A law firm’s blog, which compares Uruguayan footballer Luis Suarez’s habit of biting members of the opposing team to the actions of high-performing but “insubordinate” academics, has attracted widespread online criticism.
In a post on Going Further and Higher, a blog by lawyers SGH Martineau, senior associate in the firm’s employment team David Browne draws comparisons between the way Suarez’s current employers Liverpool Football Club and the Uruguayan national team initially defended the striker after he appeared to sink his teeth into Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini, and the way universities sometimes tolerate talented but outspoken academics.
“Universities and colleges may…encounter high performing employees who, although academically brilliant, have the potential to damage their employer’s brand,” the blog says.
It adds that such damage could be caused by “outspoken opinions or general insubordination” such as a “failure to comply with the reasonable requests of an employer, or other behaviour such as bullying or harassment of colleagues”, concluding that although institutions might hope that such behaviour could be “curbed without sanction, in reality the problems will persist, needing to be addressed further down the line”.
The blog has since been updated to state that its recommendations only apply to opinions and insubordination that “fall outside the lawful exercise of academic freedom or freedom of speech more widely”.
Martin McQuillan, dean of arts and social sciences at Kingston University, was one of a number of academics who took to Twitter to voice their concern.
He described it as “disgraceful” to “equate academic freedom with misconduct”.
“Football players aren’t paid to be critical, academics are,” added Helen Webster (@scholastic_rat), an academic at Anglia Ruskin University. “Unprofessional behaviour is one thing, this is different.”
On the Campaign for the Public University blog, John Holmwood, professor of sociology at the University of Nottingham, highlights that a clause in the Education Reform Act states that scholars must have “freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions, without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges they may have at their institutions”.
“The relevant test is within the ‘law’, not within the managerial definition of ‘brand protection’,” Professor Holmwood writes.
Smita Jamdar (@smitajamdar), head of education at SGH Martineau tweeted that the blog “wasn’t about academic freedom… It was about misconduct”.
In a Twitter exchange with the Public University blog (@public_uni) and Adam Hedgecoe (@AdamHedgecoe), a professor in the School of Social Sciences at Cardiff University, Ms Jamdar said Mr Browne’s post was “exploring what happens when people stray outside the freedoms permitted by their respective positions”.
When Professor Hedgecoe questioned whether “physical assault” – referring to Suarez’s bite – was an appropriate metaphor, Ms Jamdar said they would have to “agree to disagree”.
In a clarification added to the SGH Martineau blog, Mr Browne writes: “This blog has attracted rather a lot of attention on twitter, and has been interpreted by some as suggesting that the exercise of academic freedom might amount to misconduct.
“That was never the intention of the piece and we are happy to clarify that the lawful exercise of academic freedom does not amount to misconduct.
“However there may be circumstances where opinions and/or behaviour fall outside the lawful exercise of academic freedom and in these cases questions of misconduct may arise.”