A former lecturer at Imperial College London was wrongfully dismissed, but her “perverse, foolish and bloody-minded” attitude contributed to her downfall, an employment tribunal has ruled.
Yeong-Ah Soh was a probationary lecturer in materials science at Imperial before being dismissed in January 2012 for gross misconduct. The university ruled that she had acted in bad faith in alleging that a colleague, David McPhail, a reader in surface analysis, had told students what would be in their exam.
The allegation was made during a probation review meeting in which Dr Soh was asked to explain her extremely low student feedback scores. She claimed they were the result of her refusal to spoon-feed her students, as she alleged Dr McPhail – who received very high feedback scores – did. Dr McPhail had claimed in a previous review meeting that a lecture of hers he had observed was among the worst he had ever seen.
Following hearings in March, the tribunal has ruled that the university should have considered the possibility that – as the judges believe – Dr Soh had made the allegation in good faith, in an attempt to defend her own teaching practice. It says no reasonable employer would have deemed her to have committed gross misconduct. But it also notes that a pattern of uncooperative and inconsiderate behaviour had created a “climate of hostility” towards her that contributed to her superiors’ failure to take a more charitable view.
“She does not seem to have considered…how her demands and delays related to the requirements or convenience of others. Casual and isolated lack of consideration is not perverse, foolish or bloody-minded, but when it is so thoroughgoing and repeated it is,” the judgment says.
For this reason, the tribunal has reduced the amount of compensation Dr Soh will receive – to be decided in July – by 20 per cent. It says the reduction would have been greater but for the substandard mentoring she had received during an extension of her probation. The compensation level will also reflect the tribunal’s view that there was a 30 per cent chance Dr Soh would not have passed her probation.
The tribunal dismissed other claims, including for race discrimination and dismissal for whistleblowing. Dr Soh told Times Higher Education she would appeal against those elements of the judgment.
She said the judgment misapplies legal test and “contains many finding of facts contrary to evidence or not supported by evidence, takes into account many irrelevant matters and ignores many relevant matters, and reaches conclusions by inadequate reasons”.
She welcomed the unfair dismissal ruling but denied she had contributed to her downfall and said she would have passed her probation since only two academics in the past five years had failed to do so.
“A career that was built over such a long training period of 16 years was destroyed by simply setting the level of my course too high and raising a concern in a private…setting about the exam practice of a colleague,” she said.
A spokeswoman for Imperial welcomed the tribunal’s rejection of Dr Soh’s allegations of discrimination, harassment and victimisation and its recognition that her “conduct contributed to her dismissal”.
“Formal action against a member of staff is a last resort and is taken only after a period of thorough investigation,” she said.