Email libel ends in apology

September 10, 1999

A former senior university manager has won an apology from Exeter University in an out-of-court libel settlement.

John Hankinson, former director of Exeter's foreign-language centre, claimed he was libelled by the university shortly after his controversial resignation in 1997, when a junior member of staff posted an email about his departure on an internet bulletin board.

Exeter had planned to defend the action in the High Court, but it withdrew its defence earlier this summer and has agreed to settle. Exeter has paid Mr Hankinson an undisclosed sum towards his legal costs, and vice-chancellor Sir Geoffrey Holland has written a formal apology.

"I am sorry indeed if the statements contained in the email have caused distress, embarrassment or loss to you or your family and would like to wish you well for the future," said Professor Holland in a public letter.

Mr Hankinson resigned from his post in May 1997 amid confusion. Staff were ordered not to comment, but one junior technician in the language centre posted a unofficial statement on the bulletin board of the Association of Language Staff Discussion List, six days after his departure.

She defamed Mr Hankinson in the following message: "Exeter would like to advise anyone who is interested that we are without an HOD - again! The guy who was appointed from last August was given notice last week, and left overnight. His name was John R. Hankinson and he appears to have left under a cloud. The university has ordered silence on the matter. So should he come your way ..."

The university has now confirmed that Mr Hankinson was neither "given notice" nor "left under a cloud". As Sir Geoffrey confirmed in his letter of apology:

"It is a matter of record that you gave notice of your intention to resign your post as director of the foreign language centre on 4th February 1997, subsequently leaving our employment on 3rd May 1997. You were not 'given notice' as stated in the email."

Mr Hankinson said this week that he was alerted to the email by a colleague at another university, and that he had not worked since the message appeared, despite 25 years' experience in academia.

Exeter University had stressed that the email statement was made by a member of staff at the centre "without the knowledge or consent of university management".

"The University of Exeter wishes to publicly disassociate itself from the contents of this statement," Sir Geoffrey said in his public letter. The university has reiterated its promise at the time of the resignation that it will be willing to provide a reference to any potential future employers.

Stephen Cooper, director of personnel at the university, told The THES that Exeter had not admitted liability but had provided Mr Hankinson with the letter and had made a "small contribution" towards his legal costs. "It was well short of what he was looking for and there have been no compensatory payments other than that," he said.

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