UCU and Leeds Metropolitan lock horns over 'institutional bullying culture' claims made by staff

February 9, 2007

A furious war of words has erupted between the management of Leeds Metropolitan University and the national University and College Union over the union's allegations of an "institutionalised culture of bullying".

Regional UCU officials say they have been inundated with complaints from current and former staff about bullying and a "climate of fear" at the university, and are demanding an inquiry.

But the university hit back this week, claiming it had already supported bullying victims and acted to dismiss staff who had "behaved badly". It accused the union of acting "irresponsibly" by resurrecting old complaints and failing to co-operate with the university over the latest allegations.

A support group of allegedly bullied staff has been formed to share experiences after a story in The Times Higher last year about claims by former art lecturer Julia Odell that she had been bullied and harassed at Leeds Metropolitan Harrogate College. Ms Odell resigned her post at the end of last year and signed a deal with the university to settle her allegations of constructive dismissal. The university did not admit any liability and the terms of the deal are confidential.

Since then, dozens of staff have come forward to tell UCU leaders in private that they too had been bullied, the UCU said this week. Many claimed that managers brushed aside their complaints, and that bullying intensified after they reported their problems.

A letter from UCU regional official Adrian Jones, seen by The Times Higher , calls on LMU vice-chancellor Simon Lee to commission an external independent inquiry into the complaints and allegations.

The letter, dated January 4, also sent to Education Secretary Alan Johnson and the Higher Education Funding Council for England, warns that "evidence is surfacing, rapidly, of a culture of bullying" at the university.

It adds: "In some areas it appears to be so entrenched that it might legitimately be described as institutionalised."

Mr Jones says in the letter that the UCU has received "a great many"

approaches from staff who claim to have been bullied at the university.

He adds: "A number of those now contacting UCU are still employed but say they are afraid to complain within the university's procedures as, they assert, where this was done by others known to them their concerns were not taken seriously, but instead the bullying intensified once they had complained."

The UCU is conducting a survey of LMU staff to gather further evidence of bullying at the university.

In a letter sent to all UCU members at Leeds Metropolitan, Adrian Jones says the union has noted that the university is currently introducing an occupational stress management policy. But he adds that UCU still feels it is necessary to conduct a staff survey on bullying to get "a better sense of the scale of these problems". The union is expecting to compile the results of the survey by early March.

Mr Jones declined to comment on his letter, other than to say that Professor Lee had so far failed to respond to it.

Roger Kline, UCU's head of equality and employment rights, said the union was "determined to make LMU a bullying-free zone". He added: "Bullying is an offence to human dignity, academic freedom and collegial working, and damages staff health."

An LMU spokesperson said: "The university did receive a letter from a regional official at the UCU. It referred to an individual case from a previous year of a former part-time member of staff in Harrogate that had already been resolved and governed by a legal agreement between the parties.

"The university is therefore not in a position to discuss this further. The letter also made a number of general and unspecified allegations of bullying. No details were given about the alleged incidents.

"Notwithstanding this, the university was concerned to find out further details about the incidents so that we could investigate further. We rang the UCU, but they refused to take or return our calls.

"Where specific allegations of bullying have been raised, the university has investigated and dealt with such incidents swiftly, supported those who had raised concerns and dismissed those who had behaved badly, despite union support for the perpetrators and union objection to the university's approach. We believe the UCU has acted irresponsibly in this matter. It refused to speak to us about these matters. If and when the details are provided we will act swiftly, as we have always done.

"Similarly, the attempt to rekindle interest in a three-year-old story about some staff reactions to the previous management in Harrogate is unworthy of further comment."

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