Dismissal was unfair, but academic sparked it himself

Refusal by John Allen to obey instruction from manager at Queen Mary University of London led to his sacking, tribunal rules

June 25, 2015
Man holding a box filled with work-related items
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A former Queen Mary University of London academic was unfairly dismissed but contributed “100 per cent” to his demise because he disobeyed a direct management instruction to teach a course, an employment tribunal has ruled.

John Allen, formerly professor of biochemistry at Queen Mary, was sacked in May 2014 after a turbulent two years that began with his co-authorship of a letter to medical journal The Lancet. The letter lambasted a metrics-driven restructuring plan at Queen Mary’s School of Biological and Chemical Sciences and alleged that the head of school and Professor Allen’s line manager, Matthew Evans, failed to meet one of the criteria he had imposed as a condition of continuing employment in the school.

Both letter writers were charged with misconduct. Fanis Missirlis, who was then a lecturer in cell biology at Queen Mary, was sacked for failing to meet the performance criteria before his case was heard. Professor Allen, however, was acquitted – largely, the tribunal ruling says, because the charges were misdrafted.

In September 2012, Professor Allen began a year’s sabbatical, which had been agreed with Professor Evans before their relationship broke down. While he was away, he was invited to a meeting with Professor Evans to discuss his alleged failure to meet various performance metrics. Professor Allen argued that he had he met them and, after a further email exchange, “completely disconnect[ed] from any workable relationship with Professor Evans”, although he "intended to resume cooperation when he returned from sabbatical".

Professor Evans subsequently sent him several emails setting out his intention to remove Professor Allen’s entire pre-sabbatical teaching allocation and to replace it with a new one. According to the tribunal ruling, Professor Allen ignored some of the emails, “was obstructive in responding to others and disengaged from the respondent’s need to properly plan for the forthcoming academic year”.

Professor Allen argued that both his contract and common understandings of academic freedom entitled him to be consulted about changes to his teaching allocation. The ruling agrees that the absence of consultation was “unreasonable”, although it adds that academic freedom “did not confer a right…to flatly refuse to teach courses he was able and competent to do”.

Professor Allen was formally disciplined in late 2013 for refusing to teach the course and for poor performance, resulting in a written warning. However, the tribunal judge rules that Queen Mary’s response to a grievance Professor Allen submitted at the same time against Professor Evans was “confused and unreasonably delayed”.

Professor Allen was then asked by a different manager to teach another course. When he said that he would not, he was sacked for refusing to obey a “reasonable management instruction”.

The ruling says that this amounted to unfair dismissal because the dismissal panel had failed to take into account the dispute over the removal of Professor Allen’s previous teaching, which the tribunal deems to be unreasonable and with which his subsequent attitude was “inextricably linked”.

However, Professor Allen has been denied any compensation because he “contributed to his dismissal by 100 per cent” for refusing a reasonable management instruction. Through his general conduct, he had “clearly demonstrated that he was not prepared to be managed”.

The tribunal also rules that the Lancet letter does not meet the legal definition of whistleblowing and that Professor Evans met the metrics threshold.

Professor Allen is now an affiliate at University College London and has been awarded a research fellowship by the Leverhulme Trust but currently does not have a lab.

paul.jump@tesglobal.com

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POSTSCRIPT:

Article originally published as: Dismissal was unfair, but academic sparked it himself (25 June 2015)

Reader's comments (6)

It would be good if UCL provided Professor Allen with the laboratory he needs to continue his research on the origin of atmospheric oxygen and on the origin of the separate sexes, in addition to furthering his CoRR hypothesis (see http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2015/05/15/1500012112.full.pdf) and his work on the regulation of photosynthesis. Humanity progresses on the tireless work of original, honest and knowledgeable scientists (amongst other contributors of course). If universities are failing to provide their academics with resources to expand our understanding of the world, they are failing both of their missions to society and to their own community of students and scholars. The UK needs to pause and consider the implications of what it is doing to its universities and to some of its most distinguished members.
It is both a tragedy and a failure of common sense for a top rated Russell Group university to dismiss one of its most successful and highly cited academics without exhaustively exploring the grounds for compromise, and all the more to do so in the face of protest from a clutch of eminent scholars including Fellows of the Royal Society and a Nobel Laureate or two. “Shooting oneself” and “foot” come to mind, so what went wrong? Ostensibly, the issue was a dispute over teaching, accompanied by an extraordinary absence of communication between a member of academic staff and his line manager, but few observers will believe that the sacking (as with that of Dr Missirlis in 2012) is unrelated to the persistent public criticism of Queen Mary’s managers offered by Allen and Missirlis, separately and in concert. That Simon Gaskell (the Principal) and his lieutenants are reluctant to answer (or even acknowledge) the many calls for moderation of their policy of trying to propel the institution into the top decile of UK universities by force rather than thoughtful cultivation of its many intrinsic talents has merely enhanced the bitterness on both sides and entrenched their positions. Having attended much of the tribunal and read the judgement (which may still be appealed), it seems to me Allen’s partial success results primarily from the unusual, in fact unprecedented, sanction visited on him of having all his specialist teaching removed in one fell swoop, to be replaced by contributions to service courses. This is the academic equivalent of being reduced to the ranks. In addition, the court noticed that Allen’s own grievances against the managers had not been processed at the same pace as the disciplinary prosecutions against him. However, the main planks of his case, that under the broadly accepted principles of academic freedom he was entitled to be consulted over his teaching, and that the notorious “Lancet letter” was a protected disclosure, were both rejected. This may leave the status of Queen Mary’s Ordinances in some doubt, as the court appears to be suggesting that academic freedom is whatever HR says it should be and can be interpreted more narrowly for all as new contracts are modified (and weakened). One feels the tribunal struggled to understand the nuances of academic life (as would the general public), for example why the difference between an original paper in a journal and an editorial introduction is considered important, or why a manager might be obliged to ask an employee’s agreement before handing him or her an assignment. However, the highlight of the hearing was the brief but brilliant appearance of Thomas Docherty (see issues of THE passim) who testified for the Claimant. Having sat through a couple of hours of carefully rehearsed managerialist argument from a Queen Mary witness, Docherty explained his thesis that modern university executives no longer attempt to provide sound leadership, they simply hand out blame by formula: the crudest form of adjudication and in the long run an abrogation of duty. That seems to sum up the whole mess.
Shame on Queen Mary. Was it really a coincidence that both letter writers got sacked? -- Both letter writers were charged with misconduct. Fanis Missirlis, who was then a lecturer in cell biology at Queen Mary, was sacked for failing to meet the performance criteria before his case was heard. Professor Allen, however, was acquitted – largely, the tribunal ruling says, because the charges were misdrafted. --
I always say baby steps to civilization. Indeed, watch out for the space for new Tribunals for 2015/16/17 at QMUL. They just can't carry on with these madness.
Sometimes, it feels that they have written transcripts from HR, and they only change names of academics who are being targeted for the next adventure, otherwise, my University wouldn't host the best Drama Department in the UK.
I found the comments above by David Bignell most useful and well-informed, providing a context that was somewhat lacking in the original article. And I wish the THE would stop referring to 'line managers' in academia without quotes - we don't work in car factories

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