Backup is needed for those under fire in the field, abused lecturer says

Work with gypsy communities has exposed expert to threats and hate mail. Hannah Fearn writes

A lecturer who was spat at and verbally abused because of her area of expertise has warned of the threats faced by academics who work on controversial topics.

Margaret Greenfields, senior lecturer in social policy and sociology at Bucks New University, said she had been targeted for abuse because of her work with gypsy and traveller communities.

As a result of her experiences, she said she believed it was up to scholars to ensure that universities had policies in place to support them if they were abused in the course of their work.

Dr Greenfields' research focuses on the health, social care and educational needs of the gypsy and traveller community, and she is a trustee of the Travellers Aid Trust.

The academic said she had regularly faced abuse while carrying out her research.

"I'm certainly made aware of the lack of popularity and downright hostility the community faces," she said.

She recalled on one occasion giving expert evidence to a legal appeal concerning planning permission on a traveller site.

When gathering evidence before the hearing, Dr Greenfields said she was refused access to a GP surgery because she was asking about gypsy patients. Later, the hearing was disrupted and Dr Greenfields was spat on by a member of the public outside court.

Last year, she wrote a report for the Race Equality Foundation and said that after the work was publicised she received hate mail.

She also suffered abusive and threatening comments online, including one claiming she was unfit to teach and another saying that she should be "taken down an alley and taught a lesson". Dr Greenfields said the comments were "quite appalling" and had frightened her.

She said the adverse reaction to her work had prompted her to tighten security, including blocking access to her contact details, to protect herself.

Even academics have questioned her research, she added.

She explained: "I've come across colleagues in various places who have said: 'Why are you working with people like that?'"

Dr Greenfields said that these experiences had strengthened her belief that academics must stand up for themselves and ensure that universities protect them in their work.

She recommended that anyone working in a controversial area should talk to their head of department about dealing with personal attacks.

"Tell them it's a danger ... and make sure there are processes in place to help," she said.

On the issue of dealing with the abusers themselves, she said: "The first thing is to stand tall and, if you have a chance to speak to someone face to face, to explain. Help them to confront their prejudice."

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