June 29, 2001

LSE faces tribunal

'LSE's failure to dispute the decision left Mr Mergoupis and a research assistant without jobs'

Academics' right to put forward unpopular opinions without jeopardising their careers will be at the forefront of what is believed to be an unprecedented employment tribunal claim.

The THES reported in January that researcher Thanos Mergoupis lost his job at the London School of Economics when an external research sponsor prematurely pulled the plug on a £250,000 contract. The travel industry lobby group, the World Travel and Tourism Council, withdrew from a research deal halfway through a three-year contract.

Mr Mergoupis, who was on a fixed-term contract for the WTTC-funded project on the social and economic impact of tourism, claimed that funding was pulled because the WTTC did not like the findings. Legal advice to the university when the deal collapsed in April 2000 supports Mr Mergoupis's argument that the LSE had strong grounds for enforcing the contract.

The LSE's failure to dispute the WTTC's decision doomed potential enforcement action and left Mr Mergoupis and a research assistant without jobs. This, he claims, is in breach of rules to protect academics' freedom, laid down in the 1988 Education Act, that allow academics to "put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions, without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs".

The WTTC has since said that claims that it pulled the funding because the LSE was not producing the findings it wanted are "spurious". But it has said it was not happy with the "nature of the output" of the research and with some of its methodology.

The LSE, which has rejected two internal grievances filed by Mr Mergoupis, is to contest Mr Mergoupis's claims of unfair dismissal and breach of contract. It will argue that his contract was linked explicitly to the funding from the WTTC. The LSE declined to comment while the case was pending.

The case is due to be heard at the Central London Employment Tribunal on August 1.

Oxford agrees to external inquiry

Oxford University has agreed to set up an external inquiry into the forced ejection of a scholar from university premises, following investigations by The THES .

The THES reported in December last year that Denis Galligan, head of the centre of socio-legal studies, gained approval from the proctors' office for the exclusion of a junior colleague. The scholar, who is of Asian origin, was escorted from the centre building by security guards last September. The experience left him "distressed and humiliated", the university acknowledged.

Not only had Professor Galligan been previously criticised for an "forceful and abrasive" management style in a 1998 internal report, he had also been facing disciplinary action for an over-aggressive management style at the time he initiated the exclusion.

The university had upheld a number of complaints about Professor Galligan's behaviour in June 2000, but an appeal against some of the findings was still pending when he ordered the exclusion.

Professor Galligan, through his solicitors, said he excluded his colleague on the basis of "serious concerns from a number of staff". The university proctors have admitted, however, that when they rubber-stamped Professor Galligan's exclusion order, they at no stage considered whether the action was justified.

In a later internal inquiry that retrospectively ratified the exclusion, pro vice-chancellor Anthony Kenny decided that he did "not have to decide whether Professor Galligan's action... was or was not fully justified". University procedures allowed for exclusions to be made at the discretion of departmental heads.

The university has approached Sir Oliver Popplewell, a retired High Court judge, who has agreed to undertake an inquiry. The ejected scholar is reluctant to accept the inquiry and has been seeking a number of assurances before agreeing to cooperate.

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