Defend Academic Freedom and Academic Board oversight of UCL Disciplinary Procedures

2 May 2019

It is our duty to inform colleagues of serious and ongoing issues regarding governance and academic freedom at UCL. This matter concerns:

  1. the unilateral dismissal by UCL Provost Michael Arthur of a serious Grievance against a member of SMT, without hearing or right of appeal, raised by an academic member of staff; and
  2. the alarming and inappropriate use (or misuse) of Statute 18 Disciplinary procedures against one of the members of academic staff who raised that Grievance.

We write to you now, because we believe that the Statute 18 Tribunal Panel that UCL senior management have unilaterally appointed in this case has been constructed to guarantee an outcome whereby that academic would be dismissed.

Both of these actions by UCL present dangerous precedents that threaten Academic Freedom in the university. Grievance and Disciplinary procedures must be applied equally to all members of staff, regardless of any managerial positions. Moreover,Statute 18 is the part of UCL’s Charter that is designed to preserve Academic Freedom in the university. If staff may be dismissed on the say-so of the Provost with support from SMT and HR, effectively bypassing Statute 18 protections, then academic freedom is undermined.

This case has broad implications for how UCL handles all disciplinary cases against staff who disagree with SMT, and exhibits alarming connections and parallels with the recent Report of the Visitor, and the victimisation and human rights breach (as found by an employment tribunal) against UCU Branch Secretary Tony Brown.

Below we provide further details of the case in question along with a call to action for members to protect academic freedom at UCL that includes signing UCL UCU’s Petition to Academic Board on this matter.

Anonymous Synopsis of the Case

Please note that the information about the case provided below is carefully anonymised, and we urge colleagues not to speculate about the individuals involved. Both UCL UCU and the academic member in question want the full case to be heard, and heard properly.

  • In 2017, two members of academic staff jointly raised serious grievances against a member of SMT.
    • After long failures to investigate these grievances, a limited external investigation was conducted over a year later, in Autumn 2018.
    • In February 2019, without sharing the report of this investigation, the Provost decided to summarily dismiss the grievance, without a hearing or right of appeal, contrary to UK statutory requirements under the ACAS Code of Practice 1.
  • In early 2018, the same member of SMT was responsible for suspending one of the two members of academic staff who complained, without prior warning, on the pretext that serious complaints had been made against the member.
    • Prior to this suspension, that member had not been informed of a single complaint having being raised against them, nor were they given any opportunity to even discuss any perceived incorrect conduct.
    • From that time, the Provost and senior members of UCL HR became personally involved in this case.
  • For more than a year, this academic staff member remained suspended while an investigation of unprecedented scale and scope was conducted.
    • Over a period of five months, this investigation involved over 40 witnesses being questioned, leading to a 1,500-page report being produced.
    • The member’s union representative commented that they had never before seen such a ‘trawl’ for allegations against an employee.
  • After numerous inexplicable delays, disciplinary charges based on a tiny subset of this trawl for allegations were finally presented to the academic staff member two weeks ago.
    • NOTE: Legal proceedings related to the victimisation and harassment of this academic staff member by UCL and the member of SMT are now underway. As such, we will not comment further on those matters at this time.

Throughout this period, UCL UCU has complained vociferously and repeatedly to the Provost about both the mishandling of the grievance, and the unreasonable nature and duration of the suspension.

We also made plain our expectations that due and fair process, in line with UCL Statutes, must be carefully followed if/when disciplinary charges were ever brought against this member of academic staff. Sadly, we write to you now because it is now clear that it has not been followed at all.

In January this year, we made clear our expectations as follows.

  1. That the grievance be heard first, as it was clear that a central aspect of the defence would be that the disciplinary process was retaliation for making the original complaint. This is in alignment with both statutory requirements and UCL’s own Grievance Policy (para 4.7).
  2. If/when a Statute 18 Tribunal was convened to hear any supposed disciplinary charges, we spelled out three expectations regarding the panel composition:
    1. Independence. Per the “principles of justice and fairness” [Statute 18, para 1(c)], that none of the three Tribunal panel members should have any direct connection to individuals related to the case.
    2. At least one member would be appointed through a process other than the Provost’s choosing. Statute 18 paragraph 16(c) explicitly states that Academic Board must nominate a member of the Tribunal.
    3. Legal competence. Given the complexities of the case, and related ongoing legal proceedings, that one member of the panel have relevant legal expertise.

UCL has currently chosen to ignore all these expectations.

  1. The Provost has asserted that he has the right to unilaterally dismiss the grievance against the member of SMT, without a hearing or right of appeal (despite the fact that the co-complainant was permitted to take his lesser grievance forward).
  2. The panel composition has failed on every expectation we laid out months ago:
    1. Another member of SMT — with obvious connection to the member of SMT directly involved in this case — was appointed to Chair the Tribunal panel. This is an obvious violation of paragraph 1(c) of Statute 18.
    2. To the best of our knowledge, the Provost has personally chosen to appoint the third member of the panel, without having asked Academic Board for its nomination. It appears that the Provost has invoked “Chair’s Action” in order to make this appointment. However we believe this still constitutes a direct violation of paragraph 16(c) of Statute 18, as in practice it means that the Provost has assumed the power to personally select all three members of the Panel. This directly contravenes the protections of independence and due process afforded by having paragraph 16(c) in the first place.
    3. None of the panel members have any legal expertise. While not an explicit violation of Statute 18, given the obvious questions regarding potential victimisation, as well as repeated failures to follow due and fair process, we would expect such expertise on the panel. Statute 18 allows legal representatives on both sides, so the risk of a Panel misinterpreting legal arguments is significant.

To our further concern, we have also been compelled to complain that all three members of the Provost-appointed panel are male. The failure to respect even the basic principles of equality and diversity that apply to all other processes and panels at UCL has further alarmed both the academic staff member in question and your Executive Committee. The academic staff member understandably expects that the panel — in whose hands their opportunity for a fair hearing is supposed to rest — should reflect the diversity of the UCL community.

The Provost’s response to our complaints

Despite having given many months of warning on these issues, UCL UCU also provided the Provost/UCL one further opportunity to redress these issues last week, before reaching out to our members. Yesterday we received a response that UCL was not intending to change its position.

What we are asking members to do

At this time, we are calling on our members to sign UCL UCU’s Petition to Academic Board, requesting that Academic Board consider and pass three resolutions which:

  1. rescind the Provost’s use of ‘Chair’s Action’ on its behalf in this case, and henceforth to agree to directly enact Statute 18 16(c), i.e. to select and appoint the third member of Statute 18 Tribunal Panels for any and all Statute 18 disciplinary processes (voiding any present actions);
  2. delegate responsibility for nominations of the third member of all Statute 18 Tribunal Panels to the Governance Committee of Academic Board (GCAB); and
  3. request that the AB established Commission of Inquiry specifically and confidentially examine the handling of the described case in full – and of any other similar cases reported confidentially to it – in order to make public recommendations to AB on how grievance, disciplinary and HR practices at UCL should be improved to fully protect the rights of all members of UCL staff.

Petition to Academic Board

We are further encouraging members to write directly to UCL Provost Michael Arthur, UCL Council Chair Dame DeAnne Julius, and UCL Council Chair-Elect Mr Victor Chu, asking them to ensure that

  1. the grievance raised against the member of SMT in question be properly and fairly heard, in accordance with UK statutory requirements; and
  2. UCL Provost Michael Arthur recuse himself (or be recused by Council) from further involvement, direct or indirect, in UCL’s internal handling of this case due to conflicts arising from his personal involvement in this case for over a year, and (consequently) his being party to related legal proceedings.

As a final note, your Executive Committee has reviewed an anonymised version of the Charges against the academic staff member in question by UCL senior management. Even were all the allegations upheld we do not believe that they could meet the test of “gross misconduct” (dismissal), indeed it is doubtful that they could meet the charge of “ordinary misconduct” (a formal warning). However, when we considered making the petition about UCL senior management dropping this disciplinary case against the academic in question, the academic member in question had this to say:

“I prefer that due and fair process be followed in the convening of a hearing, so that my name can be fully and transparently cleared of any and all supposed allegations. I believe that transparency is the only way to ensure fairness and justice, and I am prepared to waive confidentiality in my case if it helps ensure that no other academic is persecuted by senior management in the future for having complained about their inappropriate conduct.”

Please sign UCL UCU’s Petition to Academic Board