Robyn Chowdhury | Tue, 16 Oct 2018
Aberdeen University is no stranger to controversy. Tensions rose between staff and students during the strike, so it should come as no surprise that further allegations against senior management have surfaced. For many, the debate on racial discrimination remains only that, a debate. But for some, it’s the difference between employment and unemployment.
In Autumn 2015, a plan to restructure the School of Medicine, Medical Sciences and Nutrition was released. Broad, ambiguous research areas were targetted for disinvestment. By July 2016, these areas had been narrowed down – so much so, that three of the ten areas only contained one researcher. All these researchers were Japanese. One Chinese researcher had not worked in the target area and was possibly targeted due to having the same name as a previous Chinese researcher no longer working at the University.
Among the members of staff placed at risk for redundancy as part of the restructuring, five of twenty-three were East Asian. Those at risk were given ‘alternative opportunities’, ranging from attractive options such as open-ended roles at the same pay grade to fixed-term positions at a lower pay grade. More attractive options were given disproportionately to white staff members, leaving East Asians with the least attractive options.
Within the School, East Asians only represent around 3% of the academic staff members. Despite this, the odds of being targeted for redundancy were greater than 30% for East Asians, and only 4% for their white colleagues.
When the selection process was criticised, directors of the Institute of Medical Sciences denied their involvement. Later, they denied denying their involvement and gave a vague list of criteria for evaluation, including things like ‘future potential’. A meeting was scheduled under the assumption that redundancies would be discussed, only for staff to be left disappointed by irrelevant presentations and only minutes of question time.
In November 2016, the School reluctantly released “metrics” they'd used for identifying individuals for redundancy – stating that staff had been evaluated on their performance over five years, teaching hours, Ph.D. student supervision, grant awards and research publications. Despite this list of criteria, one Japanese member of staff had been targeted despite being at the university only three years. Upon investigation, it was revealed that white lecturers were being given more teaching hours than ethnic minority staff.
One lecturer targeted for redundancy was Dr Nakamoto. After declining the alternative employment offered, he was forcibly redeployed to a lower-grade, fixed term post. Only 45 days later a new notice of redundancy was issued for his new post.He was informed that the research grants he had secured for his projects were being removed and re-assigned - an incredibly rare occurence in the research community. Consequently, he told the university that he would be contacting the funding bodies and informing them of the situation. Dr Nakamoto also notified the university that he would be appealing their redundancy decision and raising a personal grievance. During his new post, he was given conflicting instructions about his responsibilities, often over numerous meetings with the same person. He was told to continue his duties, and submitted a grant report at the funder’s request.
By late November, seven staff members remained at risk of redundancy – five of them East Asian.
The university responded by Dr Nakamoto of ‘failure to follow management instructions’, ‘potentially bringing the university into disrepute’, and ‘acting inappropriately by submitting a grant report’, and started a disciplinary investigation against him.After raising a personal grievance with regards to the disciplinary investigation, failure to set up his ‘new role’, and equality issues, mediation was proposed. After the university agreed to schedule mediation and pause the ongoing disciplinary processes, Dr Nakamoto attended a personal tutor training day and met with his assigned personal tutors. He was then told that having personal tutors assigned to him was ‘a mistake’ and that they had been reassigned. His grievance was never processed until his dismissal.
After an unsuccessful mediation, Dr Nakamoto’s appeal hearing was scheduled for March 2018. During the appeal, the convenor of the hearing decided not to investigate allegations of racial discrimination.
The appeal was rejected, and his employment was discontinued. His concluding statements highlight many issues with the university’s handling of the restructuring processes. One of these issues was the lack of transparency and communication between the senior management staff and those who had their careers on the line. His criticisms included the fact that his original post was never made redundant – he was instructed to complete his research, his duties as a senior lecturer and personal tutor continued, and he was never sent a new contract for his redeployed role. Another was the fact that the reviewing process for staff performance was carried out by people who knew little of research activities of individual staff members – with the School Executive having only been in their current post for 10 months. Senior management seemed to show disregard not only for their staff but for the careers of the Ph.D. students working under them.
When more experienced members of staff criticised the restructuring process at an IMS staff meeting, alleging that the process had unfairly targeted East Asians, they were instructed by the deputy director to retract their “inappropriate” statements.
When the case of Dr. Nakamoto was presented to an Ethnic Minorities Law Centre, they raised concerns of explicit and implicit racism. Only when Grampian Regional Equality Council and two members of Scottish Parliament contacted the University were any explanations offered.
In response to allegations of racial bias, the University released data on the number of members in each ethnic group present in the school before and after the restructuring process. These data gave no indication of why numbers increased or decreased, dismissing the crucial difference between leaving and being made redundant. Their conclusion, simply put, was that the only ethnic group discriminated against were the White British staff. Scientists within the department criticised this statement, adding that if they saw the data in a scientific study, they’d reject the conclusions.
An investigation, led by ex-Vice Principal Ms. Ross, into whether there had been discrimination within School of Medicine, Medical Sciences & Nutrition, found there were no barriers to ethnic minority success within the school.
When asked how many minorities were on the panel reviewing racial issues, Ross responded “at least one”.
Despite being accused of a misuse of data, having a majority white panel review racial issues and receiving official letters of complaint from two MSPs and the Grampian Regional Equality Council, no additional measures were put in place to ensure that there is no racial bias for future employees.
Within the School of Medicine, Medical Sciences and Nutrition, there remains a lack of ethnic minority representation within senior management decisions. Previous ethnic minority staff members have spoken out against racial insensitivity at Aberdeen and subsequent lack of support. When transferring his research from the USA, Dr. Nakamoto was promised support in transferring his research materials – this was refused by a facility manager, though a white British researcher also transferring from the USA around the same time was given this support. Although support was reluctantly given, it was too late to transfer the materials and they could no longer be used. Even in the allocation of office and laboratory space, East Asian lecturers have often found that they have been given the least attractive options, while their white colleagues are given priority. But the fear remains among those who express concern – some are pushed into voluntary redundancy, some are unjustly disciplined, and some are simply too afraid about the effect on their future career to speak out. East Asians who were forced to leave the university are still struggling to develop their career or even to find a way forward, adding that they are desperately seeking support. Dr. Nakamoto has since lodged an employment tribunal claim for unfair dismissal, racial discrimination, and victimisation.
The question isn’t whether Aberdeen University is the worst in the world for its potential implicit bias – it is why that bias was never addressed in a sensible and constructive manner. If there are no barriers faced by East Asian staff, why do so many fail?
Amongst the tiny percentage of ethnic minority staff, how many face hardships? Implicit bias is present in everything we do – everyone has it. But precautions must be taken to avoid it during hiring processes, during employment and even during redundancy. Concerns of ethnic minorities must be met with the desire to understand, not the desire to disprove, especially when jobs are on the line.