Activists targeted, claim lecturers

April 29, 2005

AUT motions highlight plights of five 'victimised' members, reports Phil Baty

Lecturers' leaders fear that universities are singling out and victimising union activists and standards campaigners in a bid to silence dissent on campus.

In three separate motions at the Association of University Teachers' annual conference last week, members showed resounding support for five prominent union activists who, it was claimed, had been treated unfairly.

The conference unanimously carried a motion from Birmingham University's branch of the union that expressed "distress" at the decision to make Birmingham AUT committee member Tony Chabot redundant.

Colwyn Williamson, suspended by Swansea University where he used to be the local AUT president, was also supported against alleged "victimisation" by his employers.

In addition, Hull University was criticised for keeping three members suspended for more than a year.

Jonathan Whitehead, head of policy at the AUT, said he could not comment on individual cases.

But he said: "There is a very worrying trend where local officers appear to be being victimised. When action taken against local officers is clearly not justified, the AUT will use every means necessary to defend them."

The motion from Birmingham's AUT branch referred to Mr Chabot, a former information services officer at the university, as "member X", but was moved by Mr Chabot himself.

Backed by the AUT national executive, the motion was carried unanimously.

It said: "This council registers its concern and distress that the ending of the employment of a member of Birmingham AUT (henceforth member X) is to be considered by the redundancy committee of the university council. This council... calls on the University of Birmingham to withdraw from this attack on an AUT member."

The motion authorised the executive and the local association to initiate a ballot for industrial action and to request the "greylisting" of Birmingham, effectively calling for an academic boycott.

Mr Chabot spoke about how the redundancy process had damaged his health. He said he was forced to see a psychiatrist who, he said, had "prescribed medication to stop me harming myself".

He received a standing ovation when he said: "I'm not asking you to vote for this motion for me, but for the many invisible people in the same position."

A spokeswoman for Birmingham said: "The university has received no formal communication from the AUT concerning this motion. We can confirm that a redundancy committee has been established to consider one post in our information services division. We can confirm that, as required both by our own statutes and by law, we are seeking every means by which to mitigate the effects of that process on any individual."

A second motion, from Hull's AUT branch, said: "Council is deeply concerned at the misuse of suspensions by Hull University for staff facing inquiries about allegations made against them."

It said that three members of staff at Hull have been suspended for more than a year on "quite separate matters, none of which warrants suspension".

It accused the university of denying the members access to the campus and communications, and of failing to respect confidentiality.

It instructed the national AUT executive to write to David Drewry, the Hull vice-chancellor, and its chair of council to demand the members be reinstated immediately and receive appropriate compensation.

A Hull spokesman said: "Because of the need to respect confidentiality, the university cannot comment on matters relating to individuals.

"However, we can confirm that we are doing everything in our power to resolve these cases as quickly as possible, according to due process. The university values all of its employees highly and is committed to dealing fairly and equitably with any employment issues that arise."

In a separate composite motion, moved by both Cardiff and Birmingham universities, the AUT attacked Swansea for suspending philosophy lecturer Colwyn Williamson, founder member of the Council for Academic Freedom and Academic Standards.

Mr Williamson was suspended after he received a police caution under the Computer Misuse Act, 1990. Swansea dismissed suggestions that Mr Williamson had been victimised as "absurd". The AUT is currently in dispute with Swansea over departmental closures.

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