Queen Mary dismissal

August 14, 2014

As an emeritus professor at Queen Mary University of London, I write in response to your article “Dismissed: scholar who criticised use of metrics to determine job cuts” (News, 7 August) to point out that this is yet a further downward step in the re(de)structuring of biological and chemical sciences using a strategy of brutal mismanagement that totally ignores the employer’s duty of care and is oblivious of moderating outside opinion.

Prior to John Allen’s appeal, Simon Gaskell, the university principal, received a letter signed by Nobel laureates and fellows of the Royal Society asking for the dismissal to be reversed. This was disregarded. Absence of any internal objections to Allen’s dismissal indicates that his colleagues are fearful for their jobs while some even had the mendacity to appear as tools of management at the dismissal hearings.

Allen came to Queen Mary with a Wolfson Research Merit Award and continued to be highly productive. To wantonly extinguish such a distinguished career beggars belief.

Name and address supplied

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Reader's comments (6)

This is a very very troubling story. I do not know John Allen but I can assess his work, he is a serious and significant scholar. His academic writing is very sober and his blog posts / tweets are conventionally left wing. There is no evidence here that he is "mad or bad or dangerous to know". Rather he seems the successful scientist that can be found in all departments in all Universities. If (IF IF IF) the letter writer is accurate that no one in the school spoke up for Allen and in fact several spoke against him, this is even more troubling, there are at least two possible conclusions: 1 Was John Allen a difficult colleague whose research star status meant he behaved selfishly? Such prima donna types are not unknown and are deeply resented by colleagues, so simply labelling his colleagues as mendacious (as the letter writer does) could be unfair. However the extreme behaviour that could in my view justify a sacking is outside my experience. I find it all but impossible to believe a distinguished scientist like Allen could behave in such an extreme way. However if Allen was sacked for run of the mill being awkwardness then this is a seismic shift. 2 Perhaps the head of school (who like Voldemort never seems to be named) wanted blood after the humiliation of the Lancet letter. He could have provoked Allen to say or do something unwise about teaching assignment. The firing was then railroaded through in a climate of fear. Again this is a victimisation culture I have no experience of. The Principal Simon Gaskell is a bogey man for some on these boards, but he was a serious scientist. I find it hard to believe he could preside over such a train crash. Its so hard to be credit either scenario, that only a tribunal will inform us outsiders. If Allen's behaviour was so outrageous he has no leg to stand on, then its sui generis. However if the tribunal hold that being run of the mill awkward is a sacking offence, research active 'stars' would do well to help their hard pressed colleagues who are not as lucky with grants. A little humility, generosity and helpfulness might save your job one day since as seen above all the research plaudits won't. We should all note senior management will be prepared to act against those perceived as 'prima donnas' at other places. If 2, a finding against QMUL at tribunal, this would seem prima facie to make several managers' positions at QMUL instantly untenable. I hope the Governors will immediately do the right thing about senior management at QMUL. Moreover the sector as a whole would have to draw back from such approach (read John Allen's blog for the link to the HR lawyer who dreams of sacking big mouths who criticise management). Common sense and collegiality would need to re-enter the higher echelons of some Universities. Either way this case is a landmark that deserves to be very carefully watched. It is easily the most significant development in University HR management in recent times.
@ Jim_sta. Last week I said in these columns that endless vituperation served no useful purpose in the long run. However, some factual information may give a better perspective on the issues. For someone of his seniority the manner of John Allen’s ejection from QMUL was unprecedented. After notice of dismissal was served he was given only a few hours to clear his office of personal effects before the locks were changed and his entry to the building electronically barred; following this his academic email account was taken down within 10 days, access to e-literature terminated and research students reallocated to substitute projects and supervisors without consultation. I recall only one previous occasion in 30 years when a senior Queen Mary figure was treated in such a manner, and in that case the offence was a putatively criminal matter unrelated to teaching, research or institutional management. As much as anything else the sheer ruthlessness of it all, a kind of academic “bum’s rush” recalling the worst moments of the Lehman Brothers collapse, is what has shocked observers both inside and outside Queen Mary and, one suspects, inhibited criticism by those still employed. In addition it suggests an internal tension quite at odds with the relaxed and friendly atmosphere of previous years which allowed the college to punch above its weight having, intellectually, all the advantages of being in London without so many of the burdens. Both John Allen and Simon Gaskell are serious and outstanding scientists who, in fact (and in my hearing), could agree amicably about how a successful academic community should function, as well as the role of internal disagreement in institutional life. Neither are in any sense sociopathic, however it is clear that while both are highly principled each is affiliated to a quite different doctrine of how to achieve what is essentially the same goal. The one (Allen, an outspoken purist) advocates development from the grass roots by the encouragement of research without overt directions from overlying managers and with an attendant mitigation of excessive teaching, while the other (Gaskell, evidently now a doctrinarian leader, with an admirable but ambitious target of raising QMUL into the top decile of UK universities) subscribes to a rigorous version of the currently fashionable managerialism involving departmental restructures (sic), performance assessments, targets, workload models and highly selective investment in research. In short, it is the bottom-up versus top-down argument that rages everywhere, but in the particular context of Queen Mary it has proved difficult both to back the policies with the necessary investment and to reduce the teaching and administrative burdens which hamstring those departments most in need of improvement. The result has been stress, with a large staff turnover and an uncertain outcome. Such disagreements should not lead to public humiliation on one side or the other. However, between Gaskell and Allen is an array of Vice-Principals, Deans and Departments Heads, most of whom who are by now appointees of the current regime and implement its policies. They are, arguably, less distinguished academically but still legitimate managers though in the post-Jarratt mode of passing instructions downwards without opening any return valve for legitimate criticism. Here perhaps is the root of the tension, as the rules and methods used in restructuring, many of them highly controversial, were generated at this level of administration and indeed two of those responsible are named in The Lancet letter. As a result of the letter, disciplinary charges were brought against John Allen but he was subsequently cleared of intentionally bringing the individuals concerned into disrepute. After this an unrelated dispute arose concerning the teaching of cell biology, the semi-comic centrepiece of which was when two lecturers, one of them John Allen, turned up to give the same lecture with the Head of School also appearing on the scene to instruct that the other colleague should address the students. Behind this were, apparently, miscommunications about who instructed whom and in particular a disagreement about what constitutes a direct management instruction, as opposed to the usual give-and-take negotiations and corridor compromises that normally accompany the allocation of teaching. As a result, John Allen again faced disciplinary charges, which were upheld and although no special sanctions were visited on him he was subjected at about the same time to an internal enquiry concerning his external grant applications and, astonishingly, asked to show his Powerpoint files to the Head of School before each of his (reallocated) lectures (once again something I have never heard of before). Some months later he was asked to teach a level 3 (i.e. foundation) course at short notice and declined. This “request” or “direct management instruction” (take your pick) may to some extent have arisen from the time allocation model then in place, which reassigns academic staff to new teaching if their classroom hours drop for any reason, or if their performance indicators are deemed to be failing. The latter would be a preposterous allegation in the case of John Allen, but a second disciplinary charge was laid and he was subsequently dismissed. Concerning tribunals, I have commented previously in the THE that they seem to exist to assess due process, not to second-guess management decisions or to resolve academic disputes. Hence resort to courts of law indicates a failure of internal compromises that one always thought were the sine qua non of civilised university life.
Unlike most of the people with strong opinions on this I actually work in the department concerned. We are not all cowed and living in a culture of fear, quite the opposite. Enough said.
Hmmm. Maybe that wasn't enough said. For the anonymous writer of this letter to refer to colleagues who were involved in this process as mendacious and "tools of management" is not only rude but also ignorant, betraying a completely one-sided understanding of this whole issue. The people concerned cannot, of course, comment on the matter because of confidentiality: meanwhile our letter writer sits behind a shield of anonymity and abuses them. We all know, of course, that when we resort to name-calling we are simply demonstrating that we have lost the argument and it's a shame that emeritus Prof. Whoeveritis has chosen to go down this route. Bit of a failure but the THS editors to let this through in its present state, I would say. Rob "not anonymous" Knell.
As Rob says its confidential and those like me outside the Department can only have partial information. David Bignell chose not to be anonymous and his account seemed neutral in tone. I agree name calling is not helpful and I do not think either David or I called names. I did hold out several possibilities and was careful to allow that it is a justified sacking. However John Allen has had a long and distinguished career, that it came to such a brutal end over a spat over teaching duties is sad. I have never been given a 'management instruction' to teach. QMUL clearly has a different custom and practice as there seems no give and take, rather staff get management directives to teach X or be sacked. A tribunal will put the background it in the public domain, so we can judge whether a difficult but fair decision was taken at QMUL or whether QMUL are setting a new tougher standard in managing awkward colleagues or an individual was set up for a fall because he was a boat rocker. The last two will rebound on us all, so it bears careful watching.
I should point perhaps point out that I am not the anonymous correspondent. Sorry if this was not immediately obvious.

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