An academic has urged universities to pass on details of threatening behaviour exhibited by students or staff when they move institution, after a researcher expelled from the University of Surrey for harassing her was handed a five-month prison sentence for threatening to kill a colleague at Queen’s University Belfast.
Patrick Martens was sentenced last week at Craigavon Crown Court in Northern Ireland after pleading guilty to several counts of threatening to kill an academic and his wife. The court heard that Martens, a postdoctoral research fellow in psychology at Queen’s until he was expelled in September 2011, bombarded his victims with about 500 threatening phone calls and emails between August 2011 and January 2012.
According to Lynsey Gozna, a senior lecturer in forensic psychology at an uninvolved university, Martens’ victim at Queen’s was the person who investigated allegations in 2009 that he had harassed a woman, leading to an informal reprimand. In 2010, he had threatened to kill a female student, for which he was fined £500 by the university and referred to its occupational health unit.
Dr Gozna said she had been victimised by Martens when he was at Surrey – initially as a master’s student – where she used to work. She first raised concerns in 2005 after declining to supervise his thesis on psychopathy and violence, which was outside his area of study. She said he had made veiled threats against her in 2008 after seeking her advice about a harassment case in which he claimed to be the victim.
He was expelled from Surrey in 2008 after he also began to harass a student. However, Dr Gozna said this fact had not been passed on to Queen’s, where he continued his doctorate. She also noted that Surrey’s current guidelines say that disciplinary information should not be included on academic transcripts or references.
“This is a safeguarding issue,” she said. “Universities could be responsible if the person on the receiving end of threatening behaviour has received what is effectively a dud reference.”
She also called on universities to alert the police to all incidents that might indicate a threat to staff or students, a risk that “isn’t particularly well understood” in the sector.
A spokesman for Surrey said that academic references referred only to the “capability and expertise of the individual to research or teach in their chosen field”.
“The only request received from Queen’s was to provide an academic reference. The university’s policy is to process the data it holds on its students in accordance with…the Data Protection Act,” he said.
This prohibits the disclosure of “sensitive personal data unless certain conditions have been met. It is our understanding that these conditions were not met,” he added.
In a statement, Queen’s says its senior management had “no prior knowledge” of Martens’ history. It adds that as soon as it learned of the harassment allegations, it immediately suspended him “on a precautionary basis” pending a police intervention, with which it “actively cooperated”. It also obtained injunctions preventing him from entering its campus or going within five miles of his victim’s home.
“At all times the university sought to protect the [victim], his family and all students and staff,” it says.