The University of Warwick is under pressure from a union to ditch its association with a legal firm that ran a blog discussing the action institutions could take against “brilliant” academics who voice “outspoken opinion”.
The University and College Union expressed concern that the blog, published on the website of SGH Martineau, was written in the week before Warwick academic Thomas Docherty, professor of English and comparative literature, was due to face an internal disciplinary hearing after being suspended by the institution. SGH Martineau is advising Warwick in relation to the case.
The blog, written by senior associate David Browne, compared dealing with Uruguayan footballer Luis Suárez’s habit of biting other players to cases of high-performing but “insubordinate” academics. It stated that by “consistently accepting unacceptable behaviour”, universities risk setting “dangerous precedents to other employees that such conduct will be accommodated”.
“It is also much harder to justify a dismissal, or other sanction, if similar conduct has gone unpunished before,” it concludes, adding that not dealing with such individuals could “damage [the university’s] brand”.
After it was criticised on social media, SGH Martineau updated the blog to state that its recommendations apply only to actions that “fall outside the lawful exercise of academic freedom or freedom of speech more widely”. This stipulation was not made in the original post.
Dennis Leech, president of Warwick’s UCU branch, said that the blog was “an attack on the very nature of a university as a forum of free debate and open and impartial research”.
The branch was due to hold an emergency meeting on 10 July to debate a motion that claims that the blog is at odds with laws enshrining academic freedom. The motion calls on Warwick to immediately stop using SGH Martineau as its solicitors, particularly given Professor Docherty’s hearing.
A spokesman for SGH Martineau said that the blog was intended to “draw attention to the problems that can be caused for any employer if they consider turning a blind eye to the less acceptable behaviour of high-performing individuals”.
“No reference was made in the original posting to the lawful exercise of academic freedom, as the writer felt there was no need to reiterate basic principles,” he said, adding that any attempt to claim that the blog indicates that SGH Martineau advocates disciplining outspoken academics was “wrong and indeed mischievous”.
“The reason for the amends to the blog was to make it even more explicit that the article related to behaviour raising questions of misconduct that falls outside the lawful exercise of academic freedom.”
A spokesman for Warwick said that SGH Martineau “have been, and continue to be, our choice for external legal support and advice for over 15 years because of their excellent standards and deep knowledge of the sector”.
Although the university has not revealed the reasons behind the disciplinary action against Professor Docherty, it has stated that the decision was not connected to his academic views or to his criticisms of higher education policy – a position reiterated by SGH Martineau.
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the UCU, which has called for Professor Docherty’s “immediate” reinstatement, said the blog was “a little reckless” to discuss “physical assault” alongside outspoken academic opinion. “It also shows a contempt for the principle of academic freedom that should underpin the way universities operate,” she said.