Fifteen out, 16 in, but no place for 'redundant' chair

Professor unfairly dismissed in restructure that increased the number of posts. Jack Grove reports

July 26, 2012

An engineering academic was unfairly dismissed in a shake-up of a university's research staff, an employment tribunal has ruled.

Larissa Fradkin, a professor of electrical engineering at London South Bank University, was made redundant in August 2009 after the institution reviewed its research portfolio.

All 15 professorial chairs in the university's Faculty of Engineering, Science and the Built Environment were dissolved and academics were asked to reapply for one of 16 new chairs in priority research areas.

Several professors were rehired, but Professor Fradkin was turned down for three of the new posts.

However, the expert in industrial ultrasonics claimed that the selection criteria for the new posts were arbitrary, inflexible and prejudiced against existing professors.

She cited the fact that the selection scoring system gave credit for supervising research students but not postdoctoral fellows.

Her appeal to the university was dismissed, but an employment tribunal ruled in her favour earlier this year and called the selection process "clumsily conceived".

Employment judge Lindsay Hall-Smith said the process failed to provide "a scintilla of protection" for Professor Fradkin and "could be described as preventing her from being employed".

External applicants were "advantaged by a wholly different selection process", said the judge, who also said it was unfair to deny Professor Fradkin an interview.

The judge, sitting with two employment tribunal members, also agreed with Professor Fradkin's assertion that the reorganisation was "not...a genuine redundancy situation" because the number of posts available increased.

It "essentially amounted to an appraisal process of its existing professors for the 16 professorial posts", the judge said.

It "wholly ignored the elements of fairness" under employment law because no efforts were made to find an alternative role for Professor Fradkin - a statutory duty when redundancies are carried out.

The appeal against her dismissal, which was heard by vice-chancellor Martin Earwicker shortly after his arrival in April 2009, was dismissed as "no more than a paper exercise".

Speaking to Times Higher Education, Professor Fradkin said she was still angry at the university's decision to sack her.

The 63-year-old academic was awarded £66,000 in compensation by the tribunal, although her age discrimination claim was rejected.

"All the professors involved knew this 'restructuring' was a sham. It was a new admin team and they wanted to create a new team," she said. "They said they wanted to move away from basic research and towards applied research. But I was doing rigorous research that leads to computer codes used in the nuclear industry - it was not fundamental research."

A university spokeswoman said the redundancies had followed an "in-depth review of the academic portfolio" in which the focus "was not a shift from 'pure' to 'applied' research, but a shift to areas relevant for the faculty strategically".

She added: "We have taken on board the views expressed by the tribunal and have learned from them."

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