No disciplinary action for staff member who issued statement wrongly accusing students of crimes
A senior member of staff who released a statement wrongly accusing Sussex students of criminal behaviour has not faced any disciplinary action, a Freedom of Information request by The Badger has revealed.
The University wrongly accused anti-privatisation protesters of “organising or leading…unlawful occupations” and employing “violence and intimidation”, in an article on their website in December 2013.
In October 2015 the University apologised and admitted that there was “no truth” to the claims, after being sued by one of the protesters.
The false claims were made in a quote on behalf of the University by Sussex Registrar John Duffy, as well as in the main body of the post. It is not clear whether any other senior members of staff approved the comments as there were no emails or recorded meetings discussing the piece.
The article ended up costing the University over £30,000 in damages and legal fees but, despite the serious nature of the incident, John Duffy’s line manager Vice Chancellor Michael Farthing chose not to refer him to a disciplinary hearing.
Michael Farthing is the most senior member of staff at the University and John Duffy sits on his ‘Vice Chancellor’s Executive Group’ – a team of seven advisors who help the Vice Chancellor “steer” the University.
The pair previously worked together at St. George’s, University of London where Farthing was Principal and Duffy was Director of Administration.
Farthing left St. George’s to become Vice Chancellor of Sussex in Autumn 2007 and was followed by Duffy two years later.
Michael Farthing chaired the committee that appointed his former colleague John Duffy as Registrar and Secretary of Sussex in June 2009, according to documents obtained by gabrielquotes.org.uk.
John Duffy went on to head-up the controversial privatisation of University catering and estates services, which sparked mass protest from students and staff.
Michael Farthing took the decision to suspend a group of students dubbed ‘The Sussex Five’ after they occupied the Bramber House conference facilities in December 2013, protesting the privatisation of University services.
John Duffy’s inaccurate statement was published as a part of a news article about the suspensions on the University’s website.
Student protester Michael Segalov sued the University for libel over the contents of the article. After receiving an apology and £20,000 in compensation from the University, he said: “I think it’s an extremely important precedent that students know they have this option to hold universities accountable.
“Any victory over managers is to be celebrated. I hope this acts as a deterrent to universities to make libelous statements about their students ever again.”
The University’s apology has since been deleted however, the original article remains online unamended.
The University paid legal firm Pinsent Masons £12,600 in fees to fight the libel case, of which £1859 was paid to to barrister Aidan Eardley.
One of the partners at Pinsent Masons is Katherine M Davies; the sister of Pro Vice Chancellor Professor Michael Davies, another member of the Vice Chancellor’s Executive Group. Mr. Davies has followed procedure and declared the relationship in the University’s register of interests.
The University also agreed to pay Michael Segalov an undisclosed sum to cover his legal fees.
The case was not the first time that the University’s handling of the protests has cost them thousands of pounds: In January 2015 the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIA) found that Michael Farthing was “unjustified, disproportionate and unfair” in his decision to suspend the students, describing the decision as “politically motivated” and recommending the University pay the students over £2000 each in compensation.
John Duffy, Michael Farthing and the University have declined repeated requests for comment.