A petition calling for the reinstatement of a politics professor who was fired for failing to hit grant income targets has attracted more than 4,000 signatures.
Jim Newell, an expert in Italian politics, was dismissed by the University of Salford in June after 27 years’ service in the wake of the introduction of new financial criteria for performance reviews. The institution is demanding that senior academics attract sufficient levels of research income and contribute to its goals of building closer links with business.
The petition, launched by the executive committee of the Italian politics specialist group of the UK’s Political Studies Association, describes Professor Newell as “the most prominent UK scholar in Italian politics” and claims that the “dismissal of an internationally renowned scholar for these reasons speaks volumes about the level reached by processes of marketisation of higher education in the UK”. On 26 July, it had attracted some 4,400 signatures.
Arianna Giovannini, co-chair of the Italian politics specialist group, told Times Higher Education that Professor Newell had been “unjustly dismissed”.
Dr Giovannini, senior lecturer in local politics at De Montfort University, said that if “someone of [Professor Newell’s] standing can lose his job, it puts into question what the university is for”.
That he did not hit “arbitrary financial targets” does not take into account that “he is incredibly productive, publishing articles, organising conferences, editing journals, and he is a great supporter of PhD students and early career researchers”, Dr Giovannini said. “He has done what I believe a professor in higher education should do.”
Since the 1990s, Professor Newell has produced five monographs (with two forthcoming), 11 edited volumes, 44 journal articles and 48 book chapters. He has organised more than 30 international conferences and was the founding editor of the journal Contemporary Italian Politics.
Dr Giovannini added: “A lot of us think that education is more than just gaining research funding. This is also about where higher education in this country is going: it could happen to each and every one of us.”
Professor Newell told THE that he hoped the petition would pressure Salford into reinstating him and offering an apology.
Acknowledging that he was “not the best at winning research grants”, he explained that he had nevertheless won some and noted that “it’s not the only thing I do”. He added that his research did not require a lot of funding and that forming links with business was fairly hard for an Italian politics professor, although he had sought to create projects that engaged with organisations outside the university.
“Financially driven targets from the top down compromise what the academic calling is about, which should be about the pursuit of knowledge in an environment of debate and discussion,” Professor Newell said.
Following his dismissal, Salford launched a voluntary redundancy scheme. Professor Newell was initially told that he would not be eligible for this because he was no longer an employee.
After the petition was launched, Salford contacted Professor Newell to tell him that, although he was ineligible, it was “able to offer terms which are the same as the mutual agreement to leave scheme”.
However, Professor Newell rejected this because it would have meant that he was unable to pursue any employment tribunal or court case against the institution.
A Salford spokesman said: “The university is unable to comment regarding any of our employees or former employees for data protection reasons. The University of Salford seeks to uphold the highest possible standards in both research and teaching.”