In the bad books

November 13, 1998

'Lecturer Rob Slack was disciplined after repeated complaints that a colleague had made an "unethical" recommendation of two of his own texts to students'

Was Rob Slack sacked by the University of North London this summer for an outburst on an Underground station platform? Or was it for raising internal complaints about a colleague's books?

Mr Slack, a senior lecturer at the UNL's business school, was unhappy when a lecturer colleague recommended two of his own accounting and finance text books to students instead of the subjects' standard text.

Mr Slack was concerned that the texts were inappropriate for some courses and factually flawed. In 1996, he complained to his head of department, Frank Blewett.

In written responses to Mr Slack's complaints, Mr Blewett said: "I suspect that there are better choices for the course." One book, he said, did not "present quite enough intellectual challenge", while the other "has faults".

But Mr Blewett insisted that both books were generally "competent" and suitable for some courses at the business school. They would not be withdrawn from reading lists, even if it meant extra work for the students:

"I appreciate that where you feel that (the) book does not cover enough ground or is not advanced enough," Mr Blewett wrote to Mr Slack, "then you may need to point out to students the additional work that is needed."

Mr Slack continued to complain. He wrote memos to Mr Blewett and to senior managers describing the recommendation of the books to students as "unethical".

By December 1997, the university had had enough. Jean Fawcett, the dean of the business school, invited Mr Slack to a disciplinary meeting. In a letter to him she said: "Your allegations are unfoundedI I am concerned about the distress which may have been caused as a consequence of your repeated assertions."

In March this year, Mr Slack was told in a formal disciplinary notice that he had "harassed" the books' author. His behaviour had amounted to "unprofessional relationships with his subject field colleagues". He was also accused of "unprofessional behaviour" for raising other criticisms about the curriculum via memos to the vice-chancellor and business school curriculum advisers.

Mr Slack, now with the full backing of his union, the Association of University Teachers, had asked academics and business chiefs in the field to review the books to vindicate his complaints. Comments from independent reviewers included: "extremely poor"; "bizarre"; "erroneous, misleading and irrelevant"; "a "dispiriting read"; "bewildering"; "error-prone"; "quite superficial"; and "slipshod". One reviewer listed four pages of errors.

In considering the disciplinary proceedings against Mr Slack, however, the university panel was clear that it was outside their remit to consider the merits of the books.

Mr Slack was accused of "serious misconduct", and on March 18, two days after the hearing, he was given a "first and final written warning", to stay on his file for two years.

But on the night of the hearing, March 16, Mr Slack made an error of judgement that proved fatal for his career. He met Mr Blewett on the way home as he waited for a Tube train and was allegedly abusive to him.

Although Mr Blewett later told Ms Fawcett in a confidential memo that Mr Slack's words were "just hot air", Mr Slack was found guilty of gross misconduct and dismissed. This was reduced on appeal to misconduct, which would not normally result in dismissal. But combined with the earlier warning it was considered enough to dismiss Mr Slack.

With the AUT's backing, Mr Slack is starting unfair dismissal proceedings because he received the first warning in writing two days after the altercation on the Tube.

A spokeswoman for the university said: "The university is unable to comment in any detail on this matter as it is to be the subject of an industrial tribunal. However, the university feels that it is appropriate to take measures should there be behaviour that threatens, victimises or harasses others."

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