Cleared but under a cloud, lecturer ignites freedom row

Academic caused offence by showing a paper on bats' sexual practices, writes Hannah Fearn

May 20, 2010

A lecturer who has been ordered to undergo two years of "monitoring" after showing a female colleague a paper about oral sex among fruit bats has challenged the president of his university to a debate on the limits of academic freedom.

Dylan Evans, lecturer in behavioural science at University College Cork, was accused of sexual harassment by a colleague when he showed her a paper from the journal PLoS ONE, titled "Fellatio by fruit bats prolongs copulation time".

External investigators were appointed to examine the case and exonerated the lecturer. However, they concluded that offence had been caused, albeit unintentionally.

As a result, the university has imposed a "two-year period of monitoring and appraisal under the university's duty of respect and 'right to dignity' policy".

More than 3,000 people, including renowned Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, have signed an online petition calling for the decision to be reversed.

Documentation relating to the complaint and investigation has also been posted on the internet, a fact that the university said it viewed "with the utmost gravity".

Dr Evans told Times Higher Education that he was not responsible for leaking the documents, adding that he had received offers of legal assistance from "several QCs" should he need it.

The treatment of the lecturer led to strong condemnation in some quarters.

Mike Jennings, general secretary of the Irish Federation of University Teachers, has written to Michael Murphy, president of UCC, to complain that the university's response has been "seriously disproportionate and completely unjustified by the facts of the case".

In response, Professor Murphy said that conduct did not have to be intentional to cause offence.

"It is possible for sexual harassment to occur in circumstances where, by reason of the effect of the conduct (as distinct from the purpose or the intent of the person concerned) the dignity of the recipient is violated," he said.

Dr Evans pointed out that the paper was "a peer-reviewed scientific paper already extensively reported in the mass media" and said the way the university had dealt with the complaint "flies in the face of academic freedom". He added: "I am challenging (Professor Murphy) to a debate on the limits of academic freedom."

Professor Pinker denounced the actions of UCC as "absurd and shameful".

"It runs contrary to the principle of intellectual freedom and freedom of speech, to say nothing of common sense," he writes in a note posted on the online petition.

Dennis Hayes, professor of education at the University of Derby and spokesman for the campaign group Academics for Academic Freedom, added: "The charge 'this offends me' allows university and college managers to institute non-academic responses and to charge staff with harassment or breaking their 'dignity at work' policy, as if an intellectual offence was the same as a physical offence. This allows them to pose as upholders of academic freedom while silencing academics."

A spokesman for UCC declined to comment on the specifics of the case.

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