Metrics critic sacked by Queen Mary University of London

John Allen, who wrote to The Lancet about the role of metrics in redundancies, has been dismissed for refusing to teach a course

August 7, 2014

Source: JPD

The co-writer of an open letter condemning Queen Mary University of London’s use of metrics to choose staff for redundancy has been sacked for refusing to teach a course.

John Allen, formerly professor of biochemistry, was summarily dismissed for gross misconduct in May after a disciplinary panel concluded that he deliberately disobeyed a “reasonable management instruction” to teach the course. Professor Allen had argued that he had too many prior commitments to teach the course.

In 2012, Professor Allen co-authored a letter to The Lancet that condemned the use of metrics to identify staff for redundancy in two Queen Mary schools. The letter suggested that the architects of the scheme – including Matthew Evans, head of the School of Biological and Chemical Sciences – did not themselves pass the metrics threshold. Professor Allen and his co-author on the letter, Fanis Missirlis, formerly lecturer in cell biology, were charged with misconduct. Professor Allen was cleared, but the case against Dr Missirlis was not heard before he was made redundant later in 2012 for allegedly failing to pass the metrics threshold.

Professor Allen intends to lodge an employment tribunal claim alleging that the underlying motive for his sacking was his authorship of The Lancet letter and claiming unfair dismissal on the grounds that he suffered detriment for whistleblowing.

Professor Allen told Times Higher Education that, after he returned from a sabbatical last September, he was not permitted to resume his previous teaching and was told to teach a course formerly delivered by Dr Missirlis. After he demurred, Professor Evans instigated disciplinary proceedings against him for failing to obey a “reasonable management instruction”. That charge was confirmed in March. At around the same time, Professor Allen submitted a formal grievance against Professor Evans for alleged harassment, intimidation and bullying. This was dismissed at a hearing last month.

Last December, Professor Allen was asked to teach another module, starting in February, that he had never taught before but which, owing to a management mistake, no one else was available to teach.

Professor Allen argued that direct orders regarding teaching contravened both his employment contract and standard understandings of academic freedom. However, a disciplinary panel said that it was “not clear that all of the activities you detailed as taking up your time were in line with your contract or could not have been reprioritised”.

In his appeal against his dismissal, which was turned down last month, Professor Allen said it was unreasonable for “management to attempt to rectify its mistakes simply by issuing a direct instruction to a busy senior academic”.

A spokeswoman for Queen Mary said: “The decision to dismiss a member of staff…is not taken lightly, and is based purely on the facts of the case…we would stress that the process leading up to these decisions takes place over a number of months, during which time the member of staff is always advised of the case against them in full and given every reasonable opportunity to present their case.”

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Reader's comments (4)

It is pretty obvious that Allen is being fired for his (very proper) criticism of the dopey methods being used to cull people at QMUL. He is being fired pour encourager les autres. It's yet another example of the sort of McCarthyite tactics described so well by Laurie Taylor The aim is to terrify staff so that they dare not utter a word of criticism against the senior management team This is the antithesis of what a university should be about. Gaskell and Evans have so little understanding of academia that they can't even see the harm that they are doing to QMUL. As I wrote more that a year ago, Queen Mary seems intent on committing scientific suicide. No good academic would want to work at a place that treats its employees like that. If the Council of Queen Mary had any understanding of the problem they would invite Simon Gaskell to find another job, on the grounds that he is bringing his institution into disrepute.
The dismissal of Professor John Allen from Queen Mary is as much a tragedy for the institution as it is for the victim himself and his family. Whatever the technicalities of the case, few observers will believe that the sacking (as with that of Dr Missirlis in 2012) is unrelated to the persistent public criticism of Queen Mary’s managers offered by Allen and Missirlis over recent years, separately and in concert, and not least because Simon Gaskell (the Principal) and his lieutenants have made no serious effort to answer (or even acknowledge) the many calls for moderation in their policy of trying to propel the College into the top decile of UK universities by force rather than thoughtful cultivation of its many intrinsic talents. The result of the controversy is an unhappy academic body and a reputation for the harsh treatment of staff which has occasioned the voluntary departure of a surprising number of successful scholars. John Allen, an outstanding evolutionary biochemist, was the pre-eminent scientist in his department and it’s hard to rationalise why an institution which stresses the primacy of research excellence was prepared to dispose of one of its most outstanding academics, apparently without seeking compromise, over a teaching dispute. But I have railed often enough in these columns and elsewhere. We are now at the point where further comment adds insult to injury and benefits no-one concerned except Queen Mary’s competitors. Suffice it to say that I had many happy and successful years there and one hopes that the great potential of this College can be realised in happier times ahead.
It is hard to conceive that a properly functioning academic institution or department with any sense of collegiality could end up sacking someone for refusing to teach a course. That this could not be sorted out by the give and take that takes place in every department in every university pretty much every term could reasonably be inferred to say something about what sort of place QMUL has become. I have never seen in 20 years anything over who teaches what or when come ANYWHERE close to this; it is always sorted out amongst colleagues. I do agree with David C, this is the Admiral Byng moment, QMUL management have fired an eminent scientist (Allen) for what I consider relative trivia. I guess its now clear to all at QMUL that management will, if they decide they need to, fire any and everyone who crosses management. I have no doubt, that other Jamie Targets are licking their lips at the thought of bringing such 'robust performance management' to an Institution close to us all.
Don Braben, 21 August 2014 As Jonathan Swift elegantly showed long ago in his masterly Gulliver’s Travels, ridicule may sometimes be the only available defense against excessive bureaucracy if all reasoned argument has failed. Sadly, however, QMUL is not amused by such behaviour and has indicated its displeasure by slapping a “bringing-the-university-into disrepute” charge against John Allen. Amazingly, despite considerable opposition, it has stuck and resulted in his summary dismissal. Less pompous organisations would have responded to The Lancet article with a rebuke and a rap over the knuckles.


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