Whistleblowers: Luton professor was wrongfully dismissed

September 27, 2002

Luton University wrongfully dismissed history professor Nick Tiratsoo and three of his colleagues, an employment tribunal has ruled. They were among dozens of academics made redundant as part of the university's rescue plan last year.

The tribunal ruled that the employment of the four was terminated before the governors could hear their appeals against redundancy, in clear breach of Luton's articles of governance. Luton later tried to extend the academics' period of employment - "of course a pure nonsense," the tribunal said - and the mistake had a "cruel effect" and caused distress.

But for Professor Tiratsoo the documents that emerged during the case were more important than his moral victory in court, which came without damages. He believes the documents detailing his rejection for a redeployment post show the process was biased and procedurally flawed. He has asked Luton's governing body for a full inquiry.

Professor Tiratsoo, a vociferous opponent of Luton's decision to largely abandon humanities, was among four academics shortlisted for one of two redeployment posts in history. One colleague who did not make the shortlist, Ian Bridgeman, wrote to Luton's vice-chancellor, Dai John, to express his "deep feelings of injustice". He made a number of allegations against his rivals.

"The great irony... comes when colleagues who have abandoned their students to me while they hawk their CVs around institutions and make ever-increasing intemperate remarks to the damage of the university are invited for interview, while those who counsel action and restraint are disregarded," he wrote.

After an appeal, Dr Bridgeman was added to the shortlist and eventually won one of the posts. He beat both former head of history, Ian Beckett, and Professor Tiratsoo, neither of whom were ever asked to respond to the claims in Dr Bridgeman's letter.

Professor Beckett last month settled a claim of unfair dismissal against the university just before his tribunal case, in which he was due to claim that the interview panel did not appoint to the posts on the basis of the stated criteria.

Although the job specification said that "the ability and motivation to develop new areas of research" was "essential", Professor Beckett said Dr Bridgeman had not been entered into last year's research assessment exercise. Indeed, one member of the interview panel noted there was "no evidence that he can do research".

Professor Beckett said in his tribunal claim: "It remains to be shown... how a candidate originally rejected as not meeting the criteria came to be appointed when two candidates - both full professors - who met the criteria were not."

Professor Tiratsoo is convinced that the panel was influenced by issues outside the stated selection criteria.

When discussing the candidates, the interview panel's chair, Stephen Petitt, Luton's pro-vice chancellor, asked: "Why are we selecting (Bridgeman) as opposed to two researchers?" Liz Schild, a head of department, replied: "Because in the short-term they will use their reputations, skills and ability to undermine what the university wants to do".

Professor Tiratsoo said this shows the panel was ready to "give credence to innuendo and smear".

The entire process also seemed to be blighted by a number of procedural errors. From the documents, it would appear that some of the interview report forms were not correctly completed - one panel member left blank spaces in the columns for "relevant experience", and "transferable skills", in Professor Tiratsoo's case, despite clear guidance that the forms should be completed in full.

Luton spokeswoman Patricia Murchie said that with regard to the wrongful dismissal judgment, "the university fully admitted that there was an oversight in following an internal regulation but this did not result in any loss to the individuals concerned".

She said the issues raised with the university by The THES regarding Professor Tiratsoo's failure to win re-appointment were "misleading" and included "a number of factual inaccuracies", which she declined to specify. She said: "Since the tribunal decision may be subject to appeal by any of the applicants, including Nick Tiratsoo, it would be inappropriate for the university to comment further."

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