Whistleblowers: Law professor faces claims of staffing bias

April 4, 2003

One of Britain's leading law professors has been reprimanded for "misconduct" by an inquiry into alleged discrimination at the Hong Kong university where he is on secondment from Warwick University.

Mike McConville, who is also facing a separate discrimination claim in his role as chairman of the school of law at Warwick, has been "strongly condemned" by the governing council of Hong Kong's City University. After a four-month independent investigation into what the university describes as "bitter turmoil" in the law school, Professor McConville was criticised for his conduct as head of an all-British staffing committee (SSC) that caused an outcry when it failed to renew the contracts of eight Asian staff.

Professor McConville joined the Hong Kong law school in August 2001 after taking leave of absence from Warwick.

In late 2001, he headed the three-strong SSC, which was reviewing the contracts of 12 staff. Eight Asian staff were not recommended for reappointment - three of them later won new contracts at appeal. The only Brit up for contract renewal, Carol Jones, sat on the SSC, but when her contract came up, she quite properly absented herself. However, she did help to determine its assessment guidelines and was one of only two staff recommended for full reappointment.

Seven staff signed a public letter of complaint about the whole process, and City set up an independent committee (IC) in June 2002.

The committee report says that it was "indefensible and wrong" that Professor McConville had decided to disregard formal staff appraisal documents. It notes that in giving evidence, Professor McConville had contradicted his own explanation about why they were rejected - explaining that they included adverse remarks that staff had not had a chance to comment on, but also insisting he had never read them. He was "clearly flustered" and "evasive" when challenged on this, and changed his explanation.

Dr Jones' role in setting the assessment rules as an SSC member, when her own position was up for review, "gave rise to a potential conflict of interest", the report says. And the SSC "acted unfairly when applying the criteria for assessment" - "taking into account the lack of transparency in the applicable rulesI the over-emphasis on criterionI the application of the same rigorous standard to all candidates irrespective of different circumstancesI and the non-completion of the reappointment forms".

Professor McConville is singled out for personal criticism for failing to fill out the reappointment forms, and the IC says he was "wrong" not to give any reasons for the appointment decisions. "A reasoned decision is essential to justice... a complete failure to give any reason at all is indefensible," it says.

But the IC was most concerned about the allegations of race discrimination.

The IC found that while the all-British composition of the SSC was within the rules, and was not in itself discriminatory, it was "wrong for the SSC neither to have any member nor any assessor who could critically evaluate the merit of scholarly work written in Chinese".

It says: "Failure to have regard to such publications amounts to language discrimination and... such language discrimination constitutes indirect racial discrimination by the SSC."

The IC dismissed other allegations of discrimination and favouritism made by the seven complainants, but said their complaints relating to the evaluation process were "largely justified".

In a public statement, City's governing council said it accepted the IC report and it "strongly condemns Professor McConville" and reprimands him for "misconduct".

The report comes as a former Warwick University law school employee has won leave to appeal against a tribunal's decision to reject her claim of discrimination and victimisation against the university and Professor McConville.

Yael Kahn, a website consultant, was disabled after a car accident in April 1998 and claimed that her workload was unreasonably increased. She said she was later victimised when the university suspended her - and arranged for her arrest for theft after she retrieved her computer from the building during her suspension.

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