When firing off can get you fired...

May 18, 2007

More and more academics are falling foul of university conduct codes through airing their grievances online. Phil Baty and Tony Tysome report

"Get up - stand up! Keep the fight!" This was the rallying cry by Wolverhampton University senior lecturer Sal Fiore, posted to an e-mail discussion forum for "bullied academics".

Under the heading "talking is not working", he agreed with fellow posters that the groups' discussions of the problem of bullying in higher education should be augmented by more direct action - demonstrations, publicity-seeking and, in particular, lobbying for dignity-at-work laws.

"I am personally exploring themes of masculinity, aggression, oppression in models of leadership and management in higher education in the UK, and trying to get the papers published," Dr Fiore said.

"I would also like to explore the connections between bullying and leadership/management styles, which I believe create the possibility of bullies to thrive."

Then Dr Fiore made what some would say was a fatal mistake. He added a series of general allegations against his employer, named as the "school of computing and IT at Wolverhampton university", and promised to publish details and evidence shortly, "with names and surnames and evidence". Weeks later, he was sacked for gross misconduct.

Of course, the case is more complex than a simple single posting to a web discussion forum. But it has raised more general questions about academics' increasing use of electronic communications - blogs, discussion forums, group e-mails - to talk about issues relating to their employment and universities' increasing concern about controlling their brand images and reputations.

The case has also raised fundamental questions about academic freedom: the right, enshrined in the 1988 Education Act, to "question received wisdom" and "to put forward controversial or unpopular opinions" without fear of reprisals.

Does this, academics asked this week, extend to their right to question the "wisdom" of their employers and paymasters in public?

In Dr Fiore's case, there had been a history of problems with his employment. He had suffered stress-related illnesses and had been raising a number of concerns. He had been given a formal warning in early 2006 over his conduct towards colleagues. This included a group e-mail he had sent to his colleagues in the School of Computing, which subjected named members of staff to strong criticism.

The "gross misconduct" case that led to his dismissal also included further charges of using "school-wide e-mail to make personal criticism of a member of staff". "Via the medium of e-mails to both internal and external recipients... you openly criticised the actions of your dean of school," read one part of his charge sheet. "Your actions have the potential to bring the school in particular and the university in general into disrepute."

Collectively, his actions had "irrevocably destroyed the mutual trust and respect with staff and line management", personnel services manager Rob Cutler told a disciplinary hearing last month.

Robert Moreton, dean of the School of Computing and Information Technology, who came in for particular personal criticism from Dr Fiore, said in a statement: "Following a series of incidents, I can confirm that a member of staff in the School of Computing and IT has been dismissed on the grounds of gross misconduct." He said that all allegations by the staff member had been "fully dealt with" under correct procedures, adding that staff welfare is a priority for the university.

Whatever the specific circumstances of the case, they have highlighted growing concerns about the implications of a communications revolution.

Lawrie Phipps, programme manager for the users and innovation programme at the Joint Information Systems Committee, said: "Just about all academics are involved to some extent in using online discussion groups, because they are such a great way to interact with their peers. We are also seeing an increase in the number of academics using discussion boards as a way of getting their students involved in that kind of activity to discuss ideas."

Of course, with such "publishing" the usual rules of libel apply, and universities' rules on the use of electronic communication usually include guidelines on personal abuse and offensive comments.

"If you are going to post something that is potentially damaging to your institution, then I think you should take advice and think twice before doing it," Mr Phipps said.

Steve Bailey, a national expert on good practice in electronic communications, said that universities were struggling to "keep the technical genie in the bottle" and control what is said online. But he warned that staff often "let their guard down" online and what they say could "come back to haunt them".

David Andrews, director of marketing at the Open University, insisted that criticisms of institutions should be confined to internal consultations and procedures. "Academics need to get the balance right between exercising academic freedom and criticising an institution," he said. "Continually harping on can tip the balance from exercising academic freedom to just being a nuisance."

Amanda Gregory, business development director for the Higher Education Information Services Trust, said that with institutions becoming more commercial and focused on protecting their brand it was likely there would be more cases such as the one at Wolverhampton.

She said: "I think academics are going to have to accept that institutions are becoming more commercial. They have to accept that the financial viability of an institution is paramount, and anything that could damage the brand of an institution will be taken seriously. They may not like it much, but unfortunately that is the way of the world."

University and College Union general secretary Sally Hunt said that while academics should be free to speak out "we are not encouraging or condoning comments that are abusive or slanderous".

But for Dennis Hayes, the founder of Academics for Academic Freedom and a lecturer at Canterbury Christ Church University, the response by universities to increased use of electronic communications is another erosion of academic freedom.

"Despite continually promoting the supposed benefits of new technology, in reality universities fear it," he said. "Blogs, simple e-mails or discussion groups and podcasts are new forms in which academics and students can explore ideas freely without permission from any authority.

There is nothing new, however, in university managements' response to the very innovations they celebrate. They view academic freedom and freedom of speech as something that happens in the classroom and not something that is to be tolerated from their employees elsewhere. Criticising 'received wisdom' does not extend to criticising the 'wisdom' of university bosses.

"As academics and students make more use of new forms of communication we can expect more restrictions and bans on what can be said."

Gillian Evans, a Cambridge University history professor who helps run a dispute resolution service for academics, said there was a conflict between an academic's right to academic freedom and contracts of employment that prevent staff bringing their university into disrepute. While academic freedom is usually considered to apply only to an academic's narrow area of expertise, Professor Evans said that it should be extended to question what university managers are doing.

"If one of the things academics are for is to speak out for the truth against powerful influences you cannot divide yourself into someone who is a totally honest scientist full of integrity on the one hand and a craven coward who will not stand up against mismanagement on the other hand. There is a duty to speak the truth."

phil.baty@thes.co.uk

OUTLET FOR THE OUTRAGED

* Richard Bornat, professor of computing at Middlesex University, was disciplined after sending a no-holds-barred e-mail to all his colleagues, castigating the absurdities of university red tape. His outburst related to the computing school's failure to provide a computer for one of his colleagues for more than ten weeks, and strayed into personal abuse of a senior female colleague.

The e-mail also ridiculed the computing dean, Martin Loomes, for his misuse of an apostrophe in another e-mail.

In a separate e-mail, Professor Bornat lamented: "There is no public space, in the university or in the school in which academics can discuss their problems, air concerns and help to decide policy."

He was told he faced "gross misconduct" charges for sending e-mails "inappropriate, offensive and inflammatory in nature". He later retracted and apologised for the e-mails, which he accepted were offensive. He said that they had been sent while he was taking inappropriate medication for depression.

* John Beech, head of sport and tourism research at Coventry University, posted a contribution to a discussion forum for those involved in policing student plagiarism late last year.

In it, he said that staff at his university were prevented from taking action when they suspected plagiarism, no matter how strong their suspicions, unless the plagiarism had been first highlighted by the electronic detection software, turnitin.

He said that asking students to take an oral viva to explore an academic's suspicions was deemed to be discriminatory. "It would follow by the same argument that speed cameras were OK as a basis for evidence but evidence from a traffic policeman's camera would not be."

* In 2004, Middlesex University's equal opportunities chief Susanna Hancock openly criticised the university's policy for selecting students with disabilities. She said that under the policy, disabled students that meet the admission criteria are told that they will be contacted by telephone to discuss their impairment, and whether they would be eligible for a place.

Ms Hancock told the discussion group that she was "uncomfortable" with the policy, as it could be in breach of laws designed to ensure that disabled students did not suffer "less favourable treatment".

The university said it admitted students solely on the basis of their academic abilities and ascertained disability only after making them an offer.

* Last year, Erik Ringmar resigned as a senior lecturer in government at the London School of Economics after he used an open-day presentation to say that would-be students might be better off studying at London Metropolitan University.

He was ordered to apologise and take down a blog that included the speech, criticisms of colleagues, comments on the poor value for money of PhD fees and the poor promotion prospects of overseas staff in his department. His book, A Blogger's Manifesto: Free Speech and Censorship in a Digital World , is published in October.

He is now professor at the National Chiao Tung University, Taiwan.

To blog or not to blog

Sharon Howard, project manager, Humanities Research Institute, Sheffield University, and blogger on www.earlymodernweb.org.uk  "I have always avoided criticising the university in blogs for practical reasons. In theory, people should be able to, but you have to think about practical consequences when you are looking for a job in the future. You do not want people googling your name and discovering your blog full of whingeing about colleagues. In theory, you should have the freedom to do it, but in practice it is something to avoid."

Ilfryn Price, professor in the faculty of organisation and management, Sheffield Hallam University, does not have a blog "When does constructive discussion just become a desire for whingeing? It is more comfortable to converse about how everyone is wrong than make a stand to create something better.

"It's about where you draw the line. There are genuine issues that need to be raised, and in the UK and Europe whistleblowing legislation is not very strong.

"You could see blogging as an extension of a free press, and I have sympathy for that, but equally it can become an extension of discussions of what is wrong rather than getting into energetic conversations about what can be done about it."

Ross Anderson, computer scientist, Cambridge University, and blogger at www.lightbluetouchpaper.org  "Oxford and Cambridge are self-governing, where people can and do utter the most severe criticisms, and universities have governance arrangements where academic freedom is well entrenched.

"I think it was disgraceful that Harvard fired Larry Summers for saying that women are not good at maths to the same extent as men. It must be possible for academics to utter criticisms that the current establishment finds repulsive. Of course, I criticise the institution when necessary - I started the Campaign for Cambridge Freedoms to overturn an unacceptable intellectual property policy ( www.freecambridge.org ) and ended up being elected twice to the university's council.

"Universities should be self-governing communities of scholars, and without the freedom to speak democracy doesn't work so well. I am aware that self-government is less (prevalent) at institutions other than Oxbridge and, if that results in academics there being treated like serfs, then it's clearly a bad thing."

Ellie Lee (pictured, below), senior lecturer social policy, Kent University "If the administration of a university is so defensive and unconfident about what it is doing that it cannot brook a bit of criticism, that is worrying. If academics want to write blogs and moan about their jobs they have every right to do so, but their peers will probably see it for what it is. People have every right to make themselves look silly in public if they want to.

"But I think it would be telling about what is happening in academic life if lots of people are moaning in blogs. I would be strongly opposed to the idea of constraints on commenting on what you think is wrong or dangerous because you think it might put students off. I would say it is a core aspect of academic autonomy and our right to speak freely."

Anne Bacon (pictured, right), programme leader MA conservation and fine art, Northumbria University "I think there are some issues that would be counterproductive to discuss because they are too trivial or too personal.

"The best way of dealing with things might be by having a group blog on general issues, such as how staff are encouraged to carry out research, the formulae used for promotion or research leave or how undergraduate debt discourages home students from studying at postgraduate level.

"The blogs need not necessarily be about specific institutions. Some issues may crystallise through critical mass into something that would be taken on board by vice-chancellors."

David Campbell, geography department, Durham University "Why would any university want to curtail any opinion? We would not want personal attacks but, apart from that, if people want to moan then they should go ahead. We do not have to read it.

"Why should we prevent them moaning? Do we pretend institutions have people who all agree? Are we really just student factories now?"

Chloe Stothart

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