publicity.

Cambridge has traditionally had small numbers in the very top jobs - it currently has 20 per cent professors, 16 per cent readers and the remaining 64 per cent lecturers. Ideally, it would like to have ratios more in line with those at University College London, according to a spokeswoman, where 28 per cent are professors, 35 per cent senior lecturers and readers and 37 per cent lecturers.

To that end it is proposing to create a new post of senior lecturer, with the aim of promoting 40 per cent of lecturers (around 300 people) to that level. These are being created for people who are primarily administrators and teachers, not researchers. The intention is that the salary for those lecturers would be a little short of a reader's salary which is pounds 35,000 a year.

Dr Evans remains unsatisfied, however. The reforms to the promotions procedures are fine as far as they go, but they don't go far enough, she thinks. The final promotions committee should give reasons for its decisions and there should be an appeal mechanism from that committee.

Does she expect to get promotion now? Dr Evans is doubtful. She was proposed for a professorship this year but her work was rated so low that she thinks she will never achieve a chair. "They won't tell me on what basis they have arrived at these evaluations," she says. "What they're trying to do is to look as though they're putting me forward for a chair while stabbing me in the back."

Dr Evans emphasises the fact that she is also fighting promotion cases on behalf of other academics through her work for the Council for Academic Freedom and Academic Standards. She has a number of supporters at Cambridge University. One is Roger Dawe, 63, a fellow of Trinity, once described as "Cambridge's most distinguished Hellenist", who resigned his university post because of the way he was treated by the university. He was given a promise his name would be put forward for promotion in 1973, but that promise was broken in subsequent years.

Another is a don who wishes to remain anonymous because to go public might damage his chances of promotion. He is up for promotion for the seventh time and says the university needs a decent career structure based on the American model, where academics can expect to reach the top career grade provided they meet criteria laid down and continue to do internationally recognised research. "I feel Gillian Evans has brought into the open some very serious problems which need to be aired," he says.

The problem also exists at Oxford but that university has sought to alleviate it by creating titular professors (who can call themselves "professor" but receive no extra salary). According to the Vice Chancellor of London University, Professor Graham Zellick, other universities have benefited for years from the disgruntlement caused by the lack of promotion prospects at Cambridge. He was able to create an excellent law faculty at Queen Mary and Westfield College that way.

Cambridge, meanwhile, defends itself strongly. A spokesman said promotion procedures were being reformed before Dr Evans took her case to the High Court and reform was continuing. But one of the university's problems is money. Deficits are being forecast in future years which means finding the money to create new senior positions is difficult.

Baroness Perry, principal of Lucy Cavendish College and a campaigner for women, says the university has taken huge strides to improve. "I am confident every opportunity is being taken for people to come through for promotion," she says. AUT president Joan Whitehead agrees. "I think our system is as fair and as open as possible," she says. "At the end of the day it's a subjective judgment whether or not someone is promoted. I am afraid there will always be a problem with people who have an unrealistically high opinion of themselves."

Another female academic, Dr Christine Carpenter, who specialises in medieval history, refutes any suggestion of sex discrimination. Before 1990 Cambridge's history faculty had a dismal record of promoting women, she says, but has since reformed itself. There were recently four women of sufficient age and seniority to be promoted. One was Dr Carpenter herself who has been made a reader; another was Rosamond McKitterick who is now a professor. That means 50 per cent of the available women were promoted - more than in other departments. "It can't be said in any shape or form that Cambridge is anti-women," she asserts. "It is pro-women."

Dr Evans's campaign certainly arouses passions intense even by the hothouse standards of Cambridge. Real reform is under way but whether it will command broad acceptance is another matter.