Professor reinstated via appeal court

But Durham contends decision has 'very limited practical consequences', writes Rebecca Attwood

November 27, 2008

A university that suspended a professor on the basis of "extremely weak" allegations of racism has been forced to reinstate him by the Court of Appeal.

Robert Watson, professor of financial management at Durham Business School, was suspended in December 2007 following accusations that he had harassed staff and made racist comments.

Professor Watson said he had simply been trying to raise concerns about Tony Antoniou, former dean of Durham Business School, whose PhD was found to contain plagiarism and who was sacked from his post earlier this year.

Following what are claimed to have been complaints about Professor Watson's behaviour, Durham took the decision to investigate the validity of Professor Watson's own PhD, contacting libraries and consulting public databases.

When the accusations were put to him, Professor Watson produced a copy of his degree certificate to prove that his PhD was valid. He also emailed his department complaining about the university's handling of the inquiry into his doctorate.

In December last year, the university decided to conduct an investigation into Professor Watson's conduct and suspended him.

Professor Watson said that the reasons given for suspending him were unfair because they referred to allegations of racist comments made some months earlier.

He argued that Durham's investigations would not have been hindered by his presence in the workplace, and that the university made allegations about his PhD that were without foundation.

Last month, a Court of Appeal judge granted Professor Watson an injunction forcing Durham to lift the suspension on the understanding that he would not return to university premises until the dispute was resolved.

"(Professor) Watson had an arguable case that Durham had breached his contract of employment, in particular as its allegations of racism had been extremely weak and made much earlier with no action then taken," a record of the court's decision says.

"Suspension cast a shadow over an individual, and that was particularly important where a person was employed in a public position or in higher education, and the suspension dragged on for an extended period."

In a statement, Durham University said: "Professor Watson was suspended from duty according to university statutes following allegations made against him by junior members of staff. The university has an obligation to investigate such allegations and takes seriously its duty of care towards its staff. An independent internal investigation found there was a case to answer in this instance.

"This hearing was solely on the issue of suspension and did not rule on the substance of the disciplinary case or hear any evidence in relation to this. The practical consequences of the Court of Appeal hearing are therefore very limited and have no implications for the disciplinary proceedings," the statement continued.

"The university council has established a disciplinary tribunal, which has considered the allegations against Professor Watson. The tribunal panel, which comprised two independent senior academic members of staff and a lay member of university council, met early in November, and a final report containing its decision is expected in early December."

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