'Utopian' institution is disowned by academics

Board members, co-founder and university step away from Sussex centre, says Melanie Newman

August 14, 2008

It was described at its launch as "utopian" in its vision.

The Sussex Centre for the Individual and Society (SCIS) would be based on a university campus but free from the "stifling" higher education system. Backed by unspecified "wealthy individuals", it would pursue "risky" research rather than follow the Government's agenda.

"People worry far too much about political correctness," its founder and "executive director", University of Sussex PhD student Erich Kofmel, said at the 2006 launch.

But the centre has a list of things to worry about. The University of Sussex complained that the SCIS was using a campus postal address that was "untrue and misleading". In addition, Mr Kofmel's SCIS co-founder has issued a statement strongly dissociating himself from Mr Kofmel. Last but not least, a string of renowned international academics listed on the SCIS website are demanding that their names be removed.

Even before he launched his vision for the SCIS to the media in 2006, Mr Kofmel was attracting some bad publicity.

In January 2006, The Observer and Evening Standard newspapers reported that Mr Kofmel, who at the time was chairman of the Sussex Postgraduate Association, had been criticised for charging prospective tenants of a London flat hundreds of pounds for reference checks before rejecting them and keeping the money.

Mr Kofmel explained that the contract clearly allowed for reference-checking fees of £75 per hour. He had kept the money because the tenants' references did not "stand up", he said.

In a separate matter, Mr Kofmel was arrested in May 2008 and bailed in relation to an alleged holiday property fraud, unrelated to the SCIS. A University of Sussex computer is understood to have been involved in transactions being investigated by police. Mr Kofmel has not been charged with any offence, denies the allegations and says that he is the victim of identity fraud.

The SCIS website says that it is "independent of the University of Sussex", but it adds that its founding members and research associates are "doctoral candidates and young researchers at the university".

The site says the SCIS was set up "in an historic cottage (right at the entrance of Falmer campus) that we got to rent from the university". It continues: "We enjoy the ambiguity of being, at the same time, independent of the University of Sussex and on campus."

It lists its current address as 39 Tenant Lain, University of Sussex. In June this year, the SCIS issued a public "call for book proposals", giving the University of Sussex postal address and citing Mr Kofmel's university email address.

A spokeswoman for Sussex said: "The SCIS is not associated with the university in any way, and it is not based on our campus. We have already pointed out that the SCIS's currently advertised postal address is untrue and misleading and have requested correction. This has not yet happened, but we are determined that it must, and are considering next steps."

Although it is understood that Mr Kofmel remains a Sussex PhD student, the university has closed down his page on its website.

Last month, SCIS co-founder Alexander Higgins, a former Sussex PhD student who left the centre in 2006, wrote an open letter saying that he "completely disassociates" himself from Mr Kofmel.

There is now a string of high-profile academics attempting to distance themselves from the SCIS.

Michael Watts, professor of geog-raphy at the University of California, Berkeley, is listed as a member of the "international advisory board (2006-08)". He said: "(Mr Kofmel) still insists on using my name on the website despite repeated requests not to do so."

Another on the list, Ernesto Laclau, professor of political theory at the University of Essex, said he gave a talk at the SCIS and joined as a "formality". "This is the extent of my connection with the SCIS and Erich Kofmel, about whom I know nothing," he said.

Joseph Femia, professor of political theory at the University of Liverpool, who is listed as a "senior research associate since 2006", said that he resigned in July 2008. "I don't endorse some of the things said on the website," he said.

Calestous Juma, professor of international development at Harvard University, succeeded in persuading Mr Kofmel to remove his name after he realised that the SCIS was not part of Sussex.

Mr Kofmel has been barred from putting out calls for research papers on the philosophy internet forum Philos-L, run by Stephen Clark of the University of Liverpool.

Professor Clark said: "SCIS is Mr Kofmel under another name ... Mr Kofmel is riding on the names and reputations of others who do not want to be used in this way ... he needs to find people who can testify to his good faith."

Mr Kofmel sent Times Higher Education a message from his university email account. "This should demonstrate that I have not abused my Sussex email account ... in which case the account would have been suspended," he said. "No disciplinary measures have been taken against me."

He said the wording of the SCIS website had been agreed with the university "at the end of 2006" and pointed out that the site lists "current and past" members of the advisory board.

After Times Higher Education contacted Mr Kofmel, the SCIS website was amended to say that "the International Advisory Board is to be phased out as current members retire".

melanie.newman@tsleducation.com.

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