Blogconfidential: Time to be counted?

Each week, Dr Margot Feelbetter poses a dilemma and offers advice for readers to respond to online. This week: Time to be counted?

March 31, 2011

The uprisings in the Middle East are embarrassing our senior managers. About 10 years ago, our rather low-profile university decided to develop links with a repressive Arab regime, much to the concern of several members of staff, including me, who were involved in human rights campaigns.

Since then we have raised the issue often and I email the dean regularly with information from Amnesty International about people who are being imprisoned and tortured by the country in question. My actions have not been well received - at one point I was even told that they amounted to harassment.

Now, following the recent problems at the London School of Economics, our staff want to know the extent of our institution's involvement with this state and what exactly our commitments are, but we are facing a wall of silence. Our managers have clammed up.

I want to organise a staff meeting at which the managers would answer questions and tell us openly about our business dealings in the Arab world. Some members of staff also want them to make a commitment to running a "values-led" institution, with clear guidelines on any future dealings with dubious regimes.

My colleagues tell me to take care. In the past, managers have ridiculed staff who have raised such concerns, calling us "dead wood" and "fossils". Should we battle on?

I am impressed by your dogged approach. Higher education institutions are not immune from corruption. It is wonderful to see staff standing up for ethical behaviour and your instincts have been proven correct.

If those Middle Eastern states that are currently in upheaval ever emerge as democracies, I hope that their governments will cast a critical eye on those UK universities that were so eager to do deals with regimes that were locking up and torturing political activists. I hope they will prefer to work instead with institutions that did not collude with dictators.

In the meantime, however, I am concerned about your welfare. Do not be afraid to persist; you need to hold your managers to account for the university's own good. But you also need to make sure that you have wide support from the rest of the staff. Too often, academics are happy to shout loudly when there is no risk attached, but fall silent as soon as they have something to lose. Make sure that you are part of a formal group demanding answers, and act quickly while the topic is still making headlines and in the public mind.

Those who laugh at you for raising concerns about your university's involvement with an autocratic regime are blinkered. They have one eye on the balance sheet and selective vision when it comes to repression, imprisonment and torture. Keep up the pressure.

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