Orbital, the College’s online student magazine, has just published an article on the drawn-out and continued suspension of Professor Jeff Frank, the local UCU’s Equalities and Diversity Officer, and founding head of the internationally well-regarded Economics Department at Royal Holloway.
The article lists the charges that were leveled against Jeff in order to ‘justify’ his suspension on 11th April 2018, or, we have to remind ourselves, over five months ago. Perhaps investigative reporting by student journalists will mark the moment when genuine open scrutiny of all the issues at stake by the College can begin?
Jeff has made it clear from the outset that he would like all charges to be publicly stated and debated. Yet, so far, the Human Resources (HR) department and senior management have preferred secrecy and anonymity.
Orbital says that Jeff was charged on April 11th for ‘leaking confidential and sensitive information’, violating data protection laws, and contravening the ‘College Grievance Policy’. HR wanted to make the charges sound serious, but, in the view of many, none could justify extended suspension. Isn’t some official clarification or justification necessary?
Violating the Data Protection Act, for example, would have been serious. But it is understood that the much delayed investigation has already said there is no case to answer. Further, if Jeff did refer to confidential information related to union case work, he did so with the permission of the individuals concerned, and only after HR had circulated the same information (presumably without permission?).
On contravening the College’s Grievance Policy, it seems that this, in clearer language, means writing directly to an officially-appointed panel instead of relaying statements or evidence through the HR department. Although this may have offended the sensibilities of the HR directorate, no reasonable person could consider this act to be gross misconduct, or a contributory factor in five months of suspension. Moreover, there is nothing in the Grievance Policy stating that all such paperwork must be sent only to HR.
A few quick enquiries would have cleared up any legitimate misunderstandings back sometime last April. HR appear set instead on a mission of automatic lengthy suspension, disciplinary proceedings, and dismissal from employment.
Since specific charges can be challenged, it is interesting that staff are now asking why Jeff is facing vague catch-all charges of failing to show ‘fidelity’ to an employer. It has raised apprehension because it is so obviously contrary to the traditions of Royal Holloway and the principles of academic freedom. If HR is fishing for further charges of this type, then the case against Jeff must have quickly begun to look very flimsy indeed.
We understand that Jeff will have to face a disciplinary panel in October.
There is an additional concern being expressed that HR officers or senior managers already involved in making the case against Jeff will oversee the conduct of the panel or, incredibly, actually sit as panel members making judgements on the case. If so, that would constitute a serious collapse in governance and bring great discredit to the College. Hopefully, this concern is unfounded, but past events are not encouraging.
The local union branch can’t help but come back to the same point: the suspension of Jeff Frank relates solely to activities undertaken on behalf of colleagues as a union case-worker asked to deal with extremely difficult equalities issues. The College’s equalities record is poor, and Royal Holloway is near bottom in the league table of gender pay equality.
For HR at Royal Holloway to seek control over union case-work or even to be seen to be doing so raises very fundamental questions. Past common practice would be for the HR director to raise any perceived problems with the local branch or a union regional officer. The recently appointed HR directorate have instead adopted a hard-line policy to industrial relations, as most clearly demonstrated in its failed attempt to break the pensions strike this year. They are now seeking to blame one UCU officer who was trying to deal with some difficult equalities cases for their own failings.
RHUL-UCU has, regrettably, concluded that Jeff’s suspension is a means of curtailing the activities of UCU at Royal Holloway. Management’s recent and disproportionate focus on ‘staff costs’ is ominous. Leicester University are imposing academic redundancies. RHUL-UCU, however, believes that the College cannot achieve its ambitious goals in teaching and research without the support and commitment of its staff, and without someone in authority reviewing apparent priorities and policies. We remain wedded, despite everything that has happened, to the principles of cooperation and genuine negotiation. There is no indication at this time that HR or management are seriously interested in resolving issues which are damaging the effective working and the image of Royal Holloway.
Posted on behalf of members of the RHUL UCU committee.
Editor’s note: while Leicester University were planning to impose redundancies, yesterday it was announced that management changed their minds after the local union threatened strike action in response. Worth bearing in mind…