Research freedom is part of the job

Trinity College lecturers are vindicated in a battle against 'managerial intrusion'. John Gill reports

March 12, 2009

A lecturers' union is claiming a globally significant victory for academic freedom after a long-running dispute with Trinity College Dublin.

The two-year battle was sparked by a directive requiring academics to consult with a line manager on key details of their research, including where it was published.

A lecturer who objected to the new rules argued that they were an affront to academic freedom and contravened an agreement with the Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT) banning managers from imposing new working conditions.

According to the IFUT, a request to suspend rules imposed by a senior academic in the geography department on those working beneath him, pending an investigation, was refused. The lecturer who made the objection was issued with two written warnings for refusing to comply with the directive.

The case was taken to the Irish Labour Court, which last week ruled that Trinity College Dublin should wipe the disciplinary action from the academic's employment record.

It also recommended that the college and the IFUT work to reach a new agreement over how research is co-ordinated.

Mike Jennings, the union's general secretary, claimed it was the first time that the issue of academic freedom had been tested in a tribunal of this kind and said that the case had resonance for academics "literally all over the world".

"If we had lost it could have had major adverse implications for academic freedom," he said.

"This directive was about enhancing the profile of the department by trying to corral the staff into areas this professor regarded as being high yield and high return in a marketing sense rather than a 'pursuit of knowledge' sense.

"It was very important to put down a marker to say that the dictates of academic freedom require only that an academic does research, and that this sort of intrusive, managerial attitude ... is unacceptable.

"We don't have a problem with collegiality and with academics discussing their research plans, themes and progress in a collegial manner, but we are absolutely opposed to the idea of doing that as if they are working for the person with whom they are discussing it."

The university declined to comment on the specifics of the case, but said that it "broadly welcomed" the recommendations made by the Labour Court. It said: "We welcome IFUT's acceptance of the Performance Management and Development System as a mechanism for the discussion of academic performance."

Mr Jennings responded that this reference to a human resources policy that operates across the public sector in Ireland was "laughable" and "completely missed the point".

john.gill@tsleducation.com.

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