Fellows divided over don who breached last bastion

Fellows at Cambridge University's only remaining all-women college yesterday spoke out in favour of Dr Rachel Padman, a trans-sexual woman don, staying at the college.

They felt strongly that Dr Padman, 43, a physicist specialising in star formation, who was appointed a fellow of Newnham College last autumn, should not be removed as a fellow or forced to resign because of her past - despite the fact that legally she is still a man.

Ruth Murrell-Laguado, a pharmacologist, said she had no problem with "someone who was born a man being allowed to be a fellow at Newnham". And she added: "My general feeling is that people who have gone through a sex change have faced a difficult enough decision to make that change and I am prepared to accept them as the sex they want to be."

Her views were backed by Honorary Fellow Professor Phyllis Deane, who said: "I am not a lawyer, so I don't know about the legal position. But I don't have a problem with it at all. If she arrived as a woman having had the appropriate sex change, I don't see why we should worry about it."

Meanwhile, the feminist academic, Germaine Greer, who is a member of the college's governing body, is horrified at the decision to admit Dr Padman as a Fellow of the college because the statutes insist that all fellows must be women. She is considering calling an emergency meeting of the governing body to discuss the controversy. Only Newnham's principal, Dr Onora O'Neil, knew that Dr Padman had undergone a sex-change operation to become a woman in 1982. Dr Greer and other fellows had had no idea of Dr Padman's history. "We have driven a coach and horses through our statutes and I can't believe we did it," she said. "It's disgraceful that Dr Padman has been placed in this situation. I makes me very angry."

Dr Padman, like Dr Greer born in Australia, is said to have considered resigning if "a significant number of women" at the college were unhappy with her position, but did not want to lose "something I love".

One way Newnham could solve the problem would be by voting to admit men as fellows - the move was rejected by a small majority in 1990 - but Dr Padman said she preferred to keep the college single-sex. "It is an exhilarating feeling being surrounded by clever and intelligent women," she said.

Clare Garner