Sacking investigated

June 30, 2000

Lecturers at Southampton Institute's faculty of media arts fear a staffing crisis and are calling for an audit of lecturers' departures.

The call from the local branch of lecturers' union Natfhe comes as a leaked report, obtained by The THES, highlights the mismanagement of disciplinary action against junior lecturer Jason Barker, who becomes the 15th lecturer from a full-time staff of 45 to leave in the past few years.

Mr Barker was sacked earlier this month for gross misconduct, found guilty of abusing the university's email system with spoof emails and of "threatening behaviour" towards two members of staff, including the faculty dean, Anne Massey.

This was not the first time Mr Barker had been in trouble. Principal Roger Brown reported in December 1999 on two earlier disciplinary moves against Mr Barker, in previous years, which were found to be flawed.

Dr Brown's report was prompted by a formal complaint by Mr Barker, supported by Natfhe, that he had been treated unfairly in 1998 and 1999. He alleged that Professor Massey and head of academic operations Philip Dring "have not encouraged inclusive, collegiate relations among staff" and had attempted to "aggregate and escalate accusations" against Mr Barker.

In March 1998 Mr Barker was subject to a formal "counselling" session that had to be "revoked" after the intervention of the human resources department.

In March 1999 Mr Barker was summoned to a meeting with Professor Massey to face allegations of "abusive behaviour towards staff and students" and questions about his "overall performance at work". An investigation found that the allegations of abusive behaviour were "unsubstantiated", as there was "no hard evidence" and no formal complaints. Some less serious problems with the quality of his work were identified and he was given more formal counselling.

In June 1999 Mr Barker was diagnosed as suffering from work-related stress, anxiety and depression and put on sick leave.

In December 1999 Dr Brown reported on the episodes. He said he found it "bizarre" that the allegations were not raised with Mr Barker before the instigation of formal procedures. Concerns had not been raised at Mr Barker's annual appraisal in March 1999, when Professor Massey had already been discussing her concerns with human resources.

Any questions about his teaching performance and relationships with staff should not have been "left to fester, as they clearly did", said Dr Brown. He ruled that all matters relating to the action against him "should not appear on his personal file" and he said that, "as a matter of urgency", Professor Massey should set out good practice standards and ensure they are maintained. Problems should be investigated immediately and the status of any disciplinary action must be made explicit. "Managers in the media arts faculty should receive training in counselling, disciplinary procedures and staff appraisal."

Just weeks later, in January 2000, new procedures were brought against Mr Barker, which led this time to his dismissal.

Natfhe is concerned that the problems indicate a wider breakdown of management in the faculty and has called for a full audit of the number of largely voluntary departures from the faculty and a stress survey.

A spokeswoman for the institute accepted that there had been flaws in the earlier proceedings against Mr Barker but said that they had no relevance to the recent dismissal. She said it was "ludicrous" to suggest that there had been mismanagement in the faculty that had led to large numbers of departures.

"The media arts faculty is a young, dynamic and successful faculty," she said, adding that most of the 15 staff had left for "constructive reasons", that no negative comments had been raised at exit interviews and that a third of the departed staff maintain contact with the faculty.

Want to blow the whistle?

Contact Phil Baty on 020 7782 3298 or email him atphil.baty@thes.co.uk

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