The high costs of courage

Academic whistleblowers face ostracism and curtailed careers until the system fully recognises the value of more transparency

July 31, 2014

Whatever your view on the rights and wrongs of the Edward Snowden whistleblowing case, the incendiary nature of the material he leaked from the US National Security Agency has guaranteed him one thing: a place in history. It might be a wild jump to describe his life now as glamorous – he may never be able to return to the country of his birth – but he will be feted for decades by those who support his actions.

Unfortunately, as our cover feature demonstrates, such compensation is unlikely to be on offer to academics who call time on dodgy practices at universities. Their fate is more like that of the now vindicated French cyclist Christophe Bassons, who dared to take on Lance Armstrong and doping in the sport. Ostracised by colleagues, (sometimes publicly) criticised and in effect prevented from seeking similar work elsewhere, these whistleblowers are left to battle through dark, lonely days when they must ask themselves if it is all worth it.

Any attempt to flag up serious failings that could harm an institution’s reputation risks managers with one eye on the ‘product’ quashing dissent

Of course, their overwhelming response is that it is worthwhile. When all is said and done, there is an ethical, even moral, imperative to raise concerns about impropriety that trumps almost any other consideration. But surely it would be better if alarms could be raised without negative consequences for a whistleblower’s life (although as David Lewis points out in our piece, it may be that many university whistleblowing cases are handled correctly, it’s just that we don’t hear about them).

So why is it that some cases still end up ruining lives? Two possible themes seem to emerge from the feature.

First, as universities operate in an increasingly marketised environment and depend less on the (direct) public purse, they will inevitably take on the more secretive side of corporate culture. Any attempt to flag up serious failings that could harm an institution’s reputation risks managers with one eye on the “product” – be that student recruitment or research prowess – quashing dissent. Such a need to keep even the smallest problems under wraps is demonstrated in our news pages by a separate story on whistleblowing, where very few cases resulted in investigations at universities.

Second, it appears that the legal safeguards for whistleblowers concentrate on protecting the individual from unfairly losing their job. Of course this is vital, but shouldn’t the law also enshrine the crucial value to the system’s health of people alerting us to wrongdoing in the first place?

Even changes to the law made in the wake of the Mid Staffordshire NHS Trust scandal seem focused on protecting individuals from subsequent attack (again, absolutely necessary) rather than on fostering a culture where blowing the whistle is seen as a contribution to the common good. In this respect, Australia’s method of protecting whistleblowers from being sued for libel by giving them privilege in defamation cases is a prime example of how a general attitude towards more transparency can be established through clear legal signals.

This final point – transparency – underlies the whole issue, and explains why so many whistleblowing cases ultimately end up in the media. The truth is simply finding a way to get out, and if we can establish a way for that to happen more painlessly, then it may stop a few academics having to sacrifice their careers just to keep higher education more honest.

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