Staff allege 'bullying tactics' at Oxford

April 29, 2005

Concerns among Oxford lecturers that managers are using "bullying tactics" against staff have prompted a challenge to plans for staff appraisals.

Academics in mathematical and physical sciences, life and environmental sciences and medical science have received letters threatening disciplinary action unless their research performance improves in six months.

The letters cite "termination of employment" as the ultimate sanction for underperformance, fuelling fears that appraisals will be used to discipline staff.

Gavin Williams, politics lecturer and co-editor of the influential Oxford Magazine , has called for the university's ruling 3,500-member Congregation to reject an academic strategy green paper's plans for mandatory staff appraisals in a debate next month. The motion is one of three backed by more than 200 academics attacking proposed reforms.

Letters to staff have been sent in recent weeks by divisional managers who, it is claimed, are under pressure to gain top ratings in the next research assessment exercise.

Terry Hoad, honorary secretary of the Association of University Teachers at Oxford, said: "Department heads are looking to have the right kind of articles in the right journals, and are leaning on people who look as if they might not fulfil what is required. In some cases, the leaning has been overly heavy-handed."

One geography professor unwilling to be named said there were concerns about the form staff appraisals might take. "It is unclear how such assessment will take place, who would do it, how it would be done and what the implications would be," he said.

A second motion demanding a full report on plans to reorganise Oxford's libraries follows allegations of staff intimidation and redundancy threats across its libraries system. Rumours suggest the university will lay off library staff and empty collections from the historic Bodleian Library and close its main reading room in the Radcliffe Camera.

In a letter to an Oxford professor seen by The Times Higher , vice-chancellor John Hood says libraries may be cut from 45 to "10 or 12".

Minutes of an Oxford University Library Services meeting reveal plans to turn more than half of the Bodleian to other uses, and turn the Radcliffe Camera into a public relations display space.

The third motion calls for a Congregation debate on proposals for a radical overhaul of the university's decision-making system to be put back from June until November. The plans would hand over control to a small board of trustees and the vice-chancellor as chief executive.

Congregation rarely exercises its right to challenge management proposals.

Previous examples include opposition to the Said Business School and to plans to award former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher an honorary degree.

Dr Hood said academics had had the opportunity to express their views in meetings over the past few months. "Congregation is another mechanism for debate, and we will use the opportunity on May 17 to explain further the principles behind the proposals in the green papers," he said.

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