Whistleblowers: Luton report on job bias claim branded 'a fudge'

October 18, 2002

An investigation into claims by former Luton University professor Nick Tiratsoo that he was unfairly rejected for a redeployment post in a biased selection process was "a fudge", according to campaigners.

The investigation exonerated Luton, but the Campaign for Academic Freedom and Standards has criticised it as dismissive and flawed. Professor Tiratsoo was shown just the conclusions of the investigation, which dismissed his eight key allegations without explanation - and without consulting him - in a letter consisting of fewer than 200 words.

A spokeswoman for Cafas said: "Universities are far too unaccountable, and a single sheet denying everything without reasons cannot constitute a satisfactory independent inquiry."

The THES reported last month that following mass redundancies at Luton last year, Professor Tiratsoo, one of the university's top historians, was beaten to one of two redeployment posts in history by a junior colleague, Ian Bridgeman, who had initially failed to make the shortlist. Dr Bridgeman was appointed despite the interview panel querying his research, one of three "essential criteria" for the job. In a letter to the vice-chancellor, which was passed to the interview panel, he made a number of critical remarks about rivals for the job. Professor Tiratsoo also pointed out procedural errors in the selection process.

In a detailed letter to David Docherty, chair of governors, dated September 17, Professor Tiratsoo argued that the process was flawed and unfair. In a move that has been criticised for compromising the independence of the investigation, Dr Docherty replied on September 25: "Although I have full confidence that the university has acted properly, I have decided to seek an independent report on your claims, to reassure you." The investigation report was filed on September 26.

The report concludes that the university acted properly, but Professor Tiratsoo and others have rejected its findings.

The report dismisses Professor Tiratsoo's concerns that Dr Bridgeman did not meet a key job criterion with just one sentence: "The panel did not overlook the research criterion, but rather gave it appropriate weight for the positions that they were considering."

Professor Tiratsoo this week responded: "There is no doubt that organisations like the Management Standards Centre... would frown on the idea that a panel can weight what are described as 'essential criteria' without written and transparent guidelines."

The report confirms that Dr Bridgeman's letter attacking rivals was passed to the interview panel. Dr Bridgeman's letter attacked unnamed colleagues for allegedly "abandoning their students" and "making ever increasing intemperate remarks to the damage of the university".

The investigation report says this was acceptable, because "the interview panel correctly treated the letter as being in support of the application being made by Dr Bridgeman. They did not consider or treat the letter as being in any way relevant to the applications made by the other candidates seen by them on the same day, including Professor Tiratsoo."

Professor Tiratsoo is concerned that this fails to explain why one of the panel members, when asked to explain the decision not to appoint him, said he would use his "reputation, skills and ability to undermine what the university wants to do".

Cafas said: "This inquiry was conducted apparently without reference to the information commissioner's published guidelines about the right of candidates to be told of adverse comment and given an opportunity to respond before any decision is taken."

The report does accept that there were procedural flaws with the process - several of the interviewers' report forms were not filled in according to the university's explicit guidelines - but it says that this had "no effect on the validity or bona fides of the interviewing process". It concludes that "the interview process was not flawed".

Cafas said: "This must make the call for a truly independent review system for academic staff as well as students more urgent than ever."

Chair of governors Dr Docherty refused to discuss the report, but the university said that it had been conducted by a highly qualified solicitor who had no reason to be biased in favour of the university.

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