Courting disaster

July 2, 2015

It is a failure of common sense for a Russell Group university to dismiss one of its most successful and highly cited academics without exhaustively exploring the grounds for compromise (“Dismissal was unfair, but academic sparked it himself”, News, 25 June). “Shooting oneself” and “foot” come to mind, so what went wrong?

Ostensibly, the issue was a dispute over teaching, but few observers will believe that the sacking (as with that of Fanis Missirlis in 2012) is unrelated to the public criticism of Queen Mary University of London’s managers offered by John Allen and Missirlis. That principal Simon Gaskell and his lieutenants are reluctant to answer the many calls for moderation of their policy of trying to propel the institution into the top decile of UK universities by force has merely enhanced the bitterness on both sides and entrenched their positions.

Having attended much of the tribunal and read the judgment (which may still be appealed), it seems to me that Allen’s partial success results primarily from the unprecedented sanction 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. 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. The court appears to be suggesting that academic freedom is whatever human resources says it should be and can be interpreted more narrowly as contracts are modified (and weakened).

The tribunal struggled to understand the nuances of academic life, for example why the difference between an original paper in a journal and an editorial introduction is considered important. However, the highlight of the hearing was the brief but brilliant appearance of Thomas Docherty, who testified for the claimant. 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.

David Bignell

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