University of Warwick gags critic of 'authoritarian' sector

Suspended professor prevented from speaking at conference

June 19, 2014

A suspended professor was prevented from speaking at a conference about the increasingly “authoritarian” nature of universities by his own institution, Times Higher Education understands.

Thomas Docherty, a prominent critic of the direction of universities and government policy, was suspended in March for reasons the University of Warwick has still not revealed, although it has denied that the decision was connected to his views. The University and College Union has called for his “immediate” reinstatement.

Professor Docherty, professor of English and comparative literature, had been scheduled to speak at the Warwick University Ltd: Lessons from 1970 and the Higher Education Sector Today conference held on 6 June.

The event discussed the book, Warwick University Ltd: Industry, Management and the Universities (2013), edited by the historian E. P. Thompson, which took aim at Warwick’s links at that time with business and argued that universities might be “reduced to the function of providing, with increasing authoritarian efficiency, pre-packed intellectual commodities which meet the requirements of management”.

It is understood that the organiser of the event, the UCU, was told that Professor Docherty could not attend the conference or address it by Skype. Warwick also initially refused a request to have Professor Docherty’s presentation read out by someone else, THE has been told, but ultimately a letter from him was presented.

The conference was held at Warwick Arts Centre on the university’s main campus. It is understood that as a condition of Professor Docherty’s suspension he is not allowed any contact with his students or colleagues, nor is he allowed on to the campus.

A spokesman for Warwick, asked about the reasons for Professor Docherty’s non-attendance, said: “We have no particular view on that conference. It was an externally organised event that booked some of our facilities, which we understand was looking at a point in history.”

Dennis Leech, president of Warwick’s UCU branch, said that many themes of the book, such as “curbs on academic freedom on behalf of business interests, surveillance of staff and students, secret files” had become “almost a normal part of accepted higher education in Britain”.

david.matthews@tsleducation.com

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Reader's comments (7)

Once upon a time, universities protected the freedom to exchange ideas and to debate without fear of reprisals. Then, the freedom to collect and exchange money without fear of imprisonment was granted. Therefore, only the informed views of anonymous spokesmen and the edited prescriptions of eponymous vice chancellors represented universities. Everything, including intellectual vigour and critical understanding of the world, kept improving and harmony triumphed over disagreement. Nice letter from Thomas Docherty. As for the managers of the "University" they have suspended a prominent academic for March, April, May, June… providing no reasons. Are they accountable and if so to whom?
I was also speaking at that event, and there were a number of interesting echoes of Warwick University Ltd. But the lesson is one for now, not for then. The most important freedom is to criticise power, and it seems that at Warwick, and in many other universities, being critical of university management is a freedom too far. Given that universities are still, at least partly, state funded, there are some real questions of accountability here. The sorts of management strategies being used across the sector now reflect the assumption that universities are businesses operating in a global market. Freedom of speech then becomes subordinated to commercial interests, it become a form of disloyalty to the strategy of the institution. In other words, you are free to say anything as long as you agree with us. My solidarity with Professor Docherty.
There are many obviously disturbing features about this case. Absent any explanation from the University of Professor Docherty's suspension, the suspicion must be that he is being disciplined for expressing his views. But what I find incredible is that the university's powers now apparently extend to determining with whom one may or may not socialize with off campus ("as a condition of Professor Docherty’s suspension he is not allowed any contact with his students or colleagues"). What is the legal basis for this? And why hasn't anybody in academia yet challenged it, or remarked on its oddity? Or have we all already become so fearful that we will suffer any humiliation to keep our jobs, including letting our employers dictate the company we keep?
The last comment ("There are many obviously disturbing features of this case") should have been submitted under my name (Derek Sayer), not that of Yoke-Sum Wong. We share a household and a computer.
@ Derek Sayer Hopefully you don't also work for the same University. Lest one of the two of you gets suspended for unknown reasons. The general apathy is a serious problem, as if you don't diagnose and treat cancer on time you are very likely to die once it gets malignant. However, as with cancer, when one tissue is attacked, others don't instantly know. When we were fighting against the Queen Mary managers, many of us could not believe what we were experience in terms of the lowest adherence to any moral or academic standards. It did look unreal. I have been told that some of my "shouts" at the time looked "exaggerated" - but anyone who knows how things are at present and can compare with how they were before, would hopefully see that louder and more "shouts" had been required. Only after I started reaching out to colleagues in other institutions did I come to realise that the problems of rotten leadership are more generalised. Disturbing news coming out from the prestigious RIKEN in Japan reached me today, where it is being recognised how extreme pressure is connected with encouragement of fraud - http://news.sciencemag.org/asiapacific/2014/06/japanese-stem-cell-debacle-could-bring-down-center I think and the UK academy will wake up. I look forward to that moment.
I think and hope that the UK academy will wake up. Correction required, as the debate on whether dismantling the RIKEN is the best way forward is ongoing and I do not wish to give an impression that I have a good answer to that debate. Those many who continue being honest, hard-working scientists and have no time to look around - perhaps you should pause and start considering some of the governance and administrative problems at your institutions. Imagine the new Francis Crick institute getting involved in a similar scandal down the line - no tenure for its young dynamic groups, is that the right way to build excellence?
As a former undergraduate student of Thomas Docherty this whole scenario disgusts me. Please follow this link to read the letter he wrote to the conference: https://www.warwickucu.org.uk/sites/default/files/Thomas%20Docherty%20Letter.pdf

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