Richard Evans: The don who's making history

Cambridge's new Regius Professor, Richard Evans, had an unusual start to his post – he applied for it. He tells Lucy Hodges why his field is more important than ever

Although Richard Evans was the favourite for the Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge, he maintains that the process of winning the job was tough. For a start, there was an application procedure. Not so long ago, you didn't do anything so vulgar as apply for this distinguished position. You sat about, hoping that you would be looked upon with favour. It is a royal appointment, after all, which means that it used to be in the gift of the prime minister of the day.

The system was that the patronage secretary would take soundings at Cambridge and put forward two names to the PM, from which he or she would choose, but Gordon Brown changed that. As with the Bank of England, he devolved decision-making, and the university now makes the choice. So Professor Evans, the prolific and combative scholar of Nazi Germany, is the first academic to have won the position in open competition.

"This time the post was advertised," he says. "And there was a so-called advisory panel, to all intents and purposes an appointments committee, which was under instructions to submit one name of a person who had already accepted the job, so that Number 10 and Her Majesty would in effect simply ratify this choice."

So, Evans applied. On the panel was Cambridge's vice chancellor, Professor Alison Richard, and a group of other eminent academics, as well as historians from Yale, Harvard, Oxford and London. The panel selected a shortlist of four, each of whom was asked to give a presentation to the entire assembled history faculty.

Essentially, the applicants had to give a lecture on their research, their plans and their concept of the post, which dates back to 1724. The faculty then completed a questionnaire in which they were asked to list the 10 qualities that they thought were most important for the Regius Professor. As if that wasn't enough, there were feedback meetings where the presentations were discussed. Interviews followed. The shortlist of four was reduced to two – and finally Evans triumphed.

Gordon Brown should be pleased with the choice that Cambridge has made, if only because Evans is seen as left of centre. He is certainly no ordinary scholar. Not only has he written the massive three-volume history of the Third Reich, whose last volume is published this month in a felicitous coincidence of events, but he has got his hands dirty in the real world.

As the principal expert witness, he comprehensively demolished David Irving in the Holocaust denial libel trial of 2000, taking him to task for mistranslated documents, for using discredited testimony and for falsifying historical statistics. "Irving has fallen so far short of the standards of scholarship customary among historians that he does not deserve to be called a historian at all," Evans said at the time.

Now, he has his work cut out at Cambridge because he as well as being Regius Professor, he is chairman of the history faculty. But he appears to relish hard work. And he is used to combining administration with research. At Birkbeck, where he worked before Cambridge, he ended up as acting Master when Baroness Blackstone left suddenly to become Tony Blair's first higher education minister.

In his role as Regius Professor he will not only be advising colleagues and continuing with his research but also banging the drum for history, "reminding everybody that we are living in a golden age of historians".

He adds: "British historians are the leading historians in the world."

As you might expect, he deplores the decision to stop requiring secondary school students to study history after the age of 14. "I think history has all sorts of very important civilising functions for students," he says. "I've always thought that the main justification for history is that it extends our knowledge and understanding of what being human means."

He believes that it is very important for pupils to study dictatorships and European history, and disagrees with those who argue for a narrower concentration on British history in schools. "Indeed I think it's absolutely vital to broaden students' horizons by getting them to study the history of the rest of the world, not just in Europe," he says.

At Cambridge, he has plans for change. He wants the ancient university to strengthen its offerings in a number of regions of the world, notably in Middle Eastern, Chinese and Indian history. And he believes that the university "overteaches" a bit. In a controversial move, he proposes stopping individual tuition for third-year undergraduates and having more group teaching to free up staff.

"We're having a debate about this," he says, carefully. "There is a recognition that we're teaching a bit too intensively in some areas and this is creating some problems for people to do the teaching that is needed elsewhere."

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