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.

News
peopleTop Gear presenter and all-round controversialist is at it again
Sport
Aaron Ramsey celebrates after opening the scoring in Arsenal's win over Hull `
sport
News
peopleActress speaks out against historic sexual assault claims, saying things have 'gone quite far now'

Arts & Entertainment
A stranger calls: Martin Freeman in ‘Fargo’
tvReview: New 10-part series brims with characters and stories

VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Life & Style
Guests enjoy food and cocktail parings by Chefs Jimmy Bannos, Jimmy Bannos Jr, Daniel Rose and Mindy Segal with mixologists Josh King and Alex Gara at Bounty & Barrel: A Jack Daniel's Single Barrel Dinner Series at Heaven on Seven on April 9, 2014 in Chicago, Illinois.
food + drinkSprinkle Palcohol 'on almost any dish' for 'an extra kick' firm says...
News
Coren Mitchell, who is the daughter of the late broadcaster Alan Coren and is married to comedian David Mitchell, produced a hand to make poker history at the 98th EPT main event.
peopleJournalist and TV presenter becomes first ever two-time winner of the European Poker Tour
Arts & Entertainment
Shaun Evans as Endeavour interviews a prisoner as he tries to get to the bottom of a police cover up
tvReview: Second series comes to close with startling tale of police corruption and child abuse
Arts & Entertainment
Schwarzenegger winning Mr. Universe 1969
arts + entsCan you guess the celebrity from these British Pathe News clips?
News
politicsLabour launches the 'completely hollow' Easter Clegg
Sport
Luis Suarez celebrates after scoring in Liverpool's 3-2 win over Norwich
sport Another hurdle is out of the way for Brendan Rodgers' side
News
Portrait of Queen Elizabeth-II by David Bailey which has been released to mark her 88th birthday
peoplePortrait released to mark monarch's 88th birthday
Arts & Entertainment
The star of the sitcom ‘Miranda’ is hugely popular with mainstream audiences
TVMiranda Hart lined up for ‘Generation Game’ revival
Life & Style
The writer, Gerda Saunders, with her mother, who also suffered with dementia before her death
healthGerda Saunders on the most formidable effect of her dementia
Arts & Entertainment
Last, but by no means least, is Tommy Cooper and the fez. This style of hat became a permanent trademark of his act.
comedyNot Like That, Like This centres on alleged domestic abuse
Arts & Entertainment
Oxegen in Ireland has been axed as promoters decide it is 'no longer viable'
arts + ents Promoters have axed the event as it is 'no longer viable in current form'
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Cover Supervisor

£6720 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Nottingham: Cover Supervisor jobs...

PE Teacher

£6720 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Nottingham: Being the UK market l...

Science Teacher

£130 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Ilford: Secondary Science Teacher Lon...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Group: The school, the child…We are proud to su...

Day In a Page

Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter: The man who could have been champion of the world - and the Bob Dylan song that immortalised him

The man who could have been champion of the world

Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter and the Bob Dylan song that immortalised him
Didn’t she do well?

Didn’t she do well?

Miranda Hart lined up for ‘Generation Game’ revival
The Middle East we must confront in the future will be a Mafiastan ruled by money

The Middle East we must confront in the future will be a Mafiastan ruled by money

In Iraq, mafiosi already run almost the entire oil output of the south of the country
Before they were famous

Before they were famous

Can you guess the celebrity from these British Pathe News clips?
Martin Freeman’s casting in Fargo is genius

Martin Freeman’s casting in Fargo is a stroke of genius

Series is brimming with characters and stories all its own
How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players