Whistleblowers

February 22, 2002

Oxford academics are freed from legal gag
The High Court has upheld the freedom of Oxford University academics to criticise a philosopher's controversial book, despite the fact that the university signed a legal undertaking not to disparage the work.

Oxford University paid £17,000 to settle a legal row with philosopher Andrew Malcolm in 1991 over a decision by the Oxford University Press to renege on an informal deal to publish his book Making Names . As part of the settlement Oxford agreed in a consent order that "it, its servants and agents I will not publish or solicit the publication of any derogatory statements, letters or articles about Mr Malcolm or about the merits or quality of the work".

Mr Justice Lightman has confirmed that the order must not be construed "as effective to muzzle academic freedom of expression and debate and censor any disparagement of the work by academics at the university".

The OUP's then commissioning editor, Henry Hardy, told Mr Malcolm in the 1980s that he was keen to publish Making Names , and it was likely to be approved for publication by the OUP's delegates. OUP delegate, Alan Ryan, then a fellow of New College where he is now warden, made recommendations that the book be published in two reports to the OUP. But after the work had been revised and improved, Dr Ryan changed his mind and recommended that the work be rejected. The informal book deal was scrapped.

After a lengthy legal battle, the courts established in 1991 that Mr Malcolm had been treated unfairly and recommended damages, which were paid in an out-of-court settlement.

When Mr Hardy reiterated his initial support for the book in the pages of The THES last year and said he had "never fully understood" why Dr Ryan had withdrawn his initial strong support for the book, Dr Ryan retorted. In the letters pages of The THES in April last year, he explained his U-turn. "The book wore badly on re-reading," he said. "What had seemed fresh, lively and amusing seemed coarse and jeering the third time around. Perhaps the reading climate had changed, perhaps it was always a book that should be read once only."

Mr Malcolm claimed in the High Court that Dr Ryan's comments, "appearing in the country's foremost higher education journal, constitute a serious public derogation of the work", in breach of the 1991 agreement.

Mr Justice Lightman last month threw out Mr Malcolm's claim, ruling that Dr Ryan's status as an Oxford head of house, and a member of its congregation, does not mean he is an employee or servant of the university. Lecturing and supervision by Dr Ryan for the university meant that he was "plainly an independent contractor", the judge said.

Justice Lightman said: "I am fully sensitive to (Mr Malcolm's) concern for his professional reputation and the limitation on the protection that the consent order provides." But he said that the order could not be used to block academic freedom of expression, or disparagement of the work "unless such disparagement is prompted or authorised by the university".

Mr Malcolm, who said the ruling was preposterous, is faced with paying the university's £41,000 legal costs.

Cambridge withholds blame in Capsa debacle   
No one will be disciplined for the disastrous implementation of the new financial system at Cambridge University, which brought the university to near-standstill last year and has wasted millions of pounds.
Cambridge's governing council said that the "mistakes made in the Capsa process were largely a result of the systemic failure of the university to adapt to changeI This systemic failure gave rise to a situation in which significant mistakes by individuals and committees, while not inevitable, were likely to occur."

An independent external inquiry into the Capsa debacle found that its implementation was "an unmitigated disaster", characterised by moments of "high farce", "hard-to-credit naivety" and "fallacious" financial reports. The report said that Cambridge's governance structures meant it was "impossible" to identify who was responsible.

The university's internal watchdog, the board of scrutiny, said that the disaster "seemed to derive from errors and omissions by one or more of the university's senior managers".

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