Whistleblowers: Exeter v-c criticised

December 15, 2000

The lord chancellor has criticised Exeter University vice-chancellor Sir Geoffrey Holland for a "perverse and unreasonable" decision to block a grievance hearing for one of his senior staff.

Ruling on the complaint earlier this month, Lord Irvine said that Sir Geoffrey's refusal to set up a hearing for research scholar Avril Henry was a decision that "no reasonable body, taking all the relevant factors into account, could have reached". The lord chancellor was acting on behalf of the Queen, the university's visitor, in response to a complaint by Professor Henry, supported by the Association of University Teachers.

The THES reported in March that the university had pulled the plug on Professor Henry's research on the sculptures at Exeter Cathedral, because university authorities believed her work would not be eligible for inclusion in the research assessment exercise, as she would have retired by the census date. Professor Henry had been told by the school's director of research, Anne Purkiss, that regardless of the "worthwhile" standing of the research, the "awful truth is that we can't get any RAE joy from it".

Professor Henry complained to her line manager, head of English Peter New, who rejected her complaint but accepted that her case to keep research funds was "extremely strong on academic and moral grounds".

Her moves to mount a formal grievance against the withdrawal of funds and Mr New's decision to uphold the decision were blocked by the vice-chancellor, who said her complaint "was not sufficiently serious" and had been properly dealt with by Mr New. Following complaints from the AUT that the vice-chancellor could only block a grievance if it was "trivial or invalid", Sir Geoffrey said the grievance was trivial and he had decided that "Professor Henry does not have a valid grievance".

The lord chancellor said the word "invalid" in the university's procedures should not "be construed in such a way to give the vice-chancellor an absolute discretion to decide that particular grievances should be summarily dismissed". He also said: "I accept Professor Henry's contention that it must be perverse and unreasonable to categorise her grievance as 'trivial'. When the matter went to the head of school, he expressly recognised, when upholding the decision against her, that 'on academic and moral grounds' her case was 'extremely strong'."

Lord Irvine said "there was a more fundamental error in the approach of the vice-chancellor". "It could be said that, in effect, the grievance which he purported to determine was not the one which Professor Henry had laid before him," he said. Sir Geoffrey had concerned himself solely with reviewing Mr New's ruling against Professor Henry rather than looking at the grievance as a whole. "It is plain that the grievance on which she seeks, and has always sought, redress, centres on the withdrawal of the funding which had been assigned to her, whoever may have been responsible for the decision," Lord Irvine said.

In conclusion, he said: "The vice-chancellor erred in his determination of (the AUT's) application to him... in that he probably failed to take into account factors which were relevant to the decision-making process but that, in any event, his conclusion was one which no reasonable body, taking all the relevant factors into account, could have reached."

A university spokesman said such a case was rare. "Given the singularity of this case and the complexity of the university's statutes, we took legal advice on what action to take," he said.

"That advice has since proved to be at variance with the lord chancellor's reading of the statutes. We will obviously learn from this experience and take his verdict into account in future," he added.

Professor Henry has since reached a settlement with the university.

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