New Hawking Professorship reignites wage inequality row

Jocelyn Major 7 February 2014

Cambridge academics have suggested that a recent donation of $6 million (£3.6 million) to set up a Stephen Hawking professorship in Cosmology, which could pay the chair an annual salary of up to £140,000, may be a “threat to meritocracy” and mark another example of the unacceptable wage disparities between top professors and other academic staff.

Current plans are to split the donation, assigning $2 million to “the core endowment for the professorship” and $4 million to fund an additional salary supplement. This is twice the basic salary of a standard Cambridge professor.

The professorship is expected to attract the highest level of international academics to Cambridge.

The donation comes from the Avery-Tsui Foundation, set up by Hawking's late friend Dennis Avery. According to the terms of the donation, the salary of the chair must be "equal to or greater than the average salary and beneļ¬ts” for other professors “of similar years of service, or rank” in the department of applied mathematics and theoretical physics (DAMTP).

Whereas the average salary of a full Cambridge professor stands at around £79,000, US Ivy League universities Harvard and Yale are able to offer full professors an average salary £122,000 and £118,000 respectively. Professor Anne-Christine Davis, who works for the DAMTP, has suggested that the increased salary may be “a way of attracting and retaining a world-leading researcher to Cambridge".

As a result of a backlash against these terms, the new professorship will be put to a vote on 14th February. Should dons reject the terms of the donation, Cambridge would lose the entire £3.6 million.

Professor Jeremy Sanders, in presenting the proposals, told fellow academics that “the intention and expectation of Dennis Avery and the Avery-Tsui Foundation is that the Hawking Professor will be truly outstanding. It is therefore axiomatic that on recruitment the professor will expect to be paid at a level equal to or greater than the average salary of other professors in the department”.

Commenting on this new professorial role, the General Board of the University of Cambridge stated: “Professor Stephen Hawking has for the past 50 years played a unique and pivotal role in research into cosmology and gravitation in the university.

“It is important that there is the opportunity to recruit from time to time scientists of the highest international level of achievement.”

However, in a discussion published in The Reporter, a University Council pamphlet, it was suggested that the donation is “structured to circumvent the salary structures of the university in order to guarantee an outsized payment to the chair-holder”.

An anonymous member of the university noted the potential for an escalation of salaries in the department of Cosmology. They 
said: “After seven years the person in the chair will be moved to a professorship that will have to be created. The new position might end up also above £150,000 to stop them from leaving. Then we would have two people out of the salary spine.

“Considering that some of the people that could take this chair could be as young as 30 we can end up with a phalanx of five or six of these, all of them in new positions created under the pretext that they need to be retained after the seven years.”

This comes at a contentious time in light of the ongoing Living Wage Campaign, and the Reporter article further urges the university not to “enrich someone at the top of the academic ladder when the vast majority of others have not had a decent pay rise in years”.

Concern over the high wage of a single professor was expressed by Professor Raymond Goldstein, from the DAMTP, who questioned: “How will we look if we agree to ignore existing rules of the university to enrich someone at the top of the academic ladder when the vast majority of others have not had a decent pay rise in years?”

A second year historian told The Cambridge Student, “I think that the University’s prestige is important but our staff are  dramatically more important. Part of being a great world institution is being fair to its constituent members".