An independent review panel has been brought in to investigate race relations at the University of Bradford's School of Health Studies after the university admitted that academics have suffered racial discrimination.
The panel, which will be headed by Peter Herbert, the chairman of the Society of Black Lawyers, has been set up in an attempt to "re-establish harmonious working relationships" in the school, after problems dating back several years.
The university has formally apologised to two academics in the nursing division who had lodged race-related grievances. Vice-chancellor Mark Cleary said: "We make an unreserved apology to the aggrieved colleagues in our School of Health Studies. They have experienced poor management practices with evidence of racial discrimination. We also recognise that the formal grievance process has been protracted, confrontational and distressing for them, and for that we also apologise."
The school is home to the university's race equalities champion, professor of diversity Uduak Archibong.
In 2000, a memo sent by deputy vice-chancellor Jeff Lucas to staff in the school said that Professor Archibong had been the victim of "a series of malicious and often racist messages, posters and mailshots", which had "emanated from the nursing photocopying machine". The perpetrator of the abuse, which included posting pictures of monkeys on office doors, was never caught.
In 2003, Dr Archibong and five other academic members of staff met to catalogue their experiences of discrimination with a view to filing a collective grievance. But in June 2004, Professor Archibong withdrew from the process. In August that year, she was made professor of diversity.
Three members of the group later filed individual grievances.
In September 2007 a grievance committee investigating the first of the three complaints found evidence of poor management but said that race discrimination could not be proven. But this finding was overturned by an appeal panel in January 2008, leading now to the vice-chancellor's apology.
Annie Topping, who became head of nursing at Bradford in 2002 and is now director at the University of Huddersfield's Centre for Health and Social Care, was criticised by the grievance committee.
The grievance committee heard from Gwendolen Bradshaw, the dean of health, that there were "serious concerns" among nursing division staff about the effect Dr Topping was having on working practices and career development. But she said that this was not restricted to ethnic minority employees.
Although Professor Archibong said that there was no division along racial lines in the nursing division, other witnesses disagreed.
The original grievance committee concluded that Dr Topping at times "let herself down as a manager" and "demonstrated inadequate management abilities".
It concluded that it was unable to determine that her behaviour was racially motivated. "It was clear that Dr Topping's style and manner gave cause for concern to staff regardless of race or gender," it said.
However, the appeal panel found that in the "absence of any reasonable explanation for her inappropriate behaviour, then discrimination can be inferred".
Dr Topping resigned as head of division in 2006 and left Bradford a year later to take up the chair of health and social science at Huddersfield. She told Times Higher Education that she was "not involved or represented in any appeal ... nor aware of any deliberations or findings from an appeal", so was unable to comment. A spokesman for Huddersfield said that as the matters related to another institution, it was not able to comment.
Professor Cleary and Professor Bradshaw wrote to all health studies staff after the appeal decision, noting that the failure to resolve complaints of racial harassment and discrimination "in a timely and appropriate way" had "not reflected well on the university".
"(We) feel it is important to acknowledge these failings if we are to realise our ambitions of truly celebrating diversity and confronting inequality," the letter said.
Professor Archibong said she was pleased that the two cases had been resolved and "that all parties are able to move forward". She said she welcomed the review and looked forward to working with the panel "to improve processes and procedures". She declined to comment on the grievance procedures.
Roger Kline, head of equality and employment rights at the University and College Union, praised the university for apologising. "We especially welcome the way in which the vice-chancellor has had the courage to invite independent external scrutiny of the underlying issues so that lessons can be learnt."
POSITIVE DISCRIMINATION: PROPOSED MEASURES
Universities will be able to use positive discrimination to tackle under-representation of women and ethnic minorities in senior management positions, a House of Commons statement on a new equalities law said last week.
The statement setting out the main themes of the Equality Bill, which may come into force in 2010, said institutions would be allowed to take underrepresentation into account when selecting between two equally qualified candidates. The power is already in use elsewhere in Europe.
The Equality Challenge Unit said the provision, which is optional, is likely to prove one of the most controversial elements of the Bill. The ECU's chief executive, Nicola Dandridge, said: "The difficulty is that in practice it is unusual for applicants to be 'equal' and it remains to be seen how and in what ways higher education institutions might choose to use the new powers."
Diane Gilhooley, an employment lawyer at Eversheds, said any changes would have to comply with European law. "Case law from the European Court of Justice makes it clear that employers can use sex etc as a 'tie-breaker' only if they have carried out an objective assessment and the candidates are proved to have 'substantially equivalent merits'," she said.