Thomas Docherty to face insubordination charge in tribunal

September proceedings set for suspended University of Warwick academic who is accused of undermining department head

July 24, 2014

Source: Alamy

Piling up: charges against Docherty include ‘disrespect to job candidates’

A critic of government higher education policy suspended by the University of Warwick since January is being charged with undermining the authority of the head of his department, Times Higher Education has learned.

Among the claims that form part of the case against Thomas Docherty is that he sighed and made “ironic” comments when interviewing job candidates.

Warwick has refused to comment on details of the case, except to deny that Professor Docherty’s suspension is connected with his outspoken opposition to changes to the university system. He has been suspended since January this year, is thought to have been banned from any contact with his colleagues or students, and has also been prevented from attending an event and writing a book preface (see box, below). The University and College Union has called for his reinstatement.

Sources have told THE that the general charge against Professor Docherty, which could result in him losing his position as a professor of English and comparative literature, is that he undermined the authority of Catherine Bates, the former head of department who stepped down from the post earlier this year.

It is understood that it was Professor Bates who originally brought the complaint against Professor Docherty, himself a former head of department, but since then the case has been taken over by the university’s senior management.

Some of the university’s witnesses for the case against Professor Docherty will give evidence in the form of anonymous statements, meaning that they cannot be cross-examined, THE has been told.

Stuart Croft, the university’s provost, has been leading the investigation into Professor Docherty and will also have the ultimate decision on his guilt or innocence, although a panel of other senior university figures will recommend an outcome to him at a tribunal scheduled for September.

The case cites three incidents as evidence of a campaign to undermine Professor Bates, it is understood.

Professor Docherty is alleged to have shown disrespect to candidates for a position in the department by projecting negative body language, making “ironic” comments and sighing during the interviews. It is thought there was dissatisfaction among some faculty members about the suitability of the candidates for the role.

There was also a disagreement between him and Professor Bates over whether to submit a colleague to the research excellence framework, it is believed, and the two are also said to have had a heated discussion over whether to create a new position in the department.

Some in the department feel that Professor Bates was eroding traditions of democratic governance and was introducing a line-management system, although THE has been told that there are other colleagues who support her.

It is understood that Professor Bates will not take part in the disciplinary proceedings, and THE could not reach her for comment.

A spokesman for Warwick did not comment on THE’s understanding of the case against Professor Docherty, but repeated a previous statement that the disciplinary action was unconnected to his political views.

Separately, Warwick’s UCU branch has condemned plans to cut jobs at the institution’s Medical School and School of Life Sciences.

A spokesman for Warwick said there would be a reduction in staffing levels at the schools, although it would not know the exact number until the autumn.

Writer’s block: description of an academic struggle

The University of Warwick has been criticised by a speaker at one of its own graduation ceremonies over its treatment of Thomas Docherty – including, it has now emerged, stopping him writing a book preface.

Speaking to present his friend Alexandra Pringle, group editor-in-chief at the publisher Bloomsbury, with an honorary doctorate on 16 July, Jeremy Treglown, a professor emeritus of Warwick and a former editor of The Times Literary Supplement, said that there was evidence that universities were “joining in the attack” on freedom of expression.

“I’ve even read and heard reports that infringements of intellectual liberty have recently occurred here at Warwick, too,” he said. Although not mentioning Professor Docherty by name, he went on to refer to Warwick barring someone from speaking at a debate on campus. As reported previously by Times Higher Education, Professor Docherty was prevented last month from attending an event on the increasingly “authoritarian” nature of universities.

Professor Treglown also said that he had heard that the same person had also been “prevented by the university from writing a preface for a new book”.

THE understands that last month Professor Docherty was told by Stuart Croft, the provost, that as part of his suspension he was not allowed to write the preface for a new book in the Warwick Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities series, of which he is one of the editors.

In his speech, Professor Treglown urged Sir Richard Lambert, Warwick’s chancellor and former editor of the Financial Times, to investigate the incidents. He received a long ovation from the audience following this section of the speech, he said.

Speaking to THE, Professor Treglown criticised the university for not revealing what Professor Docherty was being charged with. “It’s like something out of Kafka,” he said, and added that many students and staff had contacted him after the speech with messages of support.

A university spokesman repeated a previous statement that Professor Docherty had not been suspended for his political views.

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Reader's comments (8)

'he sighed and made “ironic” comments' - clearly deserves to be sacked.
In my part of the civil service we are assessed annually on "both the ‘What’ (delivery of objectives) and the ‘How’ (demonstration of Civil Service competencies, behaviours and values) with equal weighting". So the attitude people display is very relevant, in our system.
I found this chilling. "Insubordination" and "undermining of authority" are phrases you might expect in a rigid, hierarchical system such as the army, not in a university. I would be concerned if my Head of Department thought I should be subordinate to him, just by virtue of his position. We don't agree on all issues, but he has my respect because he has earned it by showing dedication in doing a difficult job well. A person in a leadership role needs to be able to take others with them in major decisions, especially when many colleagues are themselves experienced, senior figures. A leader won't be undermined by a single sarcastic critic unless that critic has sympathy of others.
I sort of agree it all sounds ludicrous. But it is not unknown as I am sure Dorothy Bishop would agree that some males can behave in a way to female superiors that suggests they (male) do not take a woman in that role as seriously as they would a man. Such sexism would be something to be deal with, would it not? Equally as a junior person attending interview how would you react to being treated to mockery (or feeling you were) by a senior Professor? Imagine you come from a less advantaged or minority background; what message would it send? Again something to be dealt with?
There is a great deal here to be very very worried about. Warwick is a flag-bearer for the neoliberal model of tertiary education - the one that has nothing to do with education. It will have been very discomfitted by Professor Docherty's entirely apt critiques of what is happening to universities. If he cannot stand fools gladly, that hardly constitutes a crime. And if job candidates, adults in their late 20s, cannot bear a little light irony, then they ought to think about growing up. The worst part is that about anonymous submissions. Aren't universities supposed to be about the freedom of speech and openness? This is actually terrifying - a university colluding in the silencing of a highly distinguished scholar but one who makes the managers feel uncomfortable by undermining the pernicious culture of managerialism. Far more public noise should be getting made about it. Undermining the authority of an HoD is a ludicrous charge. They're not dictators. Warwick needs publicly to be exposed for what it has become.
Alert readers will have noticed that there are several pieces of the puzzle missing here. The events in question are sub judice, so the University management cannot comment on them. Were those events to be widely known, they might uncomfortably complicate the question of who the victim might be in this case. Freedom of speech does not give anyone the right to behave as they please, regardless of the rights or well-being of others.
I'd also wonder what has happened to the presumption of innocence.
@MISCKSTICK Innocence? What innocence? The Professor disagreed with his superiors and he apparently even sighed.