Imperial under fire on equality

August 1, 2003

Imperial College London is being investigated by the Equal Opportunities Commission amid claims of widespread discrimination.

The EOC confirmed this week that it had called a meeting with Imperial's rector, Sir Richard Sykes, after receiving a number of complaints against the college from current and former staff.

The confirmation came as an investigation by The THES found that a female veterinary surgeon responsible for animal welfare at the college was dismissed last year after complaining that her advice on animal welfare was routinely ignored by her superior.

Last week, The THES reported that Sagar Kasiri, a scientist at Lord Robert Winston's fertility unit at Imperial, had won a tribunal case against the college after she was dismissed days after suffering a fourth miscarriage.

A spokeswoman for the EOC said: "The EOC is aware of complaints against the college. We have statutory duties to eliminate sex discrimination and promote equality of opportunity. We are looking into the background of the complaints."

A consultants' report into equality issues at Imperial in May found that 32.9 per cent of female academics reported discrimination at work, and 30.6 per cent agreed that bullying or undermining behaviour by managers was a barrier to their career progression. Only 7.5 per cent of Imperial professors are female, compared with 12 per cent nationally, although the sciences are generally more male-dominated than other subjects.

The THES has learnt that Henrietta Price, a vet who had legal responsibility for giving ethical guidance at Imperial under Home Office rules, received a five-figure sum this year in an out-of-court settlement to drop her legal claim. The college did not accept that it had dismissed her unfairly or discriminated against her on grounds of sex.

In her particulars of complaint to the tribunal, Ms Price said that she clashed with her line manager, Peter Koder, director of the Centre of Biomedical Services, in 2001.

In May that year she was suspended from drafting and advising on animal experiment licence applications when Mr Koder allegedly took exception to her circulating her concerns about a licence application to the college's ethical review process coordinators without consulting him first.

In July 2001, Ms Price claimed, Mr Koder rebuked her for raising concerns in an email forum for veterinary scientists. From her Imperial email address, she told the forum: "I am increasingly concerned about the under-representation of the vet profession at my kind of institutionI and the apparent lack of understanding of our regulatory responsibilitiesI (they) may be leading the way in fundamental research, but at what cost to the animals?"

Mr Koder told her: "I have asked you previously to be more circumspect in what you say, especially to a larger audience that includes the Home Office."

After an official complaint from Ms Price, Mr Koder had to formally apologise for the distress he had caused when he physically blocked her exit from a meeting when she tried to leave and for arranging for her to visit a psychologist without her permission.

Early last year, Ms Price was disciplined for "repeated refusal to recognise the authority of your line manager" and was dismissed. Her claim for unfair dismissal was settled out of court earlier this year.

Mr Koder told The THES : "I contest the claim that I ignored her advice. It is just that it could not always be acted on immediately. I tried very hard to help her at every stage and did not treat her unfairly." The college declined to comment on the case.

The EOC would not confirm the number of complaints it had received about Imperial, but an unofficial pressure group comprised of disgruntled staff and former staff has a list of 22 people who were recently involved in tribunal complaints or who have complaints pending.

An Imperial spokeswoman said: "We are meeting the EOC in August and are looking forward to demonstrating that our record in relation to equality complaints is good. The EOC has asked for copies of our equality policies and procedures and for a breakdown of internal complaints and claims lodged at tribunal."

The college would not supply this information to The THES but said: "The breakdown will enable the EOC to see for itself the facts about the college's equality-related (tribunal) cases. Since 1998, six out of eight have been completed. All have been withdrawn or dismissed. One remains to be heard, and for one the outcome is still unknown."

She said the college was carrying out a "comprehensive action plan" to improve equality and diversity initiatives.

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