August 11, 2008

Is Oxford University racist?

"It is increasingly clear that the purpose of Oxford University's current method of handling ethnic minority complaints is to exhaust complainants in order to force them, for the sake of Oxford's brand name, to withdraw their grievances."
Letter from an Oxford academic to Kofi Annan prior to Annan's acceptance of an honorary Oxford degree in July 2001

Keble College has been labelled institutionally racist by an employment tribunal after being found guilty of unfair dismissal and racial discrimination.

College accountant Diamond Versi accused bursar Roger Boden of forcing him out of his job due to his race. Mr Versi, who is of Asian origin, left Keble College following a reorganisation of the accounts department instigated by the Bursar in January last year. Versi had worked for the college for 14 years.

In a written ruling, the tribunal said: "The whole process was a sham and the tribunal takes a most unfavourable view of a prestigious Oxford college."

Versi told The Oxford Student he felt the reorganisation of the accounts department, which led to his resignation, had been designed to shunt him out. "They have around 600 students and now they say they don't need an accountant. Can you believe that?"

Versi described how the ordeal had caused a great deal of stress and he had received medication from the doctor due to high blood pressure and sleepless nights. "I am thoroughly surprised that he [Boden] kept his job," said Versi. "His position is untenable. I saved the college millions of pounds. He should have gone, not me. I blame not only Roger Boden, but the whole Keble College system. The Warden would not talk to me, nobody would talk to me."

However, staff and students of Keble have defended Boden, refuting the conclusions drawn by the tribunal. Keble Warden Professor Averil Cameron expressed her dismay at the verdict. "The college is very shocked and upset by the tribunal; we don't recognise its findings and we are looking into an appeal very carefully. There are a lot of mistakes in the tribunal's findings. We have explanations for every alleged incident and they were not recognised. We lost because the tribunal was unfair, they only listened to Mr Versi's case."

Versi's case was based on proving he had been unfairly dismissed by Keble. If this was proved, it was then up to Boden to prove he was not racially prejudiced against Versi. James Stuart, representing Versi, built a picture of conflict between his client and Boden, which led to his dismissal. This was accepted by the tribunal. It was described how the bursar launched an internal investigation against Versi in December 2002 with his only motivation being Versi's purchase of a new BMW and his taking his wife on holiday to Sri Lanka.

During 2003 the relationship between the two men worsened and the claimant described how he felt he was sidelined from decision-making by Boden. In January 2004 the bursar submitted a review of the accounts department which recommended the posts of accountant and assistant accountant be scrapped and replaced by a new post of financial controller. Mr Versi claimed this was designed to force him out of the office and that his assistant, Julie Hernandez, was assured the position. Hernandez did not appear as a witness.

Versi refused to apply for the new post and issued a formal grievance of racial discrimination to the Finance Committee in January 2004, the first instance where his official racial discrimination complaint was made. The claimant felt he was not given a fair hearing by the college, who rejected his claims as without merit and felt the case for the proposed re-structuring was entirely workable. The tribunal said Boden had undue influence on the complaint and appeal process.

A number of examples were submitted by the claimant as evidence for Boden's alleged racism. In March 2003 Boden refused to provide a £4,000 loan to a Keble employee of Pakistani origin. In October 2001 he had agreed to grant a £5,000 loan to a white employee.

Cameron pic
Keble College's Warden, Professor Averil Cameron,
who believes the ruling was unfair

The claimant also cited how Mr Boden had blocked the transfer of a member of the Hall staff of Vietnamese origin, Hien Le, from moving to the accounts department in April 2003. Le, who now works in the accounts department, was not called as a witness by either the college or Mr Versi, but she told The Oxford Student she did not support Diamond Versi's assertion that Mr Boden had been racially prejudiced against her. "It was not until I read The Oxford Mail that I heard I had been discriminated against. I didn't get the impression they didn't want me because I was Vietnamese."

Professor Cameron suggested Keble had made a mistake by deciding not to provide Le as a witness. "Perhaps we were advised in the wrong direction," she said.

However, the tribunal felt Boden and Keble College did not provide adequate evidence that he had not acted in a racist manner. Professor Cameron refutes that there was any evidence of racial discrimination.

During an interview with The Oxford Student, Versi was questioned on his evidence of Boden's alleged racial discrimination. He described the conflict with the Bursar over staff loans. "It was total racism," said Versi. However, when Versi was challenged over the nature of the two loans in question, one needed to pay off a credit card debt and the other to help purchase a house, he said: "Stop arguing with me. It bloody well was racism. I don't need to justify myself to you, you're not the tribunal." Versi then said he would not answer further questions.

He had earlier expressed his unhappiness with the nature of coverage of the tribunal by Oxford University's two student newspapers. "I was extremely upset with the articles in The Oxford Student and the Cherwell. It was very upsetting for me. Roger Boden should never have spoken to the press during the tribunal."

Meanwhile, Keble JCR President Mohsin Zaidi expressed his surprise at the findings. "My relations with the Bursar have been amazing. I can say that he's not a racist because I know him and speak to him every day. I hope the Keble student body can trust my, the JCR treasurer's and the vice-president's judgement in our support for Mr Boden because we deal with him and they elected us to do so," he said. Zaidi was not surprised at Mr Versi's reaction to being questioned over the evidence in the tribunal. "It shows he doesn't have any basis to claim the Bursar was racist," he said.

Late in 2004, to celebrate the fact that no legal action alleging racial discrimination had ever successfully been brought against any Oxford college or the University, Akme assembled the special Oxford Is Not Racist subindex of reported incidents and failed lawsuits. Now with the dramatic conclusion of the case Versi vs Keble College & Roger Boden, in which both the college and its bursar have been found guilty of racial discrimination and unfair dismissal, Oxford's blameless record and reputation have irrevocably been shattered. For the benefit of scholars Akme has collated the papers in this important, fascinating and at times comical case, and here posted them in a new linked series. Note too the Warden's 'under payment'.

The whole process was a sham and the Tribunal takes a most unfavourable view of a prestigious Oxford college who through its Finance Committee and Governing Body failed to apply appropriate checks and balances and allowed a situation to prevail where there were no effective or operable policies in relation to equal opportunities at the college. Much has been canvassed regarding equal opportunities as to admissions to Oxford colleges and no doubt Keble College takes such issues seriously. In the Tribunal's view it should also pay significantly more attention to the matter of equal opportunities in relation to its workforce. The claimant with distinguished service of 15 years in a senior position deserved a lot more from the college in the unfair and prejudicial process that led to his departure.


1 comment:

JuliaB said...

Oxford University may be racist or it may not be. What I beleive is that the University, specifically Keble College - i can't speak for other colleges - harbours bullies. My biggest regret is not reading this before I myself left Keble.