Strong-arm advice

October 29, 1999

Sheffield Hallam University has threatened disciplinary action against a disabled academic for speaking out.

Cedric Pugh, professor of urban studies at Hallam, is leading a lobby group that is calling for a high-level review of disability discrimination in higher education and seeking financial incentives for universities to recruit disabled people. He has always argued that Hallam is "no worse and no better" than other universities in dealing with the disabled.

This month The THES published an article on Professor Pugh's campaign, but he made no reference to any specific dispute with Hallam. That week he met officials from the Department for Education and Employment to outline his group's concerns.

A few days after the article appeared, and despite academics' legal right to "put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions" without fear of recrimination from their employers, Professor Pugh was told by Hallam's director of human resources, Miriam Orton, that he risked disciplinary action for bringing the university into disrepute.

He was told: "If you are going to make a public statement relating to your allegations of discrimination within the university when you have not exhausted or even used the university's internal procedures, you could make yourself open to disciplinary action.

"Unless an employee has made use of their employer's internal grievance procedures and their whistleblowing procedure any resulting adverse publicity would be viewed as a malicious disclosure bringing the reputation of the university into disrepute."

Under the Public Interest Disclosure Act, employees are not protected in law unless they exhaust internal procedures before publicly blowing the whistle on alleged wrongdoing. But Ms Orton included the helpful "reminder": "I hope this advice is received in the manner in which it is intended, ie advice and not in any way a threat.."

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