Pinker leads international attack on UCL's 'unjust' treatment of scholar

Letter lends support to professor suspended over charges of insubordination. Zoe Corbyn reports

June 18, 2009

An international group of scholars has launched a scathing attack on an elite UK university, accusing it of "extraordinary and unjust" treatment of an academic.

The 25 eminent researchers from four continents, led by Steven Pinker of Harvard University, have written to University College London voicing "strong concern" over what they say is the "summary suspension and enforced silence" of Heather van der Lely, director of UCL's Centre for Developmental Language Disorders and Cognitive Neuroscience.

Internationally acclaimed Professor van der Lely, 53, was suspended on charges of insubordination by UCL last November after she refused to move to a smaller laboratory space, which she felt was inadequate for her research.

Claiming she has been victimised, Professor van der Lely is pursuing a case against the university at an employment tribunal.

The letter, sent by the group to Sir Stephen Wall, chair of UCL's council, says: "Professor van der Lely has been barred from entering her laboratory, accessing her data, managing her grants, using her email and communicating with her students and colleagues at UCL.

"This is an extraordinary and unjust punishment. The career of a scientist depends on continuous interaction with students, collaborators, funding agencies and research subjects."

The letter goes on to criticise UCL for what it says is "disrespect" for free speech. "For a university to bar its own faculty and students from communicating with a colleague on research matters ... is an affront to the liberal values that are the basis of a modern university."

It concludes by demanding her reinstatement: "We call on the administration to reinstate her, and to treat her according to principles of fairness and due process."

Professor Pinker, a renowned experimental psychologist and author of several hugely successful books on science, including The Blank Slate and The Stuff of Thought, was collaborating on a project with Professor van der Lely at the time of her suspension.

He has previously written to UCL's provost, Malcolm Grant, about the case and said the intention of the latest letter, seen exclusively by Times Higher Education, was to make clear that the scientific community was "surprised" at the treatment of his erstwhile colleague and to indicate the esteem in which she is held.

"The scientific community is watching," he warned. "There are standards for fair treatment, and this is something that other people care about."

Professor van der Lely was unaware of the letter when contacted by Times Higher Education. She referred the matter to her lawyer.

She said only that she was "extraordinarily touched" by the support of her fellow academics and that she had been barred from talking about the case.

Her solicitor, Shah Qureshi, a partner at the law firm Bindmans, confirmed that she had issued proceedings at the central London employment tribunal.

"She believes she has been victimised and subjected to disproportionate disciplinary action by UCL after raising public interest disclosures, including inadequate facilities likely to have an impact on the health and safety of children, and potential breach of patient confidentiality," he said in a statement. "She believes her actions have led to her demotion and suspension since November 2008."

Mr Qureshi said that despite the professor's being an internationally recognised expert in developmental language disorders, she felt that her scientific standing was "questioned in a way that male colleagues', including those junior to her, was not".

He added that Professor van der Lely suffered from lymphoedema - a disability causing swelling in the legs and difficulties in mobility - and felt that senior management were "reluctant to acknowledge this and failed to provide adequate working space and safe working temperatures".

A spokesman for the university said: "UCL is not in a position to comment on this case, other than to say that this a complex matter concerning disciplinary allegations and grievances that are in the process of being examined under provisions contained within UCL's charter and statutes. Sir Stephen Wall has written direct to the authors of the letter to address their concerns."

Signatories to the letter include academics from UCL and Harvard, as well as scientists from other UK and US institutions and from France, Germany, Denmark, Australia, Italy, Romania, Israel and Poland.

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com.

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