Seven months’ suspension for ‘a minor offence’?

Disciplinary proceedings at Royal Holloway reveal a tendency for ‘Kafka-esque’ secrecy: the ‘untrusted’ can never know who took the eventful decision in April 2018 to suspend Jeff Frank, and no clear reasoning has ever been offered. Although the extensive list of unjustified and somewhat incoherent charges fell one by one, unnecessarily lengthy disciplinary procedures and the threat of dismissal could still serve as an automatic punishment. These proceedings have gone on for over a year during which time Jeff’s teaching and research has been disrupted, at high personal cost to Jeff but also at high cost to the College and its students and staff. While the suspension itself was lifted after 7 months, Jeff remains under formal disciplinary action that is impeding his ability to perform his job.

In April 2019, an appeal panel finally decided that Jeff was guilty of a ‘minor offence’ only. How can a ‘minor offence’ justify seven months of suspension, and all the effort and resources used to punish Jeff? And surely someone should be answerable for such a momentous failure of judgement? It is perhaps not surprising that all those driving this process have insisted on anonymity. However, the first paragraph of the Disciplinary Policy requires ‘a transparent process’. This process has been everything but transparent.

Continue reading “Seven months’ suspension for ‘a minor offence’?”

Discipline and Punish (Revisited) – Part 2

The last blog on the suspension of Jeff Frank noted the perils of being a UCU Equalities and Diversity Officer at Royal Holloway. It is ‘interesting’ how the leadership of Human Resources (HR) has a very poor equalities record, and shows such little concern for the College’s staff or wider reputation. On the other hand, they have demonstrated truly impressive levels of energy in victimising and punishing Jeff Frank.

Disciplinary proceedings, similarly, show ‘interesting’ characteristics. We’re witness to secrecy, accuser anonymity, and absence of accountability: the ‘untrusted’ must never learn who took the eventful decision to suspend Jeff nor the hidden reasons. Although the stated but unjustified charges fell one by one, the coded message was very clear, and unnecessarily lengthy disciplinary and suspension procedures serve as automatic punishment.

You may recall that the proceedings against Jeff began officially on the 11th April 2018, when he was suspended from his employment for pursuing union equalities cases. This behind-closed-doors decision constituted an attack on long-established collective bargaining arrangements. It was a conscious choice against fast and effective resolution. 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 practice meant that a HR director could simply raise any perceived problems with the local branch or a union regional officer.

At what point was there no turning back? And why was HR so motivated?

Continue reading “Discipline and Punish (Revisited) – Part 2”

Discipline and Punish (Revisited)

‘It has been remarked that the nearest Roman equivalent to a modern university professor was the Greek household slave…’ Or that was what management writer and industrial psychologist, Thomas North Whitehead, wrote in his Leadership in a Free Society: a Study in Human Relations Based on an Analysis of Present-Day Industrial Civilization (Harvard, 1947).

As job pressures mount, the modern British academic might let out a knowing sigh. Deep down, realistically, they might admit that today’s university life is not realistically bondage. Whipping, thankfully, is no longer part of a master’s disciplinary armoury. But, for the Human Resources department at Royal Holloway, victimization is.

And, as a result of ‘disciplining’ Jeff Frank for his trade union activities, it has spent the last year demanding that he and all staff should demonstrate their ‘fidelity’ to management!

We’ve been uncharacteristically silent recently about the victimization of Jeff. We all needed a seasonal break, and we were waiting on events. We were hoping for a sensible resolution to restore the reputation of the college. But the 2019 new year has not brought good cheer: hard to imagine but scarily true, the disciplinary action against Jeff continues into its tenth calendar month. We’d calculate the financial costs as way above £100,000 and still mounting.

Last November, HR convened a disciplinary panel to judge Jeff. Despite being inappropriately constituted and advised, in the view of UCU, the panel recognized how weak many of the charges were. A wholly unnecessary and an unnecessarily drawn out suspension was lifted. A robust appeal has been launched against three remaining charges. The appeal also asks that HR and management offer Jeff a full apology.

Farcically, HR and management have relied on legal advice amateurishly gathered through Google searches (and then much misapplied) to push their ‘case’. They seem determined to continue to do so. To prevent expertise getting in the way, they are now denying Jeff the representation of counsel at the appeal hearing.

Once again, Jeff asks that the entire case against him and all the responses be opened to public scrutiny. Given that ten months have passed, and with no end in sight, we’ll be in contact next week with a review that looks at the dangers of being a UCU Equalities and Diversity Officer at Royal Holloway…

Posted on behalf of members of the RHUL UCU branch committee. 

Jeff Frank: Update on Disciplinary Proceedings

Colleagues across the campus and in other universities continue to ask for updates on the disciplinary proceedings against Jeff Frank. These appear to have been initiated by Royal Holloway’s Human Resources (HR) department, but the person or persons managing the process on behalf of Senior Management have remained anonymous. There has been concern about the exceptional role of Professional Services in actions concerning an academic, and the implications for academic freedom.

The controversy created has been discussed in national and local media. We are grateful for the expressions of support conveyed to us by numerous UCU local branches. They have asked what they can do to help.

You may recall some of the history. Although suspension should not be used as a disciplinary measure, or in a ‘kneejerk’ fashion, Jeff has been suspended for seven months on charges that soon proved flimsy and included Jeff showing a ‘lack of fidelity’. The charges concerned actions Jeff took as a union case worker and as the local UCU’s Equalities and Diversity Officer on behalf of colleagues. HR abandoned collective bargaining arrangements, preferring instead to take out disciplinary action against a UCU representative.

We understand that the disciplinary panel sent its conclusions to Jeff very recently and regret that these are extremely serious. We cannot give details at this time, but observe that the sanctions represent a ‘sword of Damocles’ hanging over Jeff that potentially impacts on his academic freedom going forward as well as on his ability to support colleagues in his union role.

As soon as we have further details, we will of course circulate them.

Troublesome employees and UCU activists: Jeff Frank to face disciplinary panel

Most of us are familiar with the scene in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey where the computer, HAL 9000, explains to the human:

‘This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardise it.’

In the same way, the new Human Resources (HR) directorate seems to be frustrated with staff at the College, taking the position that its academics can no longer to allowed to ‘jeopardise the mission’. Although it can be unclear what that mission is, staff just seem to get in the way.

Uncomfortable with ‘troublesome’ employees and UCU activists, HR came up with a number of charges against Jeff Frank. As reported in a previous blog, these charges quickly proved flimsy, and so HR devised something new at RHUL and possibly for the university sector. After 24 years of service, Jeff was accused of showing a ‘lack of fidelity’.

Members will recall a recent parallel. Preparing for the principal’s ‘open’ meeting during the recent pension strike, a senior member of the communications team asked for ‘trusted’ staff to come forward with questions that could counter questions from untrustworthy strikers and UCU types. Dividing staff between the ‘trusted’ and the untrustworthy (or, that is, those ‘lacking fidelity’) is divisive. We believe it is, ultimately, self-defeating.

The conclusions of the joint working party on the USS suggest that those who went on strike to maintain a decent retirement deserve one big apology. They indicate that our pensions can be maintained in full for the current review period. But, instead of absorbing the lessons of the strike, HR has abandoned established local collective negotiation and resolution. It has opted to attack RHUL-UCU’s Equalities Officer for his efforts and case-work on behalf of colleagues. Case-work and presumably other trades union activities equate to ‘lack of fidelity’.

Jeff is up before a disciplinary panel this week, after which he could be dismissed from the College.

RHUL-UCU has written to the principal to express concern over the misapplication of the disciplinary policy, and to initiate the first stage of a local industrial dispute. The charge of ‘lack of fidelity’ raises fundamental principles that should concern any university. It is vague, catch-all, and subjective. It can lead all too easily towards the victimization of individuals, and its use must be suspect, especially if, as in Jeff’s case, the accusers also hide behind anonymity.

Furthermore, the charge of ‘lack of fidelity’ is a direct assault on the principle of academic freedom, and on the duties of staff and academic staff in particular to challenge and question, as clearly described in the College statutes. RHUL-UCU is concerned that the use of this charge is damaging the reputation of the College.

‘Lack of fidelity’ at a university is both serious and risible.

We will discuss this deteriorating series of events at the forthcoming General Meeting, on the 24th October, and we would urge you therefore to attend. If RHUL-UCU is unable to gain the assurances it needs from HR, local members will be asked to consider a ballot for industrial action.

Why has HR with the acquiescence of senior management bizarrely courted its low national reputation as an employer? We are left to speculate. As we enter a period of financial stringency, are they getting us ready for restructuring and redundancies?