Sunday, July 06, 2008

Incompatibility is not an academic question

HOW closely are British universities and the people who run them tied to the politics of state, or the interests of big business? How compatible are such ties, or the desire to cultivate them, with integrity and academic freedom?

We recently reported the case of Hisham Yezza, a former PhD student turned employee of the University of Nottingham, who found himself detained and facing deportation to Algeria, as a result of being too helpful to an MA student at the university with a "terrorist" document he had downloaded for his dissertation. Someone saw it on Hisham's computer, and though the document was available from official US websites and elsewhere, the university authorities did not ask their employee what it was, they simply called the police.

Hisham and the student were arrested by armed police acting under the Terrorism Act. Their homes were raided, and though they were both eventually cleared of any charges, Hisham was re-arrested because his visa had not been renewed, and he was carted away to Colnbrook detention centre, near Heathrow. Last thing I heard he had been moved again, maybe to avoid demonstrations. There is a campaign on Hisham's behalf, with support from students, former colleagues, and Nottingham MP Alan Simpson. But the University, justifying its initial decision to call in police said there was no threat to academic freedom involved, because though Hisham had studied at the university he was only a member of clerical staff.

Dr. Rhetta Moran was never charged with any offence, nor could she be deported, but she was sacked by the University of Salford in 2005, for what appeared to be political reasons, even if her university bosses seem to have been unable to decide whether she had done anything wrong or if she was simply being made "redundant". The closest they came to spelling out a reason was to say her research was not "compatible" with the university's aims.

On March 28, 2004 the Observer ran a story about women asylum seekers who had gone 'underground' because of harassment and fear in Salford. Rhetta Moran was quoted as s source, saying that asylum seekers had been dumped in poor estates, without any provision for extra services or adequate legal access. With local people already short of resources, this had resulted in tensions. Dr. Moran had previously exposed how Iraqi asylum seekers were being deported. Soon after the Observer article appeared she was removed from her post with a government-funded research project on the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers. Next came the moves from the University.

Rhetta fought to be reinstated, taking her case to the employment tribunal, with support from the National Union of Journalists. She was unsuccessful. Salford University even tried to obtain £10,000 in costs, which would have served as a deterrent to other sacked employees seeking justice from the tribunals. But where was the Association of University Teachers, now the University and Colleges Union(UCU), and its president Sally Hunt, in all this?

Rhetta Moran has discovered that Mike Burrows, chief executive of Salford Primary Care Trust, wrote to her boss at the university, Professor Michael Harloe, in April 2004, shortly after the Observer article, to tell him that she was being removed from the refugee research project. Then in January 2005, the day after she was sacked by the university, the deputy PM's office announced a multi-million regeneration scheme for central Salford, in which Prof. Harloe, Salford's vice chancellor, would play a major part. ( Incidentally, I hear the "regeneration" in parts of Salford is becoming a dirty word, as the developers move in, and working people who cannot afford the new properties in their old neighborhood are forced to move out. But that is another story.)

It turns out that John Dobson, head of Salford's business school, who signed Rhetta Moran's letter of dismissal, telling her that her research was no longer "compatible", has become president of the Salford University UCU branch.

Now Rhetta Moran, having had time to spend with her family and pursue her own research, has written to Sally Hunt, with support from a Sheffield University academic, Dr.Aubrey Blumsohn, whose particular interest has been scientific misconduct, but is also concerned with academic bullying. They recall that Sally Hunt wrote on September 28, 2005, to say that she was asking for a report on what happened to Rhetta Moran, but say they are still waiting to hear from her. They are concerned not just with this case, but with what UCU's general position
is on so-called "incompatibility", and how it affects academic freedom and integrity. They think this is a major issue for the union, and for all involved in higher education and research. I think they are right. .

Here is some background material which Aubrey Blumsohn has been kind enough to send me:

Part 1: A story and statement from Rhetta Moran

Part 2: Letter of this week to Sally Hunt from Rhetta and myself

A Letter to sally Hunt (Moran/Blumsohn)

part 3: The cartoon version

the cartoon version

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