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From the Fens of East Anglia comes a curious tale of a gift to Cambridge to endow a chair in honor of Stephen Hawking. The donor, Dennis Avery, put forward $6 million of which $2 million is to cover the costs of the Hawking chair. The balance is to be managed by charity, the Avery-Tsai foundation to, in the words of J. K. M. Sanders (Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Institutional Affairs),

“……advance education and promote research in the science of cosmology at the University of Cambridge for the public benefit, and in particular to support the University in securing the best possible candidate as the Stephen W. Hawking Professor of Cosmology.”

There are some unusual terms attached to the gift described below. Mr.Avery, however, passed away soon after the terms were negotiated. Renegotiation, now impossible, the University must decide whether to accept the gift as constructed or not at all.

What makes the gift unusual?

1) Monies held by the foundation can be used to `top up’ the salary, so paying the individual an amount in excess of what the University might pay its top chair holders (which I believe is around 130K pounds).

2) The chair is to be housed in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics (DAMTP). The gift requires DAMTP to certify each year to the Trustees that the base salary of the Hawking Professor is at least the average of other Professors in the Department.

3) The holder is subject to annual review and the monies from the foundation are contingent upon the outcome of that review.

4) It limits the tenure of the Professor to seven years, renewable for five and exceptionally for a further five.

Let the fireworks begin. From the head of the DAMTP, P.H. Haynes and a supporter of the gift:

“The unusual detailed arrangements surrounding this Professorship have rightly triggered significant debate amongst my Departmental colleagues and they have required detailed and robust discussion between Department, School, and the University.”

Professor Goldstine of the DAMTP, responds with an objection to the circumvention of University rules with a delightful analogy to line integrals:

“In the field of thermodynamics there is the concept of a ‘state function’, a quantity that is independent of the path by which a system is brought to a given point. This is one of those. It does not matter whether the payment goes through the University payroll or not if the University itself is signing off on the agreement and the funds are in its endowment. The choice of path certainly does not matter in the court of public opinion. How can the University contemplate an arrangement whose purpose is to circumvent its own rules?”

He goes on to point out that it is inconceivable that a holder of the chair would accept a cut in pay upon expiration of the term. He is, by own admission rendered:

“….almost speechless at Paragraph 9 of the deed, which asserts that the Department must certify each year to the Trustees that the base salary of the Hawking Professor is at least the average of other Professors in the Department. First, the requirement itself indicates a profound level of distrust of the Department’s operations. But second, how can it possibly be fair to tie one Professor’s salary to that of others? All their hard work over their career to date is used to define a starting point for his salary, independent of his qualifications. Moreover, if the Department chose to pay that minimum (which it might in light of other financial burdens), then the Stephen Hawking Professor would automatically get a raise if any other Professor did. This cannot be fair. I thought we strove to have a meritocracy in this University.”

From an emeritus professor medieval history, G. R. Evans, clearly, a guardian of ancient rights:

“….opening the doors to allowing outside bodies or donors to fund Professorships has led to the opening of further doors and only those with long constitutional memories may remember how it all began. I speak today just to put a reminder into the record, for this proposal has a constitutional context and if it is accepted, it will undoubtedly have constitutional consequences.”

Dr. A. Pesci of the DAMTP opens with this gem:

“This Chair looks to me like that pair of shoes at the Christmas sale. They looked beautiful and were half price. They were also two sizes too small and buying the matching dress would lead to bankruptcy. Hence, if one buys them, they would have to be left vacant, for if one wears them, they would cause enormous irreversible long-term damage.”

The link to a full summary of the discussion can be found here. It is both interesting reading and amusing when compared with the earliest and best pamphlets on University politics that I know of: Microcosmographia Academica. I give one example from it:

The Principle of the Dangerous Precedent is that you should not now do an admittedly right action for fear you, or your equally timid successors, should not have the courage to do right in some future case, which, ex hypothesi, is essentially different, but superficially resembles the present one. Every public action which is not customary, either is wrong, or, if it is right, is a dangerous precedent. It follows that nothing should ever be done for the first time.

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