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Thursday 2nd October 2014, 07:21 BST | Cambridge,UK

Varsity Profile: Professor Gillian Evans

Law, history, blackmail, and 14 years of battles with Cambridge University

Tom Pilston Professor Gillian Evans

Professor Gillian Evans has had an unfortunate start to 2010.  A broken ankle on New Year’s Day has left her housebound “practising on crutches”, but it will take a lot more than such a “slight hitch” to slow down this fiery medievalist.  Finally appointed Professor of Medieval Theology and Intellectual History in 2002 after 14 years of war with the University, she has transformed Cambridge’s promotions procedure with her incessant challenges, achieving justice for many academics and proving that the best rewards really do come to those who wait.

Evans’ academic career at Cambridge began three decades ago when she became a lecturer based at Sidney Sussex.  In 1986, she was awarded a prestigious British Academy Readership, only six of which are distributed each year.  She tells Varsity that “the Academy normally expects people to get a Readership [at their university] pretty well straight away after they’ve had one of those.  The University should recognise you.”  However, after eight years of teaching, there was no sign of a promotion for Evans.

At this stage, she says with a characteristic chuckle, “I got cross”.  She “began to feel a faint sense of injustice” watching colleagues of equal experience being promoted around her.  Some academics have accused her of lacking the brains for a Professorship, but these claims wilt when set against the evidence.  Evans is a prolific and energetic scholar, having published an impressive array of books on topics ranging from Anselm of Canterbury to higher education politics.

So why no promotion?  Evans believes the College dons who took a dislike to her carried their anger into the Faculty: “I suspect that every time my name came up for promotion, they said, ‘We’re not having her’.  That’s maybe how it began.”

I ask if she feels the prejudice against her was gender-driven.  Though evidence of sexist attitudes aren't hard to come by when considering 1980s Cambridge – one male don told her it was “quite nice having a doll among us”– Evans is reluctant to identify this as the cause of her struggles.  “I prefer to look at fights for justice in the broadest possible way,” she explains.

At the time, academics were unable to apply for promotion, leading to a “favouritism-type of patronage” which Evans describes as “very dangerous”.  Having written to the Vice Chancellor and appealing internally to no avail, she decided to apply for judicial review, taking the University of Cambridge to the High Court.  Chuckling again, she says this was “a very rash thing to do”.  Indeed, the total costs reached £125,000, which could easily have left Evans bankrupt.  Following the judge’s ruling, the University “sorted itself out” and created a transparent promotions procedure with clear-cut criteria, and Evans was given a Professorship.  The high-profile nature of this achievement prompted Evans to continue the fight on behalf of her colleagues, many of whom were “similarly aggrieved”.  With their support, Evans’ war gathered momentum.

For her, the next issue was the artificial cap on promotion numbers.  She criticises the culture of money dictating academic success, explaining how linguists were weighed up against astrophysicists due to a tight promotions budget.  Evans knew that this cap must be lifted to ensure equal opportunities for promotion based on merit.  She achieved this after “a most entertaining episode of good, clean, honest blackmail” with the Treasury, in which the University was unable to sign any cheques for 6 months.  I can’t help thinking that Evans isn’t being entirely honest when she tells me, “I didn’t realise how devastating it would be”.

This powerhouse even found time to qualify as a barrister during these dramas.  Inundated with requests from staff and students at other universities for help in their own disputes, she explains, “I was giving legal advice, and it’s not very sensible to do that unless you know what you’re talking about.”  This is not a woman who does things by halves.  Evans still handles a case almost every week, and is currently planning to initiate a higher education advisory service.  “There are certain patterns of cock-up which always adversely affect students,” she smiles.

So what motivates this highly-driven woman?  “Sheer interest,” she answers, without hesitation.  “To begin with I was angry, but that led on to a genuine, growing, long-lasting and passionate interest in the way universities are run.  What happened, by chance, is I got the opportunity to have a tiny bit of an effect on all that.”

Now that she has retired, Evans intends to keep on writing.  Her book The University of Cambridge: A New History (published by I.B.Tauris) has just come out, shortly to be followed by companion books on Oxford University and a history of all British universities in the last 100 years.  Her ultimate passions are education and justice: when she describes “that glorious sense of freedom which academics have always had, to think and say what they honestly feel they should, in the pursuit of truth,” the voices of her critics fade into the background.  Though she now lives in Oxford, she still has “enormous fondness” left for Cambridge despite the “painful stages” in her battles.  “If I’d known at the beginning all the things I know now, I would have been terrified!  But if it hadn’t been for that battle, I don’t think I would have emerged into the position I’m in now, with so many interesting things leading out from it.

When asked how she would like to be remembered, Evans refers to her favourite medieval figures: “the odd, spiky characters who stick out from the general flow.  If I ended up in a very small way as one of those tiny, memorable characters that would be quite enough!”

As I wish her a speedy recovery, she shoots back a reply typical of her boundless energy.  “I just want to get back to normal life.  I can’t ride a bike for 6 weeks! When the snow melts, I can get to the Bodleian in about 5 minutes even on crutches.”

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