Council calls for Ellis to be sacked

May 19, 2006

Free speech was high on the agenda of the final AUT meeting. Phil Baty reports

Activists from the Association of University Teachers swept aside concerns that they were abandoning the union's fundamental commitment to academic freedom last week when they called for the sacking of Frank Ellis, the Leeds University academic whose views on race, gender and sexuality have caused outrage.

Delegates at the AUT council in Scarborough carried a motion that condemned Dr Ellis, who has claimed that black people have a lower IQ than white people, and supported calls for him to be sacked.

Despite impassioned pleas by some activists to uphold the union's crucial tenets of free speech and academic freedom, the motion, which also agreed to support "protests outside Dr Ellis's classes", was opposed by only 15 of the hundreds of delegates at the council.

Dr Ellis, lecturer in Russian and Slavonic studies, caused widespread outrage earlier this year when his views on race were reported in the university's student newspaper.

He told the paper he was a supporter of Enoch Powell, who warned that immigration would lead to "rivers of blood".

Leeds suspended Dr Ellis from his post in late March, pending disciplinary action over his comments. The university is still investigating the matter.

The AUT motion resolved to back a petition from the Unite Against Fascism campaign, which has called for Dr Ellis to be sacked. It agreed to "support protests outside Dr Ellis's classes" and called on Leeds to "implement its disciplinary procedures swiftly and decisively".

Gavin Reid of Leeds AUT, who proposed the motion, said he wished Dr Ellis "would crawl back into the pond from which he came", but he recognised the difficulty of the debate about academic freedom.

Dr Reid was granted extended time at the speaker's podium to make his case.

He read out extracts from Dr Ellis's comments.

He concluded: "The man is a bigot. This is not academic freedom, it is old-fashioned racism, sexism and homophobia. Let us hope Leeds does the right thing and kicks this bastard out."

Andrew Morgan of Swansea University argued against the motion, warning:

"Once we start being selective about free speech there is no freedom of speech."

Martin Hughes of Durham University, a member of the AUT's executive, said:

"One can't have freedom of speech unless one concedes it to the enemy."

He said it went against the principle of the notion to allow "freedom of speech for nice people and not for nasty people".

The motion against Dr Ellis appeared to contradict one passed earlier promoting free speech. This motion noted "with grave concern the increasing number of attacks on academic freedom", which it described as "the cornerstone of higher education".

But Marion Hersh of Glasgow AUT, who put the free speech motion, stressed that Dr Ellis had not been publishing research findings on a contentious topical issue but had simply been expressing views on a subject that lay outside his academic area.

Leeds said that although it recognised Dr Ellis's right to free speech it had had to suspend him because he could have "recklessly jeopardised" the fulfilment of the university's obligations under the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000.

Dr Ellis has previously said that he has never treated any black student differently from white students and has "done nothing wrong".

Motion roundup

* Government proposals to replace the research assessment exercise with an alternative based on metrics - such as measuring the number of an academics' citations in key journals - would "distort and pervert the purpose of academic research", the Association of University Teachers warned at its annual council meeting in Scarborough last week.

A motion from the union's executive said the RAE was "a fundamentally flawed system that has done damage to research, scholarship and teaching in our universities". What was needed was a full public debate on alternatives to the RAE, it added.

* The AUT raised concerns that the 2004 reforms of academics'

pay and career structures would not be implemented by the August 2006 deadline.

A motion from the union's executive warned that a "significant number of institutions have not progressed" local negotiations towards implementing the 2004 Framework Agreement reforms "and are in danger of not being able to implement" the new job-grading structures.

* Concerns about the AUT's ability to support disabled and ethnic or sexual minority staff who face discrimination in the workplace led to a review of the union's legal support systems.

A motion from the union's equal opportunities committee was carried after it was toned down by an executive amendment. It said that the union's legal representation had led to "instances of considerable distress and dissatisfaction" among AUT members.

* Academic freedom and autonomy is being undermined by the rise of timesheets that require staff to give detailed information on their daily activities, the council heard.

A motion from Leeds University's AUT said: "Council rejects the petty managerialism often associated with the implementation of timesheet systems."

A strategy for opposing such measures was to be drawn up.

* Delegates attacked the Government's anti-terrorism legislation. They claimed that the laws eroded civil liberties, disregarded the right to a fair trial and encouraged the targeting of minority communities by racists.

The motion, from the union's equal opportunities group, warned that new offences such as the glorification of terrorism and bans on the distribution of terrorist literature could "threaten the legitimate activity of staff in higher and further education".


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