January 31, 2009

Former PhD student hopes to fund legal action via web

A disaffected student has set up an internet campaign in a bid to raise £20,000 to sue the university where he failed to obtain his PhD.

Paul Jones, 26, who was a graduate teaching assistant at the University of Exeter Business School until last year, claims that unreasonable teaching demands were placed on him and that he received inadequate supervision after his tutor went on sabbatical and left him in charge of a specialist third-year undergraduate teaching module.

His website, student4justice.com, aims to reveal the "darker, less well documented world of academia". It is dedicated to students deemed to be "snotty and litigious" by their universities.

Last year, Mr Jones made an official complaint to the university. He went through all four stages of Exeter's grievance procedure, but his complaints were not upheld. As "a gesture of goodwill", the university has offered to pay a year's tuition fees at another institution to fund the completion of Mr Jones' thesis. It also agreed to pay for the additional work he undertook delivering the module.

But Mr Jones, who says he has been left depressed by the experience and is now unemployed, hopes to raise funds through his website to bring legal action against Exeter for breach of contract.

"This is the only means of recourse I can pursue against the university that will allow me to seek damages, with the ultimate aim of allowing me to continue with my studies at an alternative university," the website claims.

The site, which names all the academics involved, includes extracts from emails and statements Mr Jones said he had uncovered using the Data Protection Act.

One email published on the site, written to colleagues by Steve Brown, head of the university's department of management, warned of "a few 'worried points' on Paul Jones' teaching for the first semester".

"As Paul is a GTA, it would be unwise to let him take entire charge of the module, especially a specialist third-year module, even though I understand it is 'in his area'," Professor Brown wrote.

"My fear is that students are becoming increasingly 'snotty' - litigious even - and I think we need to cover all the angles with this."

He asked Janet Borgerson, a reader in philosophy and management who was responsible for the module that Mr Jones was teaching, to "make sure that Paul is ready to deliver the material on this - he may need more support so that he has course and other material ready.

"I hope this isn't coming across as too paranoid but I just want to make sure that we don't have a bunch of students sending in letters and so on."

Mr Jones hopes his website will "highlight the plight of postgraduate students who are ... neglected or subject to mounting pressure to accept teaching duties traditionally performed by senior academic staff".

In a statement, Exeter said it had looked "in great detail" at Mr Jones' complaints but that none was upheld. "The hearings did not accept that unreasonable teaching demands were placed on Mr Jones without due regard for the likely consequences for his ability to complete his PhD studies," the statement says.

It adds that Mr Jones had been "well qualified" to deliver the module, "given that he was at the time already an experienced graduate teaching assistant".

From: http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk


Rosa Luxembourg said...

With all respect for bullied academics everywhere, and without wishing to prejudge this PG student's situation, I must say that it does not hold a candle to the kinds of Orwellian elimination rituals and other harassment nightmares many of us academic staff on here have lived through for multiple years in utter silence and, very often, bankrupting ourselves with legal fees, and losing our jobs and careers in the process. It is fascinating that THES is publicising such a story when there are so, so many working academics throughout the UK whose situations are far more egregious. Would that we were all to find the collective strength and wherewithal to go public with our (in many cases almost unbelievable) stories of systematic intimidation, victimisation, and abuse of power at the hands of VCs and senior management at some of the UK's leading universities . . .

Anonymous said...

Rosa - then speak out - don't moan about the publicity given to SFJ. He is right to bring this case to the THE, and has support from us on here!

Rosa said...

With all respect, how am I moaning simply by expressing an opinion? Are you saying we should all be bringing our cases to the THE? I am certainly not the only one on here who has not had the wherewithal to do that--in fact, I have been discouraged from doing so because I have been told that THE is not supportive of lone academics standing up to the behemoth of senior management and one never can be sure of how THE will 'spin' the story. We have spoken in the past about the need for strength in numbers, as we are all too easily written off as malcontents.

Perhaps I am oversensitive in this particular case because I am aware of the potential for female academic staff in particular to be bullied and harassed, as well as disrespected, by PhD students in ways that would be considered rude and insubordinate by male academic staff. I have seen at first hand how PhD students can be and have often been used as pawns in the hands of senior management in their campaigns to eliminate targetted academic staff, so I am perhaps more skeptical than some others.

Also, students are in a very different situation from academic staff who are employees and have different remedies than do academic staff do not. Finally, as we have already seen above, people have a tendency automatically to rush to the defense of students, not matter what, whereas similar stories of egregious exploitation and abuse of academic staff tend to be viewed with considerably more hands off, 'blame the victim' type skepticism.

Anonymous said...

Collective action is crucial... and yet just because we believe that we have been the targets of workplace bullying it does not mean that we will agree easily...

Five years after first raising issues in my university about workplace bullying I now understand much more about the tactics used by the management of the university and UCU.

I understand the impossibility of making progress.. in all that time I have met two people with integrity... one a senior manager in my university - the other a senior UCU member who had submitted his resignation from UCU - his behaviour towards me changed at that point and he helped me to move my case forward....

I support the actions that anyone takes to combat workplace bullying... they do not need us to distract attention from wpb... in whose interests in that....

Progress is being made... but we are tackling something that is so toxic... so endemic in institutions that are self regulating... that it will be a long long struggle...

In solidarity

Aphra Behn

Anonymous said...

Ah, you have uttered the crucial word 'integrity'. Why is it that this quality is so severely lacking in university personnel, esp senior management? 'Integrity' seems to be the one quality that most of us on here share--and we have all, I am willing to wager, suffered immeasurably for it.

Rosa Luxembourg

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this much-needed blog/website. I'm in the process of taking legal action against multiple instances of bullying by former Phd supervisor. I couldn't find the contact detail or email to make a contact. Can you help please? My email is a hotmail one and don't know if i need to get a different one for a group/blog subscription?