Whistleblowers: Tribunal backs Surrey

July 13, 2001

Higher education's first known tribunal case under the law to protect whistleblowers has been rejected.

The THES reported in July last year that when lecturer Geoffrey Darnton complained to Surrey University's vice-chancellor about management practices and low morale at the Surrey European Management School (Sems), his work with the university came to an abrupt end.

Eight days after Mr Darnton wrote his uncompromising missive, he received an email from Sems's then deputy head, Peter Kangis: "Following your recent letters to the vice-chancellor and to the chairman of the council, we consider that the basis of trust between us has broken down. In these circumstances your services will not be required."

The London South tribunal found that although this move was "undoubtedly a detriment" to Mr Darnton, his complaint to the vice-chancellor was not the kind of disclosure that attracts legal protection under the Public Interest Disclosure Act (PIDA), so his application "must fail".

Mr Darnton's letter claimed that Sems head Paul Gamble had prevented him from making constructive criticism, had refused to clarify procedures and had "harassed and bullied" him and others. He said Professor Gamble had escaped all scrutiny by the university because his self-contained postgraduate school was highly lucrative.

But under PIDA, staff are protected from victimisation only if their disclosures reveal that either a criminal offence had been committed or that their employer has breached legal obligations.

The tribunal noted a history of disputes between Mr Darnton and Professor Gamble. Mr Darnton had expressed concerns about rigid working hours and the marking of assignments, complaining that marking three to four assignments an hour was not appropriate. They also clashed over the rules for overseas travel, which Mr Darnton complained, in an email to the school administrator, were being changed by the day.

The tribunal said: "Professor Gamble saw this and sent him a cross email reprimanding him... and asking him not to criticise the school to others. Mr Darnton's attitude was that the rules for travel should be in writing and clearly available. But like working hours, they were not."

The dispute culminated in a letter, reported in The THES last year, in which Professor Gamble told Mr Darnton not to "advance open criticisms to me and to my colleagues". It went on to warn Mr Darnton that his future at Sems was up for review.

The tribunal said the high turnover of staff at Sems was not unusual "because it is seen as an advantage for business school staff to have had experience in commerce and industry". But it noted that Professor Gamble had made enemies among his staff.

"Mr Darnton found Professor Gamble abrasive, arbitrary and sometimes unreasonable, a belief which was shared by some of his colleagues," the tribunal chair said. Professor Gamble "quite clearly had a powerful personality" and his style "clearly upset some members of his staff".

However, the school "was a successful income generator for the university and (Professor Gamble) clearly enjoyed the support of the authorities". The tribunal said Professor Gamble "had a right" to expect support from his staff. His behaviour towards Mr Darnton could not be described as criminal harassment or a breach of trust and confidence.

A Surrey spokesman said: "The university is gratified that its reputation as a fair employer has been cleared and, in particular, that Professor Gamble, who has dealt professionally at all times in difficult circumstances, has been found to be blameless of the allegations made against him."

Mr Darnton said he would appeal against the decision.

Want to blow the whistle? Contact Phil Baty on 020 7782 3298 or email him: phil.baty@thes.co.uk

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