Scientists decry 'unfair' dismissal

Esteemed professor forced to quit was unfairly 'disparaged', say colleagues. Paul Jump reports

August 19, 2010

An international group of scientists has accused the University of Manchester of overreacting to media coverage in its handling of allegations that led to the resignation of one of its professors.

Last August, Annmarie Surprenant, a professor of neuroscience, was accused of marking examination papers without reading them properly and of forging the signatures of second markers.

The allegations were made in press reports that also drew attention to her resignation in 1994 from the Oregon Health & Science University in the US after she admitted misrepresenting her qualifications in grant applications.

Manchester suspended the professor after a preliminary investigation found she had a case to answer. She resigned a few weeks later after an internal disciplinary hearing.

Now six of her colleagues from around the world have written to Times Higher Education accusing the university of overreacting to the media coverage and "undeservedly disparaging and expelling one of the leaders of our expanding research field".

The letter quotes a statement that was agreed between the university and Professor Surprenant last December but never released.

In it, Manchester acknowledges Professor Surprenant's "position of eminence in the international research community" and "strong" research contribution to the university.

It also agrees that her own marking of exam papers had "never been deemed unsatisfactory". However, she admitted to serious irregularities with respect to the second marking of some papers, it adds.

A university spokesman confirmed the authenticity of the statement but declined to comment further.

Alexei Verkhratsky, a former colleague of Professor Surprenant in the Faculty of Life Sciences at Manchester, told THE that she had been forced to resign, but that the statement showed the "punishment was far harsher than the offence" because no students had suffered and Professor Surprenant had not gained from the deception.

He said she had made a "stupid mistake" but had acknowledged her wrongdoing in writing at the time and had "displayed contrition and offered an explicit plan to prevent any further occurrences".

Her case had been handled with "zero transparency" and without any input from academics, he claimed.

"The university administration simply was scared: hence the swift decision," he added.

Professor Verkhratsky said that neither he nor the other signatories were personal friends of Professor Surprenant. He did not know where she was based now, he added, but understood she was not seeking another academic position.

"Science for Annmarie was not a job: it was a true passion," he said. "She was at the peak of her career. She cannot just find another job, because this would imply rebuilding her team and reapplying for grants: one needs many years to do this."

Francesco Di Virgilio, professor of clinical pathology at the University of Ferrara in Italy, said he had heard Professor Surprenant had been left "terribly depressed" by the episode.

"What she did was serious but not so serious as to jeopardise her career," he added.

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