A postgraduate English student at the University of Sussex has revealed he felt “intimidated, bullied and compromised” by senior management after being called to a meeting to address a group email he sent out exclusively to fellow students in his role as student rep. The meeting was with Pro Vice-Chancellor for Research, Bob Allison, who had gained access to and read the email.
Dphil student Anthony Leaker, who is the English School Representative for postgraduates, as well as a Senator, sent the email exclusively to English Dphil students and American Studies Dphil students on 10 January.
The email addressed the Stop the Cuts campaign and was intended to consolidate support for an upcoming meeting.
It stated: “The postgraduate community is in fact incredibly important to the University, and we do have a strong voice. But we need numbers and we need to make ourselves heard. It is vital. Because this whole thing is a very slippery slope. And if we don’t take a stand now who knows what kind of depressing spectacle we might be facing in a few years time.”
It reminded the intended recipients that five faculty members were to be made redundant, and ended with a comment about management salaries.
“Year on year salary increases for management has sky-rocketed in last 5 years. There are 12 new heads of school at Sussex, all were brought in from outside and all within the last year. Make of that what you will (and to be honest, I’m not even sure it is accurate, but the gist is true!)”
The email was sent at 4.46pm on a Wednesday, and at 9am the following day, Allison emailed Leaker asking to meet him in person.
The motive for calling Leaker to see him was not specified in the email he sent, but it was later revealed during their meeting that the ostensible subject of their discussion was to correct two inaccuracies regarding the number of new heads of school, and the “sky-rocketing” salary increases in the last five years.
“When I got [to Allison’s office] there placed on the table between us was a group email. Though not informed of this in advance it would seem the ostensible subject of the meeting was to correct two factual errors (that only 9, not 12 head of school were brought in from outside and that the VC’s salary is £80,00 greater than his predecessor’s because the new VC is a medic the former economist) [sic].”
The meeting in Allison’s office lasted 45 minutes, of which, claimed Leaker, only about 10 minutes were spent actually discussing the errors in the email. He claimed the other 35 minutes were spent discussing the cuts, during which time Leaker felt he was “being pressurised and unsubtly coaxed or schmoozed into becoming some kind of management rep”.
Leaker said of Allison’s intervention: “Firstly, how does, and should, a Pro Vice-Chancellor have access to emails addressed by a student rep to his constituents, and secondly, why is he reading them?”
James Hakner, spokesman for the university, said: “The University takes the protection of personal data and information very seriously. There is absolutely no question of managers or anyone else having routine access to and reading emails sent by any members of staff or students. The email exchanges in this case do not represent any breach of the University’s Information Security Policy.
The email sent by [Leaker] was simply passed on to the Pro-Vice-Chancellor Professor Bob Allison – by one of the other postgraduate students who had received it. That student was concerned about the misleading and inaccurate information being reported by the rep in relation to the University’s proposal and wanted senior academic staff to be aware. The student rep was told this very clearly when they spoke to Professor Allison.”
Leaker responded: “I completely deny that I was told how he got hold of the email. It is a downright lie. I asked him both in person and in an email and he would only reply ‘I will not reveal my sources’ and ‘I have good network connections’. He also implied that he had read other emails, saying, ‘Your other emails have been fine.’”
“I find the story of the ‘concerned postgraduate student’ highly unlikely. Firstly, the information was not terribly misleading and certainly not something that could not have been directly addressed to me, or perhaps, to a supervisor or the Head of English. And even if the ‘concerned postgraduate’ did forward it to Allison, a straightforward, formal correction by email would have been much more appropriate. If, as the spokesman states, ‘there is no question of management reading emails sent by students,’ then why did Allison read it?”
Leaker also claimed Allison alluded to the fact that other people in authority could be reading his emails and he wanted to “warn” and “protect” him, suggesting the potential damage this could cause for his future career.
Leaker said of the incident: “I would feel very uncomfortable to see [Allison] again. Is it appropriate behaviour for someone in a very senior position to inform someone in a very junior position that his emails are being read, and in such an intimidating manner?”
“Whether it was an attempt to bully, court, lobby, silence or censor me I can’t be sure, but I do think such behaviour is worrying and highly inappropriate, not to mention distasteful.”
When Leaker emailed faculty and other students informing them of the meeting, he claimed that “overwhelmingly, most people thought it was ‘appalling’ behaviour and a very worrying sign of what is happening at this university.”