How a medieval philosophy don won her battle against Cambridge for failing to promote her

For the past 17 years Gill Evans has been a thorn in Cambridge University's side, making the lives of successive vice chancellors a misery and forcing the ancient university to change its ways. She has harried it through the courts, in the press and through the institution's democratic structures.

Now retired, having been made professor of medieval logic finally in 2002, she has made her peace with the place by writing a history of Cambridge to coincide with its 800th anniversary.

Called The University of Cambridge: A New History, it is a quick canter through the past eight centuries with an interesting first chapter on the university's recent history and it will be followed by a companion volume on the history of Oxford.

Professor Evans is showing the world that she is ultimately a scholar, if a disputatious one. She is also phenomenally energetic, in a single decade spewing forth books that must leave other academics open-mouthed – a string of books on Anselm of Canterbury, the archbishop on whom her PhD is based, and on medieval philosophy; three books on modern higher education politics; another book on Cambridge and a further book she co-wrote with Jaswinder Gill on student matters.

It is amazing to think that in that time she waged a battle with the university that included three High Court cases, an independent inquiry and several aborted trips to the employment tribunal. She also found time to be policy secretary of the Campaign for Academic Freedom and Academic Standards, handling dozens of cases of academics with grievances. And she even managed to fit in a spot of legal training, qualifying as a barrister to make herself a more effective litigant.

Her struggle with the university, which began when she wrote to the then vice chancellor complaining that she was overdue for promotion, at least to a readership, divided Cambridge's academics. Some saw her as a heroine, fighting a David and Goliath battle against a fusty male establishment; others claimed she had paralysed Cambridge's administration and drained the university's finances with her endless complaints. She sees herself as a worthy successor to the Roman Catholic dissident and medieval scholar Wycliffe who translated the Bible into English.

There were whisperings that she was on an ego trip, a thoroughly difficult customer and lacking in intellectual rigour. But Evans refused to back down even when she was rejected for promotion year after year. She continued to apply for a professorship and eventually took the university to court for judicial review, winning her first case that forced the university to adopt more transparent procedures but failing at the final hurdle when a judge deemed her Cambridge complaint to be a private rather than a public law matter.

The university was magnanimous in victory, giving her the much sought-after professorship and declining to insist that she foot the bill for their costs. Cambridge had paid for the best QCs in its legal battle with her and the bill was huge, a staggering £125,000. "I could have been bankrupted," says Evans. "I was very lucky."

Considering the length and ferocity of her struggle, Evans is surprisingly light-hearted about it now – and happy to relive the awful struggle, first at Sidney Sussex College where the mainly male dons took against her ("I learnt that CP Snow did not exaggerate," she says), and then with the university when it failed to award her a readership.

"Normally you expect that once someone has had a British Academy readership, they will be rewarded with a readership or professorship at their university," she says. "But promotion was not forthcoming because the historians who had been attacking me at Sidney Sussex had moved the fight on to the academic sphere.

"I got nowhere and nobody would tell me why. I wasn't the only person who felt this. The bitterness across the university was very great."

The combative Evans didn't hesitate to seek remedy through the courts, a sign of how much stamina and chutzpah she has. Interestingly, she doesn't think that her failure to be promoted was about sex discrimination. "Isn't it always ultimately about power and the pettiness of the areas that academics control?" she says. "On any academic committee, if you try to engage them with the big issues, they look blank but as soon as it's going to affect their bit of their course, they're furious and the politics start.

"I think that I had infuriated the people who had been gunning for me ever since Sidney Sussex by raising the profile and making speeches. When I started using litigation, the university was furious – by which I mean the senior administration – because they saw this as an attack. And I said, look it's not. You only go to a court when all internal remedies have failed and a dispassionate judge decides who's right."

She is proud of what she achieved in her first case in 1998 when the university had to create proper promotion procedures. At about the same time she got involved with the Council for Academic Freedom and Academic Standards, helping other academics to fight cases of injustice. This prompted her to become legally qualified, which she did at the University of Middlesex by distance learning, in addition to the bar course.

"In the end Cambridge just gave in," she says of her own battle for promotion. Now, she says, she feels an almost equal affection for Oxford and Cambridge. But she clearly prefers Oxford because it is here that she has chosen to live. Cambridge may have once regarded her as mad and bad, but today it has cause to be grateful for having forced it to change and for writing a lively and up-to-date history of the university.

The University of Cambridge, A New History, by G.R. Evans, published by I.B. Tauris, £35.

The CV: Gillian Evans

Education: King Edward's High School in Birmingham, degree in history at Oxford, postgraduate diploma in education.

Career: Taught history at Queen Anne's School, Caversham. PhD in Anselm of Canterbury at Reading University; research assistantship at Reading; lecturer at Bristol University in theology; assistant lecturer at Cambridge; awarded a British Academy readership. Became involved with the Council for Academic Freedom and Academic Standards and qualified as a barrister.

Books: A dozen volumes on medieval philosophy, Archbishop Anselm and biblical studies, three books on modern higher education politics – and more.

Inspiration: Bertrand Russell. After reading his History of Western Philosophy at the age of 16, she decided that medieval philosophy was her great passion.

Family: Her parents left school at 14; father was a clerk in a Birmingham company.

Home: She lives in Oxford.

Bedside reading: The statutes of Oxford and Cambridge universities.

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