Colleagues back tutor facing sack over e-mail

February 17, 2006

Academics have rallied in support of a Middlesex University professor who faces the sack after he vented his frustrations at red tape in a series of no-holds-barred e-mails to colleagues.

Richard Bornat, professor of computing at Middlesex, has been told by his employer that a number of his e-mails, which occasionally strayed into personal abuse of senior colleagues, may constitute "gross misconduct", warranting instant dismissal.

A disciplinary case is due to be held next week despite the fact that the professor has retracted and apologised for the e-mails, which he accepts were offensive, and despite his explanation that he sent them while on inappropriate antidepressant medication, which he has now stopped taking.

The case has sparked an angry response from colleagues, notably from the Conference of Professors and Heads of Computing. Members have posted messages in support of Professor Bornat on the CPHC messageboard.

One says that Middlesex failed to understand the nature of depression. "I do hope that Middlesex soon enters the 20th, if not the 21st century and starts supporting you," the member says.

Another member of the CPHC writes: "You have my sympathies in respect of your dealings with Middlesex. I confess I found it comforting that there was evidence of a university administration worse than ours."

The Times Higher reported last month that Professor Bornat, a respected computer expert, had been suspended over a widely circulated e-mail castigating his managers in the computing school for failing to procure a computer for a research colleague for ten weeks. The e-mail included a personal attack on a senior colleague.

Professor Bornat was informed in a letter, dated February 1, that he would face a disciplinary hearing to examine the allegation that he had "sent e-mails, using the university e-mail facility, that are considered to be inappropriate, offensive and inflammatory in nature".

He received a further letter, dated February 7, that explained that his alleged actions "may constitute gross misconduct" and that "a dismissal is a possible outcome".

In a posting to the CPHC discussion forum, Professor Bornat explained that the university had still not informed him which e-mails were to be considered in the hearing.

His forum posting added that "it was all due to the pills, which I can assure you all I am no longer taking and am never going to take again".

Professor Bornat is understood to be considering action over alleged disability discrimination and is seeking mediation with the university.

Middlesex said that it could not comment on a confidential personnel matter.

phil.baty@thes.co.uk

WHAT THE PROFESSOR SAID

  • November, 2005, to his dean, Martin Loomes, headed "Democracy in the school": "There is no public space, in the university or in the school, in which academics can discuss their problems, air concerns and help to decide the policy of the institution in which they work"
  • November, 2005, to colleagues: "We may not be able to slay the tiger, we may not even be strong enough to stop it eating us if it really wants to, but we can at least tweak its tail"
  • December, 2005, to pro vice-chancellor Paula Vickers, copied to all computing staff: "Now we have reached the end of week 10, and Richard Butterworth is still without a computer! Well done!"
  • February, 2006, in response to the letter from Margaret House, deputy vice-chancellor, calling him to a disciplinary meeting: "I realise that you did not compose the letter of which I received a copy, and I can well imagine that you are even now heating up a slow fire over which to roast whoever dictated it to your secretary."

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