Disputes in British Universities

Private Eye 1130 (April 2005)

University of Wails

SO MUCH for the freedom of academic thought and expression at the University of Wales, Swansea.

The concerns of lecturers and students over the vice-chancellor's plans to axe "unpopular" departments like chemistry, philosophy and sociology to promote lucrative managerial courses for foreign students have been met with an extraordinary use of internal disciplinary procedures, not to mention calls to Inspector Knacker.

The clampdown started with the arrest and suspension early last month of Colwyn Williamson, a well respected and long serving philosophy lecturer. He was one of the main authors of a complaint to the University's Visitor (a kind of ombudsman) about the cuts planned by vice-chancellor Prof Richard Davies and his managers; and a further complaint over Davies's appointment of his old mate and best man Prof Neill O'Farrell to head the new school of management at an annual salary believed to be around £105,000 (Eye 1102).

Williamson is suspected of hacking into the university computer system to gather evidence for his complaint, a charge he vehemently denies. But to the concern of fellow lecturers and students who are about to sit exams, he remains excluded from the university (though until Easter he continued to give lectures off-campus).

The move against Williamson was followed by a summons to the police station for student Cefin Hayward, under 1997 harassment legislation, over the placing of protest posters on the campus depicting caricatures of the vice-chancellor, with a pointy head and ears, and captions including such witticisms as "not as intelligent as he looks" and, on the appointment of his mate, "Yes, we have been personal friends for 30 years, but I didn't let that influence me." Not as intelligent as he looks

Like Williamson, Hayward was also released without charge but he was warned about his future behaviour. There have also. been arrests following student protest rallies, but they have not resulted in charges either. So why is the university calling in the police to deal with legitimate protest? And why is Inspector Knacker pandering to these requests?

Most recently student Jonathan Jones, a representative on the University Senate, was charged with the disciplinary offence of personally criticising the vice-chancellor after Prof Davies cancelled a senate meeting in the face of a student demo. Jones allegedly called the vice-chancellor a "coward".

If the draconian measures are designed to head off dissent, they are having the opposite effect. The Association of University Teachers is calling for Williamson's reinstatement; students are looking to sue the university for interrupting their studies ahead of exams; and the bizarre actions of the vice-chancellor are being added to a growing list of complaints to the Visitor.

Williamson is no stranger to ludicrous, heavy-handed university tactics (see Eye 829). He was one of three lecturers at Swansea who were suspended and accused of gross misconduct after blowing the whistle on the award of "degrees for fees". Degrees were being handed out to anyone who paid a substantial fee and wrote a thesis. In one case a "thesis" was copied straight out of a textbook. The three were cleared by a Visitor's inquiry, conducted by former high court judge Sir Michael Davies. He ruled that their allegations had substantial justification and they should be re-instated.


Statement from Howard Moss (AUT), 21st March 2005:

Dear Colleagues

As AUT personal cases co­ordinator I deal with many cases brought to the AUT by members. These are of many different kinds but what unites them is the need for confidentiality. It is therefore with an enormous degree of unease - though I have the full permission of the member involved - that I am taking the unprecedented step of informing colleagues in the University of the details of a particular case. I feel obliged to do this both in order to correct the gross distortions about the case which are being spread and because certain actions taken represent a high degree of unfairness on the part of the University.

At 7.30 am on Tuesday 1 March, police went to the house of an AUT member and arrested him on suspicion of breaching the Computer Misuse Act 1990. They searched his house and removed all computer equipment, including that belonging to his young daughter. Later the same morning, the police arrived at the University accompanied by an employee of the University's legal firm, and removed all computer equipment and other material from his office. After holding him behind bars for several hours, followed by a brief interview regarding his accessing someone else's email, the police told him they had no wish to bring charges and would drop the matter if he accepted a caution, which he agreed to. He was told that the matter was now closed, and his computer equipment was returned.

The following day, 2 March, he received a letter from the Vice Chancellor stating that he was suspended, and prohibited from coming onto campus, pending an investigation 'which concerns possible criminal offences of computer misuse'.

I was appointed by the AUT to represent the member. I discovered that the police had acted on a request from the University, and that they had been asked to investigate a complaint lodged with the University some eleven months earlier by the member's former partner that he had accessed her emails without permission. She had not herself asked for it to become a police matter. There was no suggestion that the alleged offence had been repeated in the intervening period, and the parties had had no contact since.

It appeared to me that for the Vice Chancellor to suspend in these circumstances was a wholly disproportionate reaction. AUT has been involved in a number of cases in which suspension has been used, and we have often agreed that such action was . necessary. The Vice Chancellor does have the discretionary power to suspend under certain circumstances, but clearly this discretion must be exercised in a reasonable way. Although suspension is represented as not being a disciplinary measure, it is clearly punitive in its effects, and in practice it is unlikely that others will interpret it in a neutral way. What has always in the past been construed as a reasonable basis for suspension is the possibility that failure to suspend could prejudice or impede an investigation. Cases where this might apply are where there is a real possibility of the parties coming into the kind of contact which would entail some kind of risk, or where there is a danger of the member repeating the offence. There was no evidence to suggest any risk, and the danger of repetition was irrelevant, since the alleged offence had nothing to do with being on or off campus. In addition suspension was sure to cause difficulties for students and colleagues. So, on the face of ft, suspending the member in this case may seem something of a mystery. But does the mystery become less if I say, for those who do not already know, that the name of the suspended individual is Colwyn Williamson?

The letter received by Mr Williamson gave the complaint associated with the police investigation as the reason for suspension. Given the nature of the complaint this was an excessive reaction at the time. Now that the police have concluded their investigation with the result described above, continued suspension seems even more unconscionable. What the Vice Chancellor is now saying is that the University wishes to investigate suspicions that Mr . Williamson may have compromised the University's computing system by "hacking" into the Registry. This was something which had not been alleged to the police and which, as far as I can discover, is entirely without foundation. I do not know that anyone has asked the Vice Chancellor to investigate Mr Williamson for hacking into the Registry and, if someone had, an investigation would have to be based on more than just suspicion, particularly if the suspension is somehow connected to this. I have suggested to the University mat it will in fact be impossible for suspension not to be seen as being connected to another current dispute. I have also asked the University to relax its ruling that Mr Williamson give three days' notice and be under escort if he visits the campus on trade union business. This has been refused.

Many people will know that I have not always seen eye to eye with Mr Williamson on important issues that have arisen within the University and the AUT. But I am not prepared to stand idly by and watch this colleague - or any colleague - be subjected to oppressive behaviour which may amount to victimisation, I am a firm believer, as I am sure most of us are, in the well-known maxim about good men doing nothing. The Vice Chancellor has agreed to keep the suspension under review and, given the circumstances, I renew my request for it to be lifted. •

Howard Moss AUT Personal Cases Co­ordinator

Update from Swansea - 24th March 2005

Last week a member of Swansea's Student Action Committee Against Closures was summoned to a local Police Station to be interviewed about a complaint against him lodged by the Vice-Chancellor under the Harassment Act 1997. He was accused, the police told him, of an offence under the Act by putting up posters which cast the Vice- Chancellor in a critical light, notably by depicting him in a fashion which was variously described as "elongation of the head" and "with a pointed head". Offences under the Act are imprisonable. In the event he was not charged but released with a warning.

Today a Students' Union representative on Senate was charged with an offence under the university's internal disciplinary procedure for calling the Vice-Chancellor a "coward" for dissolving the last meeting of Senate in the face of a student demonstration against Colwyn Williamson's suspension. It is understood that the professor who compared dissolving the meeting with Hitler's dissolution of the Reichstag is not to be charged.

Its not only Swansea that goes in for this sort of thing. But how many lurkers will there be on this website, and how easy is it to find out where one is. Its very worrying that a student protester has been victimised as well. Good for Colwyn, willing to stand up and protest. I am sure he probably has a lot of supporters on campus who will be afraid to be known to be supporters for fear of more reprisals. It all sounds so familiar. My place has been told that contacting the press may be fatal for ones career. Not those words, but that intention, consequently total silence except weasel words from the publicity office. Its a tragic situation. Rebecca