Bullying ‘endemic’ at Sussex, report warns

Vice-chancellor says university is committed to improving staff well-being

August 2, 2018

A damning report has revealed a culture of discrimination, “widespread bullying” and harassment at the University of Sussex.

The research, compiled using staff surveys, interviews and focus groups, was commissioned by Adam Tickell, Sussex’s vice-chancellor, in response to concerns about long-standing institutional inequalities in the university.

Professor Tickell, who took over at the university in 2016, has been open about his intentions to improve staff and student well-being on campus following a wave of accusations of discrimination at the institution.

Last month, an open letter published by three unions accused the university’s Science Policy Research Unit of racism, stating that the centre “has only ever appointed white members to its executive committees” (although at least one of SPRU's executive team is from an ethnic minority background).

The letter, signed by representatives for the University and College Union, Unison and Unite, claims that white staff members are more likely to earn promotions “in a way which seems unavailable to black and minority ethnic members of staff”.

In response, Sussex said that a “detailed and thorough investigation was conducted”, but that allegations of racism were “not upheld”.

Separately, the university was accused of creating a “hostile environment” for foreign staff on work-sponsored visas, who were at one stage told to “expect home visits” if they did not comply with attendance monitoring rules.

Sussex defended its actions as compliance with “statutory regulations” set out by the Home Office. Publishing the internal report, Professor Tickell acknowledged that there remained “gaps where some of our community do not feel supported in the way that they should”.

The newly published internal investigation was undertaken by the Changing University Cultures collective,  led by Sussex researchers Alison Phipps,Gemma North, Liz McDonnell, Jess Taylor and Gillian Love. The group  found evidence of “persistent inequalities” across the staff and student body, with noticeable divisions between staff groups leading to “low trust situations, and the negative relationships and emotions which result”.

More than 900 individuals took part over a 12-month period leading up to April, with the majority of respondents being professional services staff and women in particular.

One major issue highlighted in the results was a perceived “splitting” between staff and senior management. “‘Bullying managers’ were a key theme in our survey,” the authors say, with one respondent stating that bullying dynamics had “become endemic to the Sussex culture”.

“[Recent] issues have not been addressed,” another testified. “Staff in vulnerable roles are not listened to. There is widespread bullying and scapegoating. It is an open secret.”

Another commented: “Staff here, including current senior management staff members, know they can get away with appalling and demeaning behaviour.” Further references to “domestic violence behaviour” including shouting and emotional blackmailing were recorded.

Professor Tickell said that the university has “begun to look at ways in which it can more effectively meet staff welfare and well-being needs to reflect modern good practice”. A new equality, diversity and inclusion strategy has been launched.

“From when I first started at Sussex, I have been committed to looking at the opportunities and challenges of the institution in equal measure, so that we can truly understand and take action to become a better university,” Professor Tickell said.

rachael.pells@timeshighereducation.com

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Print headline: Bullying an ‘open secret’ at Sussex

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