A failed probation

April 23, 1999

Was award-winning Holocaust historian Steve Paulsson removed by Leicester University for incompetence or was he discriminated against because of his outspoken views, his disability or his whistleblowing?

Dr Paulsson was appointed assistant director of Leicester's Stanley Burton Centre for Holocaust Studies in 1994, with a lectureship in the department of history. He had just started a DPhil with Oxford University and was given a three-year probation.

Despite teething troubles, his appraisals were generally favourable. His third probation report in 1997 recommended his position be confirmed, but the staffing committee overruled this and gave him an extra probationary year. He was judged to have failed his fourth probationary year and was removed from August last year. An appeal next week under the university's statutes will consider the following inconsistencies: n When the university extended Dr Paulsson's probation for a fourth year, his teaching and administration were praised. He was told that he had "successfully carried a heavy teaching load". Yet in his letter of dismissal, Dr Paulsson was told: "Your teaching was not and was unlikely to be strong."

In the same 1997 letter, the university also praised "a positive contribution to the Stanley Burton Centre and the department of history".

But in the 1998 dismissal he was told that his "administrative ability remains largely unproven".

The reason the university felt the need to extend his probation, he was told, was concern over his research record. He was told for his additional probationary year to "direct your attention to actively developing your research and publication profile".

Arguably, he did. For the 2000 research assessment exercise, Dr Paulsson would have been able to make a full contribution of four publications. He already had two eligible papers published in refereed journals. Two further journals had indicated the likelihood of publishing his work in time for the RAE.

In May 1998, Yale University Press said that the "scholarship and originality" of his Oxford DPhil thesis would make "a book of real impact" and that it could publish with "relatively modest further work" in time for the next RAE. In July 1998, the thesis won the Frankel prize.

The main reason for his removal from post was the delayed submission of his award-winning DPhil. Dr Paulsson's probation lasted until August 1998. His doctorate was confirmed the preceding April. Although it took several years, Dr Paulsson completed the thesis within Leicester University's suggested time scale for researchers in full-time jobs.

Progress was delayed as Dr Paulsson was knowingly burdened with other research obligations. In March 1996 he was told by his head of department, Richard Bonney, that work for the university's electronically published occasional papers series should "take priority over all other activities" because of the imminent RAE. But this work is not valid for the RAE. His Oxford supervisor questioned the usefulness of these extra burdens.

Why then was Dr Paulsson dismissed? Was it because, as a colleague said in support of Dr Paulsson during the proceedings, he took "positions where most academics prefer to duck and keep silent". Dr Paulsson has expressed strong views on the role of Christians in the Holocaust. Was it because Dr Paulsson met the wrath of several senior managers for leading protests against changes to library rules that limited his ability to do his research? Or was it because he suffers from depression and took medication?

A Leicester University spokesman said this week: "An internal appeal is proceeding within the university in relation to certain matters concerning Dr Paulsson. This has not been concluded and it would be highly inappropriate for the university to comment on any of the matters, which are the subject of the appeal, or to prejudge the outcome."

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