A head of department at Imperial College London has dismissed complaints made against him of bullying as a conspiracy to oust him from his position and replace him with his deputy.
Philippe Froguel, head of the department of genomics of common disease at Imperial, made the claim last week during cross-examination at an employment tribunal case brought by Robin Walters, a former researcher in the department.
Dr Walters, who is now a senior scientist at the University of Oxford, was dismissed by Imperial at the end of 2011 after he refused to work under Professor Froguel any longer.
Dr Walters is claiming unfair dismissal, as well as victimisation, harassment and discrimination, and alleges that various abusive encounters with Professor Froguel during 2011 – including one during which he claims he was shouted at for being autistic – had left him suffering from acute adjustment disorder, which results in feelings of depression and anxiety.
Dr Walters is married to Alexandra Blakemore who, at the time, was a reader and Professor Froguel’s deputy. She also lodged complaints of victimisation, harassment and discrimination against Professor Froguel, but her case was settled before hearings began. She is now a professor of human molecular genetics in Imperial’s department of medicine.
At the hearing, Professor Froguel said he had regarded Dr Walters as his friend, whose recruitment he had spearheaded and for whom he had been determined to secure a permanent lectureship. An opportunity to bring in the necessary funding to achieve this had arisen in 2010, when Imperial was invited to participate in a European Union-funded project, known as Imidia, to improve diabetes treatment.
However, when Professor Froguel’s work relations with Professor Blakemore began to break down in early 2011, Dr Walters claims he was targeted by Professor Froguel because of his relationship to her.
Professor Froguel strongly denied having threatened to destroy Professor Blakemore’s career or to sack Dr Walters.
He told the hearing that he had occasionally been “hard and abrasive” towards Dr Walters, such as when he made the remark about autism. “But 99 per cent of the time I have been extremely gentle,” he said, adding that no one had complained about him in the past two and a half years.
The tribunal heard that three other members of junior staff at Imperial made complaints about Professor Froguel’s behaviour in the summer of 2011. It also heard that a faculty review in 2011 concluded that his management had sometimes been “tactless and direct” and that a human resources manager reported he had been warned to take a “gentler” approach.
But he attributed this glut of complaints in 2011 to a “conspiracy”. “They were a gang headed by [Professor] Blakemore [whose aim was] to have me sacked or put on sick leave or sabbatical and [for her] to take the lead as acting head of department,” he said.
The hearings were expected to finish this week.