Loose lips sink staff relationships

Academic under threat of redundancy records manager laughing while discussing dispute, writes John Gill

May 1, 2008

Chatting carelessly on the train, chuckling as he recounted the details of a bitter industrial dispute, Simon Morris, the secretary and registrar of Keele University, cannot have dreamt that in the seat in front of him one of the academics at the heart of the row was listening in.

To make matters worse, the academic - who is, with a number of colleagues, under threat of redundancy - had with him a recording device, which he switched on.

Mr Morris was telling a companion about the dispute over plans to restructure Keele's School of Economic and Management Studies (SEMS), where compulsory redundancies remain a possibility.

Describing the encounter on the train, the academic, who has asked to remain anonymous, said: "I overheard a conversation between two middle-aged men about 'left-wing' and 'outdated' trade unions.

"At that point I did not know who they were, but it was clear that at least one of them was a senior manager at Keele; I promptly began recording." The recording was passed to the University and College Union, which recounted the details in a letter to Ian Dudson, chairman of the university's council.

The letter reported that Mr Morris argued that restructuring would clear the "deadwood" from SEMS, boasted of rejecting all the UCU's demands and said: "We are not going to let the union tell us what to do; we will do what we want."

It also accused him of describing industrial action as "irrelevant" and "meaningless", of promising to "press on" with redundancies, and of joking that the Human Resource Management group had "got everything wrong" during the dispute.

Sue Davis, UCU regional official, wrote: "This conversation was punctuated with laughter and carried out in a boastful way ... Understandably our members are extremely angry."

In a reply to the letter from Ms Davis, Mr Dudson said: "I can understand that staff affected by the changes could feel hurt at the report of this conversation, and I very much regret any concern and distress caused by it, as does the vice-chancellor and Mr Morris himself."

In a letter sent to SEMS staff, Mr Morris did not dispute the content of his conversation, but insisted that the "inferences" drawn did not reflect his position. "The conversation was borne out of personal frustration that we have not yet been able to resolve the position and was not intended to be light-hearted or boastful," he said. "However, given that it was a private conversation, I can understand how the tone could be misunderstood and greatly regret the offence that has been caused."

Meanwhile, UCU members voted to escalate the dispute to a boycott of student assessment. The Visitor of the university, who arbitrates disputes, is investigating the reform procedures.


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