|SOMETHING ROTTEN IN THE ESTATE OF DARTINGTON - Sam Richards
To understand this story you have to know that the current Dartington College of Arts Executive and Board of Governors aim to close the famous college on its historic, iconic campus in South Devon and merge it with the new metropolitan style University College Falmouth eighty six miles away. You also need to know that this was planned in secret, and that no one would have known about it were it not for a leak to the local press in November 2006. No one outside a small power elite wants this “relocation” to happen. There’s no educational reason for it. The college is not failing, and there has been no genuine consultative process. Figures are quoted with no foundation and no right to contest them. I should add that I have been a part time lecturer at Dartington for thirty years and have been committed to its ideals and unique approach to arts education for even longer.
So to my story. One Friday back in February I got home (from a different teaching gig to Dartington) around five-o-clock. My wife Lona seemed anxious. Why had I been suspended from my part time job as a music lecturer at Dartington, and why was I banned from the college premises? I hadn’t got a clue and in any case I was hungry.
But she had received phone calls from my colleague-friends wanting to know what on earth I had done. Had I made off with petty cash, raped a student, or shown my bare arse in the White Hart bar? An official email about the suspension and ban had gone to all staff. How bizarre.
I opened the post from that morning. There it was – an official notification. I was suspended on full pay and banned from the college pending a disciplinary hearing. “Gross misconduct” and “insubordination” were the accusations due to my “behaviour” on the Save Dartington College website. It was the first time that I had heard a web posting described as “behaviour”. I confess I laughed out loud. It was, after all funny in a “Little Britain” sort of way.
What’s not funny is that the College authorities had evidently told the entire staff that I was a persona non grata before I had a chance to know what was happening. The timing was incompetent. They should have notified me leaving at least a day for post to arrive before they told everyone else. The words “indecent haste” spring to mind. What was it all about?
On February 24th I had posted a satirical article on the Save Dartington College website. It was entitled “Sam Richards Stands for Election as College Principal”. It wasn’t the greatest example of the satirist’s art, but plenty of people found it funny. No one took it literally. Or so I thought.
What was in this dastardly bit of schoolboy humour, this attempt to thumb my nose at the Headmaster? Here’s the first paragraph.
“I am putting myself forward for the position of Principal of Dartington College of Arts. If you would like to vote for me notify this website. When I have enough votes I'll just turn up at work one day and get on with the job. The current principal was probably elected by no more than half a dozen people, so, just to make absolutely sure that there's no unfairness, I'll wait till I get at least five times that figure, and then its sleeves up and on with the job.”
Actually I still think this is mildly amusing. No belly laugh, you understand. Jonathan Swift remains unrivalled. In the rest of the article I lobbed a small firework (no more than a banger really) at the idea that you need huge bucks to teach the arts, and then aimed a poisoned dart at the
“…fly-by-nights who have moved in during the last few years and now propose to decimate the college, the local economy, the local relationship with Dartington itself, anger artists worldwide, and, in the most self-justifying claptrap anyone around here has ever heard, peddle daft fantasies about air dropping the spirit of Dartington on unsuspecting Cornish towns.”
Fair comment, I say. And yes I did criticise Principal Andrew Brewerton, although not by name as it happens. I couldn’t understand how it could be that he repeatedly said he didn’t want to be the last principal of Dartington College and yet was busy shutting it down. Duh? Sorry, I still don’t get it. So I invoked a couple of characters from “Alice in Wonderland” who might do a better job – the Mad Hatter or the opium smoking caterpillar. OK, it was a little rough, but it was colourful.
A Situationist-style genius had gone around the locality painting out the “art” in Dartington on all the road signs, leaving only Dington. With the unoriginal cry of “Put the Art back in Dartington” my little firework fizzled out. Or so it seemed. In fact the blue touch paper seethed in the long grass till it exploded that Friday into accusations and banishment.
There was one delightful anomaly. I was not banned from the College as a PhD student, only as a lecturer. So as long as I remembered not to teach anybody anything and to pretend I was doing research I could play the pianos and talk to the students, although frankly I didn’t feel much like going up there.
I arrived for the Hearing accompanied by Catriona Scott, my UCU representative. When we were called into the meeting room there were five people there already. These were the Hearing panel consisting of Adrian Bossey of Dartington Creative Enterprise, Chris Pressler the College’s so-called Dean of Information and Learning, and Gareth Keene (Vice Chairman of Dartington College of Arts Ltd.). The others in the five were Kathy Taylor (Human Resources Manager) and Vice Principal (Finance) Mark Taylor. On reflection we should have refused to continue with the Hearing there and then. This group of people had already met for fifteen minutes. Mark Taylor was to present the case against me. Any briefing should either have not included him or included me as well. On this basis I could not have been expected to assume the neutrality of the Hearing, and I still don’t believe it was in the least bit neutral.
Mark Taylor, with a detectable air of “gotcha!”, presented the case against me. Apparently I had maliciously timed my lampoon just before a crucial Governors’ Meeting when the vote on the college’s future was to take place. (I wasn’t aware that the Governors are so stupid that they would take a far reaching decision on the basis of a piss-take, but if Mr. Taylor says so who am I to argue.) My piece was also aimed at the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) who, apparently, read our website regularly – which was gratifying. And anyway, climaxed Mr. Taylor, it wasn’t a joke as anyone could see from the passage “these are dark days and we need immediate and extreme measures.” It was then that I realised what a serious operation a sense-of-humourectomy really is .
My union representative put an excellent case. No warnings were given to me. “Gross misconduct” and “subordination” were the wrong charges. Mr. Taylor claimed that an investigation into the case had taken place so how come, she wanted to know, Sam Richards himself wasn’t interviewed? More enlightened management would have dealt with the supposed offence quietly. Furthermore I had been teaching there thirty years. Didn’t that count for anything? They needed to be sure they would make a decision they could live with. And so on.
I read out a written statement. It said that “the plan to close the college is the most tragic mistake imaginable”, but I also said that “I regret any personal distress I may have caused”, I claimed that a short satirical article could hardly be accused of “making working relationships and trust impossible, and that the Principal had, in any case, already made a good job of that. “Bringing the College into disrepute” appeared to be his speciality, not mine. I also maintained that:
“A quick parry at the authorities was, and should still be, all part of the cut and thrust of university life and should remain so. If an over-reaction such as disciplinary proceedings can result from a joke my point about poor management is made for me.”
Questions were asked. Mr. Bossey asked whether I thought there was now an irrevocable breakdown of trust between myself and the College -.i.e. Mr. Brewerton. I answered that with goodwill on both sides anything is possible.
They went into a huddle for twenty minutes or so. Ms. Scott and I went in another room and had some institutional “coffee”. I told her that I believed the Principal’s real issue with me focussed on the other website articles I’d written on the College situation - social and political, on gift economies, the arts and education as commodities, and so on. I had received calls, emails, letters and verbal complements asking for more of same. I told her of a friend’s web posting about my case. It began: “Where else could this happen? Osama bin Richards flies his balsa wood airplane into the idyllic grounds of Shh you-know-where, hits a few prominent fly-by-nights, and now he’s on a charge.” I could remember that verbatim.
Then we were called back. Yes they had noted that I’d worked there for thirty years, but it was all over now Baby Blue. Fired. Summary dismissal they called it. After the event, of course, I thought of all the things I should have said. At the time I said: “Well you’d hardly expect me to say thank you”. I went out into the sunshine and told my wife and a couple of friends who had hung around all morning. They were incredulous. So was everyone else. Catriona Scott and I had a hug and then went our separate ways. I got the sack for thumbing my nose at the Headmaster. That’s all.
“Insubordination” occurs when an instruction is given with a warning of the consequences of disobeying that instruction and the instruction is still ignored. That’s what it means in the army and in law. That’s also what it means in every dictionary definition I’ve yet found. The Answers.com one is typical.
“The condition or practice of not obeying: disobedience, noncompliance. See resist/yield.”
Or, from allwords.com:
“The refusal to take orders or submit to authority”
And so on. The key element, therefore, is “not obeying”, refusing to “take orders”. Self evidently, you can only refuse to take an order if an order has been given. So was this a case of “insubordination”? Was it hell. It was a case of bullying. Pure and simple. I hit a raw nerve, that’s what.
The reason for the accusation of gross misconduct was that the usual procedural warnings can be dispensed with if it can be proved. Therefore you can’t have them for unfair dismissal. The punishment can then be summary dismissal, I wasn’t joking (above) when I mentioned robbery, rape or exhibitionism. A satirical pop at the Principal is, apparently, equivalent to breaking and entering. A lampoon against plans to wreck the College receives the same sentence as a sexual misdemeanour. I might as well have exhibited myself, or turned up to a class pissed out of my brain and thrown up inside a grand piano. The punishment would have been the same. The general opinion amongst staff and students was that the response had been out of all proportion. Quite. “Gross misconduct” – not proven. Absurd.
An appeal was lodged within the allowed fifteen days. This time I would be represented by my regional union official. After unavoidable delays on both sides the Appeal eventually took place one beautiful afternoon in June. I wanted to raise four important points.
First, I was being victimized. A part-time colleague of mine had, in the meantime, written a straight, not in the least satirical, call for the Principal’s resignation, and this had been posted on the same website. If my effort could be seen as somewhat prankish, this new one was unambiguous and, by the Hearing’s definition (although no one else’s), a clear case of insubordinate gross misconduct. Its first paragraph ended with the words:
“Given the downward spiral of mistrust at Dartington, surely the time has come to call clearly for Andrew Brewerton to be replaced as Principal.”
If it comes to a choice between this and whimsical references to the Mad Hatter I know which one I’d call a clear, direct and unambiguous confrontation with authority. The colleague in question, incidentally, agrees with me.
Second, I was being bullied. I am not the first to claim that this has become common at the College, so I researched it. I found that bullying at work typically involves fault finding and nitpicking. Bullies make accusations that often have some truth in them, but whereas a reprimand would probably settle the matter the bully resorts to a campaign of humiliation and (sometimes) disciplinary procedures. Bullies undermine or disregard the worth of their victims, especially where those victims have worked in a place a long time. For similar offences to those of other colleagues the bully’s victims get singled out. Work is taken away. Humiliation and belittling are common. Disciplinary procedures for trivial or invented reasons are allowed to take place without proper investigation. Mobbing happens when a group of people collude with the bully. I consider all of this to have happened in my case.
Third, there is the matter of freedom of expression. This implies, crucially, two key elements: that no subject matter should be off limits, and that the manner of utterance should likewise be unrestricted. Illegality, such as obscene language and obvious untruths and implications (“have you stopped beating your wife?”), is excluded, but a hot, sensitive subject addressed in satirical form is definitely within the bounds of freedom of expression.
Fourth, on a number of occasions, when members of the public protested to Mr. Brewerton about my treatment at his hands he stated, verbally and in letter form, that disciplinary procedures were rarely used and only when “reason, peer pressure and line management fails to contain extreme of repeated behaviour”. The clear implication here is that my behaviour was repeated, despite the fact that I was only accused of writing one unacceptable article, and that these management methods were used and I had ignored them. This is one hundred per cent untrue. If warnings are given it is usual procedure to write them down, date them and sign them. Mr. Brewerton could not provide this evidence because it does not exist.
I had wanted my union official to make these points at the Appeal, as well as noting the technical irregularities at the first Hearing. When Mr. Brewerton himself turned up to make the case against me we should have walked. There could be no impartiality in an Appeal which included the Principal of the College and a panel consisting of three members of the Board of Governors. However, contact with my union official had been almost non-existent despite my pleas to meet, and the case was not fought in the manner I wished for. However, he did put an extremely strong case on other grounds, technical and ethical, and for the second time in a few months I found myself waiting outside a meeting room while a supposedly neutral panel decided my fate.
The Chair of the panel, a Mr. Ray Dillon (owner of Renwick’s garages) pronounced. The previous Hearing had been correct in finding me guilty as charged. Therefore the punishment of dismissal was also correct. However – deep breath at this point – the status quo could be restored. If I sent a written apology to Mr. Brewerton, mentioning the tone of the satirical web-posting as well as any personal offence caused, I could be reinstated. The catch was that Mr. Brewerton himself would have to approve the form of words used in the apology. I guess I’m naive enough to think that an apology comes from the person offering it, and that any sense that it has come from elsewhere, including editing by other parties (not least by the aggrieved party), makes it not worth a fig of anyone’s thoughts or feelings. Still, everyone present agreed to keep the matter confidential until it was concluded, and I went home to think it through. Incidentally, I did verbally apologise to Mr. Brewerton with all those present as witnesses.
Would I write an apology? Both the Hearing and the Appeal, in my view, were wrong. They felt like kangaroo courts, and “gross misconduct” and “insubordination” had not been proved. The formula dreamt up by the Appeal panel was a face-saving exercise. It represented something of a victory for my union official, but it did not visibly put Mr. Brewerton down either. It is hard for a Board of Governors to be seen to go against the Principal of its college.
Would I go along with the formula – for the sake of contact with the students, for the small amount of part time money it represented, or to keep the peace? My instinct, I must admit, was, along the lines of that Country and Western song, “take this job and shove it”.
I pondered. My union man suggested a form of words that I regarded as grovelling. If I was going to do this I would do it with dignity. I had to find a form of words I could live with. Eventually, on a Friday morning, I sent the following to Andrew Brewerton.
“Dear Andrew Brewerton,
The article I posted on the Save Dartington College website on February 24th, and which became the cause of disciplinary proceedings against me, was a satire on the situation at the College. However, as a result of recent discussions, I now realise that the nature and content of that posting could easily be interpreted as a personal attack against you. I therefore apologise for any offence the article may have caused."
By the end of the day he had thrown it back at me. According to him it failed to acknowledge the offence of gross misconduct. He refused to see “the offending article” as satire, my apology was disingenuous, it wasn’t full and unreserved, and was not a sincere basis for moving forward.
I wrote him a longish letter in which I argued that he didn’t really seem to want a sincere apology from me. Rather, he wanted to humiliate me. His refusal to see the article as satire was ridiculous. I pointed out that “reinstatement” for an hourly-paid part time lecturer was a hollow offer when my annual contract would soon be up anyway. I could be reinstated and still never employed again. I needed more assurance than this. I also reminded him of the falsehoods he had spread about me when supporters of mine protested to him. I concluded:
“I refuse to go any further with this hollow negotiation. You want your “pound of flesh”, and I’m not giving it. You apparently will accept nothing other than my public humiliation. I have only asserted the right to free speech. The situation, thus, seems to have reached an impasse. I find it very sad, as will all reasonable people, that my long association with a unique and internationally renowned college should end in this way. I take no comfort in the fact that its days now seem to be numbered. I have apologised for the alleged offence and have mentioned the two key points the Appeal Panel asked me to. My conscience will not allow me to go any further. “
To this day I have received no acknowledgement of this letter, let alone a reply. I had asked for a conclusion to the whole business by end of Tuesday 19th June. I heard nothing. Two days later I learnt, via an email from Mr. Brewerton, that Mr. Dillon had extended the deadline for negotiations to the following Monday. By that time I had arranged to meet journalists from the local papers. The agreement was to keep the affair confidential until it was concluded. I regard their failure to respond to my letter by the time I requested as a conclusion.
However, interestingly enough, I have yet to receive a formal communication informing me that I am officially dismissed. But given the level of blunder and incompetence I’ve been subject to I’m hardly surprised. And as for the references to “Alice in Wonderland” in the offending satire, I’m sorry Mr Brewerton, I don’t find them in the least bit inappropriate given the “off-with-his-head” (see the Queen of Hearts in the original Lewis Carroll) style of governance now rife at the College.
A final word. Since all this kafuffle hit the local press I’ve been stopped in the street more times than I can number by friends and, in some cases, by people I barely know. They express their incredulity at Mr. Brewerton’s small minded actions against me. Many of them also put on a long face and offer what sound like condolences. So just to put the record straight: I was an Associate Lecturer with, until this year, a minimum of 105 hours in a year. At the end of last summer the College tried to cut my hours to 20. I took them to grievance procedure and managed to get my hours back up to 50. Mark Taylor officiated. So Mr. Brewerton has not deprived me of a full time job, or even of a particularly significant chunk of my income. The worst he has done – and I do regret this - is to deprive me of contact with students. The best is that he has relieved me of the task of working in an institution that feels sadder by the day.