June 21, 2009

Pinker leads international attack on UCL's 'unjust' treatment of scholar

An international group of scholars has launched a scathing attack on an elite UK university, accusing it of "extraordinary and unjust" treatment of an academic.

The 25 eminent researchers from four continents, led by Steven Pinker of Harvard University, have written to University College London voicing "strong concern" over what they say is the "summary suspension and enforced silence" of Heather van der Lely, director of UCL's Centre for Developmental Language Disorders and Cognitive Neuroscience.

Internationally acclaimed Professor van der Lely, 53, was suspended on charges of insubordination by UCL last November after she refused to move to a smaller laboratory space, which she felt was inadequate for her research.

Claiming she has been victimised, Professor van der Lely is pursuing a case against the university at an employment tribunal.

The letter, sent by the group to Sir Stephen Wall, chair of UCL's council, says: "Professor van der Lely has been barred from entering her laboratory, accessing her data, managing her grants, using her email and communicating with her students and colleagues at UCL.

"This is an extraordinary and unjust punishment. The career of a scientist depends on continuous interaction with students, collaborators, funding agencies and research subjects."

The letter goes on to criticise UCL for what it says is "disrespect" for free speech. "For a university to bar its own faculty and students from communicating with a colleague on research matters ... is an affront to the liberal values that are the basis of a modern university."

It concludes by demanding her reinstatement: "We call on the administration to reinstate her, and to treat her according to principles of fairness and due process."

Professor Pinker, a renowned experimental psychologist and author of several hugely successful books on science, including The Blank Slate and The Stuff of Thought, was collaborating on a project with Professor van der Lely at the time of her suspension.

He has previously written to UCL's provost, Malcolm Grant, about the case and said the intention of the latest letter, seen exclusively by Times Higher Education, was to make clear that the scientific community was "surprised" at the treatment of his erstwhile colleague and to indicate the esteem in which she is held.

"The scientific community is watching," he warned. "There are standards for fair treatment, and this is something that other people care about."

Professor van der Lely was unaware of the letter when contacted by Times Higher Education. She referred the matter to her lawyer.

She said only that she was "extraordinarily touched" by the support of her fellow academics and that she had been barred from talking about the case.

Her solicitor, Shah Qureshi, a partner at the law firm Bindmans, confirmed that she had issued proceedings at the central London employment tribunal.

"She believes she has been victimised and subjected to disproportionate disciplinary action by UCL after raising public interest disclosures, including inadequate facilities likely to have an impact on the health and safety of children, and potential breach of patient confidentiality," he said in a statement. "She believes her actions have led to her demotion and suspension since November 2008."

Mr Qureshi said that despite the professor's being an internationally recognised expert in developmental language disorders, she felt that her scientific standing was "questioned in a way that male colleagues', including those junior to her, was not".

He added that Professor van der Lely suffered from lymphoedema - a disability causing swelling in the legs and difficulties in mobility - and felt that senior management were "reluctant to acknowledge this and failed to provide adequate working space and safe working temperatures".

A spokesman for the university said: "UCL is not in a position to comment on this case, other than to say that this a complex matter concerning disciplinary allegations and grievances that are in the process of being examined under provisions contained within UCL's charter and statutes. Sir Stephen Wall has written direct to the authors of the letter to address their concerns."

Signatories to the letter include academics from UCL and Harvard, as well as scientists from other UK and US institutions and from France, Germany, Denmark, Australia, Italy, Romania, Israel and Poland.

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

1. This particular academic is well-known and well-networked. By default, this case attracts national and international attention. Sadly, not all academics manage to attract such support.
2. This case is not an isolated case. We know of similar cases within the Russell Group in the UK, where prominent academics are going through a ritual of elimination.


Anonymous said...

This is by far not the only case that I know of like this one. The U.K. is absolutely rampant with discrimation cases like this against FEMALE FOREIGN PROFESSORS who were recruited to make a university's RAE results look better and then treated disgracefully by their HOD or their colleagues. Why can't this discrimination be stopped?

Anonymous said...

Yes well as a female colleague of van der lely's all I can say is she bullies others (especially female and especially junior) to support her own advancement.

Anonymous said...

Clearly the second comment above was made by one of the accomplices in the mobbing of Prof van der Lely. This kind of ganging up on the older distinguished woman cannot succeed without enlisting the help of a key, self-interested, younger female colleague---usually one overly eager for a (in her mind) long overdue promotion. She curries favour with the invariably male senior management by accusing the older female of 'bullying' her, usually over concocted issues which are given credence by those who seek to oust the senior woman. This is a very old trick but one which is sadly very much alive and well in the UK. I don't believe a word of what this second poster says. I would bet that she has since been promoted and/or accorded other emoluments by the senior male managers who accused Prof van der Lely of of 'insubordination', of all absurd things to accuse a senior academic of any gender.

Anonymous said...

I know van der Lely, and trust me, she is no victim. She is a massive bully, and to call her a distinguished scientist is stretching the truth. This is nothing to do with her being a woman, and everything to do with the manner in which she conducts herself in her role at UCL.

If you couldn't pay the rent on your flat and refused to move out, I'm sure your landlord would evict you. If you refused to do your job, you'd be in breach of contract, and your boss would fire you. Why should academia be any different?

Anonymous said...

In response to comments 2 and 4 above - I am a junior female colleague of Prof van der Lely's and have never once been "bullied" by her in her attempt to "support her own advancement". On the contrary, I have received exceptional support and encouragement from her, for which I am extremely grateful. It is a disgrace that she is not being allowed to do her job.

Anonymous said...

Ms van der laly is no victim but a scheming self advancement person. She worked throughout bring a clain against the Uni that she could no longer work.

Anonymous said...

It's not just female foreign academics who get bullied. I am an Englishman, and I was severly bullied while at UCL in the early 1990s. I have glassware thrown at me in the lab, was frequently sworn at and threatened with violence by two members of the department I was in. My complaints were ignored and I was even ostracised by other memebers of staff when I complained. Needless to say I didn't get my PhD and it's taken years to get over.