New laws have put Leeds University under notice to take action against lecturer Frank Ellis over his comments on race and IQ in an episode that has split opinion. Claire Sanders reports
Leeds is likely to become the first university in the UK to sack a lecturer under new race laws - in a case that could have major implications for academic freedom.
Frank Ellis, a lecturer in Russian at Leeds, caused controversy earlier this month by saying that black people are on average less intelligent than white people.
Ever since the incident, the university has made it clear that it must comply with the Race Relations (Amendment) Act - in particular the legal duty it imposes on public bodies to promote equality of opportunity and good relations between people of different racial groups.
This is the first time that a university has faced such a high-profile case since the Act came into force in 2002 and Leeds is being watched closely - and nervously. One legal expert said that the clash between the requirements of the Act and academic freedom made the matter "simply too controversial to comment publicly on".
The case threatens to divide the academic unions. Natfhe called for Dr Ellis's suspension while the Association of University Teachers issued a more cautious statement with greater stress on academic freedom.
Last week, Roger Gair, Leeds' secretary, issued a statement saying that Dr Ellis's opinions on race "jeopardise our legal responsibilities in this area" and that the university intends to "discharge its full responsibilities" under the Act.
Leeds also asked Dr Ellis to desist from further public comment on race for the time being.
Saheema Rawat, policy adviser at the Equality Challenge Unit, said: "The Race Relations (Amendment) Act has been like switching on a light in universities -they now have a positive duty to promote racial equality."
She said that in theory any member of staff who breached this duty could be subject to disciplinary procedures - including dismissal.
Dr Ellis, who told a phone-in on BBC Radio 5 Live last week that he would not be silenced, this week told The Times Higher that he would not be making any immediate comment. But "friends of Dr Ellis" told The Sunday Telegraph last weekend that he regarded his silencing as a violation of his human rights.
Les Ebdon, vice-chancellor of Luton University and chair of a working party that last year produced a guide for Universities UK and the ECU - Promoting Good Campus Relations: Dealing with Hate Crimes and Intolerance - said: "We produced the guide precisely because we anticipated cases such as this. The Race Relations (Amendment) Act creates a new legal climate - one that has to be understood alongside commitments to academic freedom and freedom of speech."
The guide draws attention to the 1988 Education Reform Act, which says that universities must ensure that academic staff have "freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions, without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs".
But it also refers to restrictions on this freedom. Ms Rawat said: "Rights to freedom of speech and expression are not absolute. The education acts and the 1998 Human Rights Act of ten years later make it clear that the abuse of these rights - for example by using them to try to remove the rights of another -removes this protection."
She added: "This is not a simple matter of academic freedom versus race relations. The two areas are not mutually exclusive."
Roger Kline, head of the universities department at Natfhe, said: "If Dr Ellis taught in a post-92 institution, Natfhe would contend that he appeared to be in breach of his duty of care to students; offensive to female, gay and lesbian staff and students; and should be suspended pending an investigation."
He added: "Every black member I talk to is deeply concerned about this case. It is more important to many of them than the pay issue."
The AUT was more equivocal. It said: "Dr Ellis is not a member of the AUT and we are not in a position to say how his repugnant racist views may or may not affect the university's obligations to its staff, students and public at large."
Dr Ellis is also subject to a police investigation after a member of the public reported him over the views he expressed in Leeds Student - the magazine article that triggered the controversy - saying that they were an incitement to racial hatred.