PR chief rounds on 'self-important' academics

June 5, 2008

Academics and university administrators may not traditionally enjoy the most cordial of relationships.

But the emergence of an e-mail in which a director of communications describes his academic colleagues as "profoundly patronising and self-important" appears to have helped deepen the divide at the University of Nottingham.

Tensions have been running high at Nottingham since the arrest and subsequent release without charge last month of postgraduate student Rizwaan Sabir and staff member Hicham Yezza on suspicion of possessing extremist material.

Three days after the pair were cleared, Neal Curtis, director of the centre for critical theory, wrote to communications director Jonathan Ray. He asked for a public explanation of the events, warning that without one, "suspicion will continue to circulate that the arrest of the member of staff was discriminatory".

He said: "Can we have an official statement regarding the preservation of academic freedom and intellectual independence, but one that avoids the empty platitudes of a public relations exercise?"

Mr Ray responded: "I'm afraid my job doesn't revolve around your own expert reading and deconstruction of events. Sorry, but you evidently hold corporate communications in low regard (and) feel that you are owed information which it is inappropriate to share ...

"Some academics can be profoundly patronising and self-important and your e-mail, in my view, strays into that territory."

Dr Curtis has not discussed the e-mail with Times Higher Education, but in his response Mr Ray copied in several other academics and the exchange was passed on.

In a separate e-mail exchange between Mr Ray and academic colleagues, also forwarded to Times Higher Education, he accuses them of "cack-handedly undermining (Nottingham's) internationalisation endeavours" by writing to a national newspaper with a complaint about the transfer of books from Nottingham to its China campus.

In the e-mail, described by one recipient as "contemptuous", Mr Ray paraphrased Henry Kissinger in saying that university disputes can be so unseemly "because the stakes are so low".

Mr Ray provided Times Higher Education with a number of e-mails from academic staff praising his professionalism, and said that Nottingham "has a vast number of staff and students with whom we work entirely professionally and cordially".

He said that he was responding to e-mails that he found to be "patronising" and in the case of the books complaint, he "made a not unreasonable point in a not unreasonable way. Communications directors would not be expected to be passive in this respect in any professional environment, surely?"

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