Whistleblowers: Queen's discriminated against NI applicants

April 18, 2003

Queen's University Belfast racially discriminated against two Northern Irish academics when it gave a job to an English applicant who should never have made the shortlist, an employment tribunal has ruled.

The Belfast employment tribunal found that a six-member selection panel at Queen's discriminated against applicants Frank Geary and Martin Dowling when they appointed John Wilson as reader in the School of Modern History, in 1999. The English-dominated panel short-listed Dr Wilson, even though there was no evidence he met one of the essential selection criteria, and then it "overrated" his abilities when it ranked him as first choice for the post.

The tribunal said it was "unsettling" that the panel had no explanation for its decisions to overlook Dr Wilson's weaknesses. And it was not "inherently improbable" that a panel dominated by English members could have been "affected, subconsciously, by an unfair preference in favour of an English person". So racial discrimination was proven, it found.

Mr Geary and Mr Dowling were among several candidates shortlisted for the job when a School of Modern History was created in 1999.

The job specification said that the candidates must show "evidence of a good grounding in... quantitative methods" - the use of "descriptive statistics". One panel member, Sir Tony Wrigley, master of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge University, did not judge Dr Wilson worthy of the shortlist, making it clear in his evidence that he believed there was insufficient evidence of a good grounding in "quantitative methods", as required.

Dr Wilson himself raised doubts about his abilities in this area, writing in his letter of application that he "relies largely on computer-based packages" instead. But he made the shortlist regardless.

By the time of the interviews, further doubt had been cast on Dr Wilson's abilities, with one of his referees commenting that he "has no experience in teaching quantitative methods (at least of any depth) and if that is an absolute necessity you will have to look elsewhere".

Despite these concerns, Dr Wilson was given an A-plus grade for his teaching. "Such a rating, in our view, is illogical and unsustainable," the tribunal said.

The tribunal said that the "unfair preference" shown to Dr Wilson meant that the two complainants had been treated "less favourably", according to discrimination law. One of the complainants, Mr Dowling, was also treated "less favourably" when his research output was rated "good", instead of "excellent".

These elements of less favourable treatment were considered to be an act of racial discrimination, while a number of other procedural breaches were found to be "honest mistakes" and numerous other complaints of discrimination were rejected.

"We wish to make it clear that we are satisfied that the panel and or its individual members, in making all the other decisions in the course of this recruitment process, did not deviate from the proper criteria and applied those criteria in a reasonable manner," the tribunal said.

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