Promotion, Fairness and Procedure in Universities

Below is the full text of an article which appears in abbreviated form in the Guardian newspaper. It is based in part on personal experience and raises broad questions of procedure and the balance between equity and discretion. More from the author, Dr. Paul Burrows, Economics Department, York University.

Universities rightly defend their independence to prevent outside interference in their research. Unfortunately this independence leaves a large area of bureaucratic discretion which not all university administrators exercise in a principled fashion. The area of promotions is a classic case: it is increasingly becoming clear that some universities employ unfair promotions procedures. But who is responsible for ensuring that fair procedures are adopted and adhered to? I will argue that the existing policing is far too weak. The two conclusions I arrive at are:

there is a need for a strict Code of Practice for universities to follow in promotions procedures, and
grievance committees should be appointed independently, instead of by the university which is a party to the dispute.

Promotions committees are lucky. Very rarely is there any chance of their decisions being scrutinized effectively, let alone challenged, because of the confidentiality obstacle. Also, the candidates who are successful in the promotions game are unlikely to complain that the procedures were unfair; and any complaints from rejects who have a career death-wish can be dismissed as the moaning of embittered whingers. As I am an embittered whinger, the reader should have a large pinch of salt at the ready.

Following the rejections of my two applications for a personal chair at the University of York, in 1992 and 1994, I have explained my procedural objections to two grievance committees. So at least I can speak from experience! The core of my objections was that the promotions procedures were inherently flawed, so that the decisions were unsafe. I identified five requirements of a fair promotions procedure, and claimed that every one of them had been violated in my case.

The five requirements are:

Each candidate’s record should be evaluated only in terms of the criterion for promotion stated to candidates.
The evaluation should be based on the most fully informed opinion obtainable.
Promotion and appointment applications should be treated as similarly as possible.
Unsuccessful candidates should be given clear, specific, written reasons why their records were judged to have failed to satisfy the criterion for promotion.
When unsuccessful candidates reapply there should be consistency in the way their records are evaluated on the different occasions.

As it stands Requirement 2 seems unchallengeable. But what are the appropriate sources of informed opinion? Peer review is fundamental to academic life. Academics accept it when they submit articles to journals, when they apply for research funds, and when their departments are judged in the Research Assessment Exercise. They accept it as long as it is independent and expert. Without these characteristics it may be ill-informed, and therefore arbitrary, or even prejudicial. I believe any promotion candidate has a right to expect independent and expert review, just as a doctoral candidate has. I believe also that such informed and expert opinion must, at least in part, derive from references obtained from external expert referees. There is no guarantee that a candidate’s research contribution can be adequately judged by others within his own university. In my case there was no other practitioner of my research specialism in my university. Yet both of my applications were rejected without external referees having been consulted.

I have failed, over seven years, to find any academics who are prepared in private to defend the practice of rejecting promotion applications without external referees having been consulted. The University of York, in the person of its Vice-Chancellor (Professor R. Cook), claimed before my first grievance committee that the practice could be justified on grounds of “cost”! But he had difficulty with his claim that a historian on promotions committee could, “with experience”, expertly judge an article by a mathematician. The HEFC has made a great point of the expertise of its research evaluation panels. Peer review without such expertise has no credibility. Promotions committees that pretend otherwise risk making unfair decisions and are infringing a fundamental right of academics to be expertly judged.

Turning to Requirement 4, in a recent judgement Mr. Justice Sedley (The Queen and the University of Cambridge ex parte Gillian Rosemary Evans, High Court, 1997) emphasised the importance of giving unsuccessful candidates reasons for their rejections. Other judgements have established that the reasons should give the candidate good guidance as to how his/her record could be improved to enhance their chances. From cases I have heard of through CAFAS, and from my own experience, I should say universities often are negligent in this respect. I have never been told why the quantity and quality of my accumulated research output did not meet the stated criterion of “outstanding intellectual distinction and recognised excellence in the relevant field”.

The issue here is not whether I personally had managed to satisfy the criterion. Obviously, that is not for me to judge. The point is one of principle: that all unsuccessful candidates, including me, should know on what grounds their application has failed. Curiously, the University of York does not claim to have given me reasons. Instead it claims to have tried (in an unwitnessed conversation I had with the Vice-Chancellor) to give me reasons! I must have been having a deaf day. No reasons penetrated my consciousness. And over several years (despite ample opportunity) the University has never seen fit to repeat, either verbally or in print, the reasons it claims it tried to give. To be credible a promotions procedure needs to confirm its fairness by justifying the decisions made, through the giving of coherent, written reasons which the candidate can act upon.

These are examples of inadequate promotions procedures. Why do such procedures exist? One possible explanation is that universities like to have leeway in deciding who to promote. It might, for example, be convenient to promote a productive young researcher whose accumulated research output may not be exceptional yet, but who must be prevented from leaving because the next RAE is looming. Another candidate with a better past record could be less essential to keep on such grounds. The problem is that such manoeuvring may clash with the fair, equal treatment of candidates with equivalent research records. For this reason a Code of Practice is needed to compel all universities to adopt a consistently fair set of promotions procedures which meet the five requirements above. They cannot be trusted to do so on their own.

Grievance Procedures. In an ideal world policing would not be needed. The accumulating cases dealt with by CAFAS suggest otherwise. What of the universities’ own grievance procedures, and appeals to the Visitor? Are appropriate means of policing not already in place? The Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine, confirmed in a judgement in my case that promotions procedures lie outside the Visitorial jurisdiction. So we are left with grievance committees to provide redress. But do they? Well, for one thing very few aggrieved candidates actually use grievance procedures (fear of reprisals?). And for another they may not anyway be effective in tackling inherently unfair promotions procedures. My first grievance committee decided I had grounds for grievance on three of the fairness-requirements. But it ignored the arguments in favour of requiring external referees to be used, and it made no recommendations at all for redress in my case. The University’s Council then referred the committee’s report to the promotions committee for a decision! And, lo and behold, that committee found in favour of itself.

An appeal to the Visitor (the Queen, but represented by the Lord Chancellor) brought a new grievance committee. The reason given was that the University had refused the first grievance committee access to the files on my case. The University had in fact failed to keep its promise to “cooperate fully” with the grievance procedure. Unfortunately for me this new committee, chaired by Judge Nigel Fricker, took the following position on my claims relating to Requirements 2 and 4, and rejected my appeal:
2. External referees. The committee made no attempt to address my case for obliging promotions committees to consult external experts. It allowed the University to claim a right of silence and to refuse to defend its position on this issue. Even so, the committee still managed to conclude, with no supporting argument whatsoever provided, that a failure to obtain external expert opinion does not infringe any academic right!
4. Giving reasons. The new committee simply said it accepted the Vice-Chancellor’s assertion that he had “tried to explain the reasons”. The Vice-Chancellor was not required to substantiate his claim by actually stating the reasons he had allegedly tried to give.

Thus: I had presented these two procedural objections, amongst others. A professor of law described my arguments as unanswerable. Yet two grievance committees failed to grapple with, let alone resolve, these procedural arguments. Police and university complaints procedures evidently have one thing in common: they favour the establishment. Don’t rock the boat.

In the process of undergoing the second ordeal by grievance hearing (and a negative report) another reason why external referees are essential came to light. Candidates may need protection from internal referees. The only report sought by promotions committee in my case came from my Head of Department (Professor A. Culyer, also then Deputy Vice-Chancellor), who had advised me to apply. He later described by rejections as “a gross miscarriage of justice”, and stated that he had “categorically supported going to external referees”. But the second grievance committee said the promotions committee’s rejections were not unreasonable in the light of the Head of Department’s report (which I have not been allowed to see. Confidential, naturally.). Of course, requiring external reports would not guarantee fair play, but it would seriously increase the chances.

The university grievance system seems to me to be a charade. What is needed are independently established grievance committees. The two committees set up in my case both contained two ‘lay’ members. Every one of the four had previous connections with the university, having served on one or other of its high level committees. All good men and true, no doubt. But, as with police force committees standing in judgement on complaints against the police, university grievance committees lack credibility when their members are chosen by one of the adversaries.

Dr. Paul Burrows
Reader in Economics
University of York