Michelle Donelan, the Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology, made false allegations about two academics.

Donelan wrote to the Prof Ottoline Leyser, the chief executive of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) to “express, in the most serious terms, my disgust and outrage at Research England’s appointment of individuals to an advisory group on equality, diversity and inclusion who, since October 7, have been sharing some extremist views on social media.” This referred to her interpretation of tweets by Professor Kate Sang (Heriot Watt) and Dr Kamna Patel (UCL).

Prof Leyser responded in a public letter on 31 October 2023 by suspending the UKRI Research England Equality Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Group. She also launched an investigation into the actions of the two academics. The outcome letter was published on 5 March 2024 and found “no evidence in the public domain of support for a proscribed terrorist organisation or the sharing of extremist material and no grounds to remove any individual members of the Research England Expert Advisory Group on EDI.”

Most academics thought that the tweets by Sang and Patel did not bear the interpretation that Michelle Donelan placed on them. As the evidence was flimsy, this certainly did not warrant a lengthy four month investigation, far less the suspension of the EDI Advisory Group. Hence, some academics boycotted UKRI, resigning from some of its many committees.

Prof Sang sued Donelan for libel. Donelan settled the case by apologising and paying damages. The most extraordinary aspect is that the damages were paid from public money. It cost taxpayers £15,000 to cover the damages paid. The cost of any legal fees, also charged to the public, has not been disclosed. This has caused much surprise in the media. There are now calls for Donelan to pay for her own legal costs & damages.

However, this should not be a surprise. This is routine practice in many Universities.

The 21 Group has received many reports of false allegations. Sometimes this can be a senior academic, (usually male) publicly rubbishing the work of a more junior academic (usually female) as “garbage” or “complete junk“. Sometimes this can be academic jealousy, a powerful individual resenting a new & creative approach to a subject and so disparaging the quality of a scholar (“her work on her stupid protein“). Sometimes this can be accusations of misconduct such as falsifying data or breaching medical research protocols. Sometimes this can be straightforward retaliation, a bully or harasser attacking the very individuals who have exposed (usually) him by inventing a raft of bogus counter-allegations. Whatever the underlying motivation, such false allegations can be career-ending for an academic.

Let us suppose a senior academic at your University defames you and your University HR are ineffectual. This is actually the best case scenario, as usually University HR enters the fray briskly and enthusiastically on the side of the senior academic, no matter what. As a last resort, you decide to take steps to restore your reputation. This may involve hiring lawyers to ask your defamer to retract the allegations.

What will happen next may surprise you. You will find that your University will support and may also pay for the senior academic’s legal fees (on their insurance policy). The spurious argument will be — just as with Michelle Donelan — that the senior academic has incurred these expenses in pursuit of his or her work.

This is of course very wrong. It is a scandalous waste of public money (or donor’s money). A university needs to be neutral in any ongoing dispute between faculty, so it is very wrong for it to intervene with payment for lawyers. It is a gross misuse of public money or donor’s money. If some faculty are behaving badly, why is taxpayer’s money being spent on their behalf?

Let us by all means call for Michelle Donelan’s resignation. But she is not the only one who should be considering her position …

Categories: Blog


Anonymous · 9 March 2024 at 20:15

The case of Michelle Donelan and her false allegations of “terrorism” to instigate the mobbing of fellow academics, who she clearly wished to see eliminated, is eerily reminiscent of what happened to Janice Harper at the University of Tennessee.

Harper, a former anthropologist who has written widely on the subject of mobbing (https://www.amazon.com/Mobbed-What-When-They-Really/dp/0692693335), was accused by the perpetrators of her mobbing of having plans to “build an atom bomb” and was actually investigated by the FBI over these accusations (God knows how much public money was spent on chasing up such a ridiculous and malicious rumor).

Such cases cut to the heart of the insidious, irrational, and viciously ignorant nature of mobbing in the academy. It is merely the medieval witch hunt transplanted into the twenty-first-century neoliberal managerial university.

After all, where is the need for burnings at the stake, pillorying, or ducking stools when there is career destruction through relational aggression, blacklisting, or even driving targets to suicide? Where is the need for a witch hunter general or a Spanish Inquisition when there is senior management, “investigators,” and HR?

The mobbers of the modern university are merely fellow travelers and the modern-day incarnations of the primitive group-think of the cowardly cross-eyed pitchfork-waving mobs of villages looking to satiate their collective cruelty on a scapegoat.

21percent.org · 10 March 2024 at 18:58

Janice Harper’s book is an excellent description of mobbing. Highly recommended.

Anonymous · 11 March 2024 at 12:46

I was mobbed at the same university as Janice Harper. Two supervisors made false allegations of research misconduct against me, after I reported them to HR, VC, HOD and the EDI office for harassment and discrimination, abuse and bullying. The university protected them and covered up years of abuse of power by these supervisors.

I read Janice Harper’s book and realized I was dealing with the same university administration and their dirty tactics are still the same, to this day. Reading her book was like I was reading my own horror unfolding before my eyes. I was being mobbed out of academia.

This article has a similar story line to mine. My mobbing occured because I was a POC who refused to participate in unethical authorship practices. I was slaving behind my research (like most international postdocs) and writing my manuscripts to build my career. Then these supervisors who didn’t write a word and barely gave supervision for the research take it, slap thier names on it and the names of white postdocs and undergraduates, manipulating author contribution statements to make it appear as if they also wrote my manuscript too, and threatened to take my research away if I didn’t gift first-authorship to a white postdoc, despite them not contributing equally.

I felt the discrimination and racism at that lab, and by the university administration. Universities are only interested in sweeping the evidence under the rug. Destroying lives to protect abusive supervisors. How many more victims will there be, not even the Department of State J-1 office cares. I’ve made the necessary reports and these institutions and government agencies, are probably waiting for a suicide to occur before they act, and even so universities are likely to cover up a suicide to protect the abuser and maintain their global diversity and inclusion image. You are just a number, they move on to hiring the next international BIPOC postdoc, destroy their reputation and mental health, fire and hire, the cycle repeats because the university protects them. A vacant position at that lab is always being advertised, because they are always ready to take in the next potential victim.

    Anon · 21 March 2024 at 16:38

    Anonymous, sadly, I completely agree; they’ll do whatever it takes to maintain their global diversity and inclusion image. Even if there is publicity surrounding the case, their marketing departments will get busy and spin out and craft narratives they double down on to improve optics.

    If the target is BIPOC, then they’ll find somebody who matches that ethnic background and showcase them front and center in all their publicity. If the target is working class or neurodivergent or disabled, they’ll do the same thing, and so on and so on. There will always be someone willing to step into that sort of tokenistic role, either cynically and consciously with their career in mind or unknowingly as a puppet. The message conveyed by the institution is clear: “There’s no problem with discrimination here; the problem was with them and theirs, it wasn’t with us. See, we have this student/member of staff who is…”

    If the target persists, they’ll bring out the tried-and-tested “it was a personality clash” or “this person has a mental health problem” narrative to conveniently explain the mobbing away and try to silence them. Throw in some DARVO-style tactics that twist and highlight any understandable anger the target will have shown during the mobbing (as well as the “bargaining phase” of the target’s mobbing which will also be used to prove their “malevolence and lack of integrity”) which can be taken out of context, and hey presto, they’ve convinced people that the target was the problem and not the organizational culture.

    Meanwhile, the perpetrators will get busy on social media posting content that deflects and detracts attention and makes sure that they attend EDI-type events and are photographed prominently; sometimes, they’ll even get on an EDI committee or become associated with one as there are additional career benefits to that sort of thing.

    If there’s been a suicide of a student or member of staff who has been targeted, the narrative will be more solemn in tone and center on the mental health angle. It will be framed as a tragedy that had nothing to do with mobbing or the norms or behaviors encouraged within the institution or its organizational culture and arose out of the person’s fragility and mental illness.

    The institution will offer its condolences and offer a birch tree or a bench on campus with the name of the person engraved on it or perhaps if they’ve been in a teaching position a teaching award named after them (ironically, considering that the reason teaching staff are often mobbed is because of the effort they put into teaching in an environment where the priority is mostly on research) or something similar as a token gesture while they try to reach a settlement with the grieving loved ones (but if they persist then they’ll fight them as in the Abrahart case) and keep the case from getting any more media scrutiny.

    Then the deceased person will be forgotten about; it will become taboo to speak about the suicide within the institution, and if it ever is spoken about, it will be passingly and with the parameters of the narrative that has already been defined by the institution. Over time, the case will be buried under heaps of glossy strategic marketing as everyone gets on with the more important business of pursuing their careers in the ivory tower.

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