I am Chair of the University and College Lecturers Union at my place of work – or was so until my employers at the University of East London prohibited me from setting foot on the campus. What was the background to this surprising management action?
At the request of the UCU both regionally and nationally, I had been invited to convene a response to the G20 London Summit scheduled for April 2nd 2009 at the ExCeL centre a few hundred yards from our campus. My university management at first gave permission, whereupon we assembled an exciting line-up of climate scientists, economists, social scientists, artists, activists and others to speak at our Alternative Summit. When management at the last minute instructed me to cancel everything, I could hardly believe it. Cancel Tony Benn? Cancel Oliver Tickle? Cancel Richard Wilkinson? At this late stage? What were my employers thinking of? Besides, the Summit had been called for and organized by my union, not by UEL management. It was not theirs to cancel.
In the event, I felt unable to obey the instruction. A raft of accompanying instructions – not to speak to my trade union comrades, to any of my long-term friends and colleagues at my own place of work, to any of my students, to anyone who might be a journalist etc. etc. – seemed equally absurd and impossible. Only a university modeling itself on a police state, surely, could expect literal compliance with such draconian restrictions on my personal freedom? My conscience urged me strongly not to collude.
The Alternative Summit was opened by Tony Benn on the afternoon of April 1st with nearly all the invited speakers attending. The passionate lectures and other contributions were delivered as planned, except that the 300 participants were forced to meet outdoors in the central plaza, management having closed off the entire campus. Ironically, the university canteen remained staffed and was offering hot drinks and food – although exclusively to security staff and police. When the 84-year-old Tony Benn arrived (‘If I don’t make it’, he had earlier assured us, ‘it won’t be for lack of trying!’), we couldn’t even offer him a cup of tea.
My presence in my union capacity on my own campus on that April afternoon has since been deemed by my employers an example of ‘gross misconduct’ under Section f) in Appendix B of our Staff Disciplinary Procedures: ‘Serious insubordination and/or refusal, without reasonable cause, to carry out legitimate instruction given by an authorised member of staff’. Likewise, words attributed to me in my Government of the Dead street theatre role – ‘Eat the bankers!’, for example – have been taken out of context and interpreted by my management as literal incitement to violence. Such intentional misrepresentation and disproportionate punitive action would have been inconceivable had Professor Martin Everett remained in his post as UEL’s respected Vice Chancellor. Neither is it conceivable that the former Vice Chancellor would have thought it appropriate to cancel our Alternative G20 Summit – on the contrary, he’d have helped publicize it and celebrate it. Unfortunately, the free market ideologues who have decided to suspend and dismiss me are the very corporate team that on political grounds suspended and dismissed Professor Everett in a secretive operation condemned by the University and College Lecturers’ Union as a corporate take-over.
Although I have been summarily dismissed from employment at UEL, I am pleased to report that the Alternative G20 Summit proved a memorable and inspiring occasion. While I believe UEL’s current management should hold their heads in shame, I am proud of my university community, my passionate and committed students and my trade union colleagues who have been vigorously resisting my victimization. I also remain proud of my own role in defending academic autonomy and freedom of speech and assembly at the University of East London and beyond.
If you oppose UEL management’s recent course of action, please sign this online petition and (even better) add your own comment to the many heartening messages already there.
You may be interested to know that another petition has gathered over 3400 signatures in protest against UEL closing its doors to freedom of speech and assembly on the occasion of the G20 London Summit.