Friday, 19 April 2019

My experience of bullying at Universities

Following a report on BBC News, The Guardian has just published an article "UK universities must break their silence around harassment and bullying". It appears that UK Universities have spend at least £87 million on gagging orders in the last 2 years. Many academics said they were "harassed" out of their jobs and forced to sign non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) by their university after making complaints about inappropriate sexual behaviour or bullying by more senior staff.

The stories about bullying, and the comments by sufferers about how vulnerable this can make you feel, is all to familiar to me because my CODIL research effectively came to an end in 1988 as a result of harassment.

In around 1986 I was the member of the Computer Science department at Brunel University, spearheading the use of interactive teaching tools on the university's main frame computer. Each year about 125 first year students were introduced to computers using FIXIT (a CODIL application) and a smaller group used a computer-aided package written in CODIL with personal tutoring advice being given using email. I had just produced the BBC Micro package "MicroCODIL" which was aimed at schools and which got rave reviews in a wide range of magazines -  most of which would be seen by six formers considering which university to go to. I had an excellent publication record and a paper had just been accepted in the highly prestigious Computer Journal (I think this was the Department's first in this journal since the department had been founded about 18 years easlier). In fact I was in a very good position to apply for a research grant on the educational use of CODIL - and probably in a good position to apply for a more senior post elsewhere. 

However the illness and subsequent death of my daughter had slowed things down and left me with post-traumatic stress disorder. This delay and subsequent ill-health is almost certainly why I hadn't already applied for a research grant when a new professor was installed. He clearly wanted to impress the Vice Chancellor with his ability to follow Margaret Thatcher's policy of getting rid of "deadwood" and he picked on me. 

He made no attempt to try to understand my research. His first reaction, when I told him about the Computer Journal paper in the press was to rubbish the British Computer Society for accepting such "rubbish research" from me. He had the reviews of MicroCODIL removed from the department notice . He insisted that a senior member of staff, working on educational software, should use "proper"computers and not the "toy" BBC Computer that was very widely used in schools. I was also moved to another room, away from the main Department area, to emphasize that I was not wanted. 

If I had not had post traumatic stress disorder I would have probably fought back, and also started to plan a move a more congenial university. Instead I accepted the offer of early retirement as the quickest way of escape ... 

As it happened my case was not the only one. A few years later I revisited Brunel and was told that my tormentor had left. An inquiry by the union had come up with more than 20 victim names. He had been given a year to quietly find another university (where presumably he would be free to continue bullying) rather than for the university to take direct action to dismiss him, which might prove embarrassing for the university. Whether there were any NDAs involved I do not know - but of course had meekly crawled away with my head between my knees. Rather than trying to continue my research I decided to do voluntary work to help the mentally ill.

While I did not complain about being bullied at the time, I did write a "Comment" article for the New Scientist about the difficulties of doing unconventional research.

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