October 06, 2023

Challenging Bullying and Discrimination at the Open University

My name is Pilgrim Tucker. I am taking legal action against the Open University for discrimination on the basis of my disabilities, bullying associated with my gender-critical beliefs, harassment, victimisation, and breach of contract*, which has made it impossible for me to continue my PhD research at the OU. I need your support.

My Story

In 2017, I was invited to study for a PhD at the Open University by OU academic staff Professor A and Dr B following my campaigning work with residents of Grenfell Tower and the wider Lancaster West Estate before and after the 2017 fire.

I began my PhD at the OU in October 2018, researching the history of housing in North Kensington prior to the Grenfell Tower fire.

However, Dr C, the OU historian who had committed to providing input on the research project, was a leading transgender advocate within the university. He blocked me on social media, and then withdrew from working on my project. Although I was promised his expertise would be replaced, no history supervision input was provided.

From the time I started attempting to secure history supervision provision, OU staff began to construct a false narrative about my application, claiming I had never been promised history supervision input on my PhD, and that I was being unreasonable in expecting the university to provide it.

Subsequently, other administrative and pastoral aspects of my PhD provision began to go very wrong, and I started to become increasingly stressed and anxious and requested reasonable adjustments to accommodate my increasing mental health and menopause symptoms.

However rather than acknowledge and rectify any service provision failures, or put in place any adjustments to support my studies, the university attempted to conceal they had promised me history supervision and started to claim, falsely, that I had been rude to staff members, stating that the reason I had received a poor standard of provision at the university was due to illness and purported ‘problematic behavioural traits’ on my part.

The following are some of the claims which have been put to the OU in a pre-action letter, which they have not responded to:

Informing me, wrongly, that I had no entitlement to sick pay or sick leave during periods of ill health, although ESRC funding rules obliged the OU to provide it, and instead advising me to take unpaid leave and claim state benefits while unwell.

Failure to provide counselling support during the period I was undertaking interviews with victims of the Grenfell Tower fire, despite this being specified as a necessary ethical requirement on my research ethics application and OU staff promising me counselling would be provided.

Being incorrectly advised by the head of faculty and other OU staff responsible for my PhD that the only way to change supervision arrangements was by making a formal complaint.

Failing to provide any reasonable adjustments for my disabilities.

Wrongly informing OU staff that I was dyslexic.

Failing to reimburse expenses claims amounting to hundreds of pounds for almost 2 years.

Removing funding for book purchases and falsely claiming I had not had book purchase funding provided from the time I started my PhD.

Failure to apply the university’s covid tracked extension system to my PhD to cover time lost due to covid lockdowns.

Failing to provide accurate or reliable information about thesis submission deadlines, study break allowance, and extensions, and providing constantly changing and inaccurate information regarding this.

Insisting I accept a trans rights activist academic in a pastoral support role.

Seeking to take punitive action against me, based on false and unsubstantiated allegations about my conduct, following the submission of my complaint about the standard of service provided to me by the university.

Although following my complaint the Open University accepted that I had been wrongly advised by senior OU staff members and that I had experienced shortfalls in administrative provision, they minimised these, denying the majority of their failings. They have made no apology and offered no remedy or compensation.

The next step is for my barrister to draft particulars of the case in preparation for a legal hearing.

I am currently seeking to raise £11,000, in two stages, this is made up of £5230 in solicitors fees and £5670 – the cost of Barrister Alice De Coverley drafting the particulars of the case.

Thank you for any contribution you can make.

*My breach of contract claim encompasses the university’s failure to act in accordance with its own policies and procedures, and a breach of its duty to perform the service with reasonable care and skill. My contractual claim raises the same issues as a negligence claim and includes bullying associated with my gender-critical beliefs.

You can pledge at: https://www.crowdjustice.com/case/pilgrim-tucker-challenging-discrimination-at-ou/

Bullying is a feature of UK research universities, not a bug

 ...Three years ago, Unite, Unison and the University and College Union carried out an investigation into bullying at Cambridge. The results fell into the category of the least surprising news ever – alongside the likes of “Boris Johnson has another affair” and “banker receives an enormous bonus”.

Specifically, the survey found that nearly one in three Cambridge staff had either been the victims of bullying and victimisation or had witnessed it in the previous 18 months. Worse still, more than half of those who had experienced bullying did not report it, with many believing that nothing would be done or that the perpetrator would retaliate.

My view on bullies in universities is that they’re a feature, not a bug.

Huge grants, prestigious prizes, adulatory press coverage, first-author publications, untrammelled power over enormous research groups: these are all highly flattering to the ego. It is no coincidence, then, that big egos are associated with “top academics”, alongside charisma, self-promotion and self-importance. And these qualities are also present in the kinds of people who bully others.

Not all top academics are bullies, but quite a few are. And bullying thrives in the hierarchical and hyper-competitive environment of top universities. Tackling it is difficult because the bully is typically so much more valuable than the victim, and direction from the top can easily lead any inquiry to exonerate the bully by finding the evidence inconclusive.

On the academic side, the people most often bullied are graduate students and post-doctoral research assistants. Victims might first approach a departmental anti-bullying representative or a wellness advocate, often a sympathetic senior academic. The problem may be resolved informally – but, if it is at all serious, it will most likely not. You will then be encouraged to contact human resources.

Your difficulties are about to begin.

...But UK universities are organised differently, so allegations are not handled by an independent body. Even if your HR department commissions an external report, they will choose the investigator with a view to protecting the institution.

Unsurprisingly, the Cambridge survey found that women were more likely than men to experience bullying and harassment. It also found that non-academic support staff were more likely to be bullied than academics; you are especially expendable if you do not bring in any money from research or teaching.

So if you are a female member of support staff, there is no way to sugarcoat it: you are at high risk of being bullied. In the saddest case known to me, one such individual at a UK university killed herself because of bullying.

The best advice to a member of support staff who is being bullied is to join your trade union immediately. Trade union lawyers are among the UK’s heroes. You will need their experience of employment law in any battle with your HR department.

To give one example, many violations of good employment practice have statutes of limitations. It is easy to waste months raising matters with intransigent HR staff only to find you are out of time. As soon as there are difficulties, raise the matter immediately with your trade union. Don’t believe HR’s endless blather about “putting people first” or “breaking the silence about bullying”. It is just spin to enable your university to look good and get its Athena SWAN badge.

As for Cambridge’s new policy, if bullying is as pervasive as the unions’ survey suggested, why is no one ever dismissed? In all my years at Cambridge, I cannot recall a single instance of a bully being held to account. That lack of action speaks much louder than any YouTube video could about where the priorities have lain.

From: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/opinion/bullying-feature-uk-research-universities-not-bug

October 01, 2023

Workplace Bullying In Academia: A Canadian Study


"...Systemic bullying, hazing and abuse generally are identified with poor, weak or toxic organizational cultures. Cultures that are toxic have stated ethical values that are espoused but not employed, and other non-ethical values which are operational, dominant, but unstated. Such cultures thrive when good people are silent, silenced, or pushed out; when bad apples are vocal, retained, promoted, and empowered; and when the neutral majority remain silent in order to survive. Those who are most successful in such a toxic culture are those who have adapted to it or adopted it as their own...

Evidence of an institutionalized element to the university workplace bullying is found in the openness with which some employees and students are exhibiting behaviours viewed as bullying. These findings are significant when linked with the level of awareness of such behaviours and the frequency of the behaviours. This indicates a pervasive and prolonged nature to the bullying and suggests an organizational culture component to the behaviour. The lack of a policy dealing with harassment outside the Human Rights Act may be a contributing factor. It is also possible, due to a lack of awareness, that the individual events have not been linked together to identify the systemic nature of the issue...

The lack of an overall policy for inappropriate behaviour means that each incident is dealt with in isolation and does not contribute to a set policy by the administration for addressing this issue. There is also inconsistency across the organization regarding how workplace bullying incidents are handled. As a result, some faculty, instructors and librarians believe they are not supported when they raise concerns. This also contributes to the ineffectiveness of administrators in addressing such issues as best practices have not been established..."

McKay, R., Arnold, D.H., Fratzl, J. et al. Workplace Bullying In Academia: A Canadian Study. Employ Respons Rights J 20, 77–100 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10672-008-9073-3