Leading Article: A change in Oxford's balance of power

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The Independent Online
YESTERDAY'S meeting at Christopher Wren's Sheldonian Theatre makes it official: at last, Oxford University is beginning to redress the institutional inertia that has for years excluded women from many of its most prestigious jobs. The facts themselves are not in dispute. Women hold only a few of the lectureships at Oxford. They hold still fewer of the more senior readerships; and among the professors at the top of the university tree, the women can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

What is in dispute is whether the university authorities were right to propose to spend pounds 100,000 on some 15 new professorships. The authorities said that with title inflation having spread from industry to academia, more Oxford dons need professorships if they are to hold their own at international conferences. Their opponents disagreed: since professors are normally plucked from the upper ranks, they claimed, the proposal would make still worse the underrepresentation of women. They demanded that the university should instead spend the money on less senior promotions, thus giving more of a chance to women. Congregation, the university's parliament, has now backed that proposal.

The meeting's outcome will help to reduce the tension. Had the authorities' original proposal been allowed to stand, their opponents might well have resorted to more radical action - such as taking the university to court under the Sex Discrimination Act. Oxford could still run the risk of being sued because of the explosive mixture of its high public profile and the gross disparity between the number of men and women in its best jobs; but that risk will be less with the discontent temporarily defused.

Yet on its own, yesterday's decision by Congregation marks little more than a symbolic victory. As two dons from Brasenose argued in Oxford Magazine recently, a much greater effort will be needed to make sure that the university is making as good use of its female talents as of its male. The writers proposed that women should be encouraged to apply for senior jobs, and that professorships should be awarded not on seniority but given to the candidates who have achieved most for their age.

These suggestions raise a wider issue. Tenure for professors and lecturers, considered by many as essential to academic freedom, also has the unintended consequence of slowing down change in university hierarchies. Yet, however painful it is to put into practice at Oxford - after all, the university not only refused to admit women but also insisted for most of its history that its dons should be bachelors - change must come all the same. Oxford's traditionalists can console themselves with one thought: at those international conferences they were so keen to attend as professors, many of the most talented people present will come from American universities - and many of them will be women.