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 (1)

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.

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