Chaos and isolation: the injustice of suspension

Stuart Macdonald on the misery of being expelled from your university post

August 14, 2014

Source: James Fryer

The inquiry is wide-ranging, but ignores supportive witnesses and any evidence of innocence. The university requires only evidence of guilt

The plight of Thomas Docherty, suspended these past eight months by the University of Warwick, prompts me to share my own miserable experience of suspension.

UK universities often suspend academic staff and yet academics know little about the process. Even the suspension of a friend may not enlighten them much; when I was suspended in 1997, my colleagues were told I was on leave of absence and instructed to ask no questions. And as the suspended rarely return, their suspension is as soon forgotten as they are.

Suspension is the process whereby an employee is expelled while the employer investigates allegations of wrongdoing. In theory, suspension is a neutral act. In practice, suspension is nothing of the sort. As used by UK universities, suspension is all too often the first step in a process intended to lead only to dismissal.

There may be justification for suspending a doctor accused of endangering patients, or an accountant of fiddling the books, but what possible risk is avoided by suspending an academic? Suspension is used because no suspension would suggest no serious offence, which might undermine the case for dismissal.

A summons to an immediate and unexpected meeting initiates the process. No specific allegations are made and no questions allowed. This surreal ceremony concludes with an order to leave university premises immediately, taking nothing and talking to nobody. The suspended academic may not set foot on university property and must not communicate with anyone from the university.

Union advice to me was to follow the university’s instructions to the letter: suspended academics are usually dismissed not for any alleged offence, but for breaking their terms of employment. Obeying the rules of suspension is one of these, so even my university flat was out of bounds. Since all mail sent to me at my university address was impounded, I never received the eviction notices the university sent me, and I never saw my clothes again. For weeks, only my wife answered the telephone lest the caller had some link with the university. An unnecessary precaution? Hardly; university officials met lawyers thrice during my suspension to consider whether I had broken the rules.

With suspension, the academic is “disappeared”. Chaos ensues. Colleagues must be kept in the dark, but so too must students, funders, research assistants; a whole academic college is left wondering what is going on. Lectures and supervisions stop without explanation, students and research fellows are abandoned, and all research ceases. The damage is immense.

Suspension is also devastating personally. Because no specific allegations are made, the possibilities seem endless. Not until the university has completed its internal inquiry are charges laid. This can take weeks while university officials rummage through files, search email servers and interrogate staff. The inquiry is wide-ranging, but ignores supportive witnesses and any evidence of innocence. The university requires only evidence of guilt.

Suspension is not gardening leave on full pay. The taste of blood sends some colleagues into feeding frenzy. According to the inquiry’s report, they all agreed that I was “a most difficult person to work with, had little regard for bureaucracy and showed little loyalty towards the university”. In my case, enthusiasts seized the opportunity to demonstrate their loyalty by accusing me of all manner of sins: some actionable in other circumstances (I had misappropriated funds or obtained money under false pretences), most just sad (I had been overheard disagreeing; I had asked questions; I had dealings with people in other universities). Truth is neither sought nor, in all probability, expected. In digging for dirt, the university unearthed only an embarrassment of nonsense.

The accused is allowed no input to the inquiry. A written response to the inquiry’s report may be compiled – but how? The university has access to everything: the accused to almost nothing. Hope that sense will prevail fades as lawyers gather and expenses mount. Isolation breeds despair and depression as weeks of being a non-person become months and exact their toll on health, personal relationships and career. With growing self-doubt, pressure mounts to confess something and end it all.

Then – suddenly – it was over, at least it was for me. Come back, kiss the vice-chancellor, make up, be forgiven.

But no welcome-back party awaited. Suspension is not followed by resurrection. Mud sticks and suspension leaves scars. Paranoia is an inevitable legacy. I returned to an office that had been trashed by vigilantes in search of evidence of anything. On my reinstatement, I was confronted with pettiness and spite. I was to be confined to my office, and told to pay for postage and photocopying. My research assistant was to monitor my loyalty to the university.

Inevitably, suspension is divisive. It pits loyalty to an academic college and its values against loyalty to the university, this tested by willingness to produce evidence of a colleague’s guilt. Burn the witch or be burned yourself. Fear is what maintains repressive regimes and that is what UK universities have become. Suspension has nothing to do with justice, and everything to do with maintaining brand value by detecting and eliminating non-conformity.

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Reader's comments (3)

How is the treatment you describe allowed under Employment Law? i would have thought that the basic requirement of any disciplinary procedures is that the 'accused' is told what the alleged offence is and who his/her accuser is. it doesn't appear that this process in anyway obeys the laws of natural justice.
Alas, this accords all to well with my own experience of being unjustly sus- pended from what was then a mediocre college (now a mediocre 'university') somewhere in England. I was ambushed by the Head of School, served with a quasi-legal notice to quit the building at once (which I refused point blank to do until I'd collected personal items and spoken to my union rep) and forced to go home. Staff in the school were told to tell students lies about what had happ- ened (I was supposed to be unwell, though I was perfectly fit, just sick at heart at the way I was treated) and I was as good as told my career was over by a thug of a so-called manager. Of course, this was all supposed to be 'without prejudice' but there followed a process in which I had to prove my innocence of charges made by a pair of psychopaths. I had great support from the then AUT (now UCU), both locally and at national level and although lawyers were never invovled I'm confident I would have had good legal advice from that quarter. I was reinstated by means of a letter that (somewhat fearful of legal steps I might take over the whole kangeroo court process, I thought) stressed that there was there no question of my being guilty of anything. Roughly, like the character in if.... I was deemed by some to be aubversive and the 'whips' wanted to beat me for my 'general attitude' as a result (but the specific charges were all trumped up). It was also stressed that no record of events would be held on my person- al file (though I rather doubt that's entirely true); but mud does indeed stick and I left within days of being reinstated, having used the period of the suspension to find a new job. The process was shameful and those involved (if they have consciences should reflect on their various parts in it). However,t the overall problem lies in the fact that post-92 universities are largely run by people who have the souls of the local authority bureaucrats and corporate managers they once were. They're not academics and deserve nothing but academics' con- tempt. The end of the story? I now work in an institution so much higher in international standing that I can't see the former place if I look down from my window - oh, and the two psychopaths who tried it on with me were both suspended and later sacked. So, perhaps the system does work sometimes.
academics do get treated really badly, poor contracts, bad money, long hours, expected to move, yet another cost, having to drag my belongings around, trying to make friends all over again, it is the lowest of the low to isolate, the baddest of the bad to deeply hurt, stopping peer relationships is plain sad, these are the cruel actions of a bully, the unexpected meeting that makes you beg, please don't get rid of me like this, please, you hate yourself afterwards for pleading, the stony eyes of the accuser looks away, he respects me so little, he won't look at me, he has someone else doing his dirty work, some random woman I have never met talks, she is speaking, I can't hear her at all, my mind travels way off into the distance, trying to make sense of the unexpected words, realising that I will lose my career and home, that it will push me into a bout of depression, the university didn't care about me at all, they have no idea at what happened to me, thrown out like a piece of rubbish I was, the lesson to learn here is not to repeat, don't ever facilitate the actions of a bully, talk to the person quietly on the sly, let them know that they aren't alone, those kind words will stay with them, stay strong, don't let it get to you, because you are better than that.

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