Changing relationships

23rd January 2004 at 00:00
As a lecturer at Central College, Glasgow, I was disappointed to read last week's reply by Peter Duncan to Joe Eyre's recent opinion piece on the O'Donovan case (TESS, January 2). It might have been supposed that, As principal of the college, Mr Duncan would have responded to Joe Eyre's article in the spirit in which it was quite clearly written, namely that of reconciliation and a desire to improve upon the disastrous industrial relations record in Scotland's FE colleges.

As to his more substantial point regarding the nature of bullying and harassment, Mr Duncan says these offences must be defined in a purely subjective fashion - in the eye of the beholder. In other words if you believe that you are being bullied then, of necessity, you are being bullied.

I must admit I find it difficult to take this argument seriously for it would seem to license an extraordinary range of oppressive patterns of behaviour. Thus if the management of a college does not like what a union representative is saying, the solution is to tell that representative that his or her words are unacceptable.

Then, according to Mr Duncan, if the "offence" is repeated a charge of bullying and harassment might legitimately be laid. So much for asking awkward questions; so much for free speech.

The problem, of course, with Mr Duncan's logic is that he fails to understand that "bullying and harassment" requires an objective as well as a subjective dimension: a person who believes that he or she is being bullied and harassed has a duty to point to evidence of a pattern of behaviour that a reasonable and independent observer would regard as in some fashion threatening or denigrating.

For without the control of objectivity, it becomes open to individuals of a vexatious frame of mind to start constructing ludicrously contrived and intolerably vague offences.

Of course, in the view of many staff at Central College this was precisely the kind of logic which led eventually to Mr O'Donovan's dismissal. But whatever the truth behind that particular sorry story, it is surely disturbing that the principal of a large educational institution should feel so confident in publicly announcing his adherence to such an ill-thought out and potentially illiberal policy.

I would have hoped that Mr Duncan might have sought in his letter to explain what he is going to do about the appalling state of industrial relations in his own college, and how he intends to lead his institution forward into the new era of merger and enhanced collaboration between Glasgow's various further education colleges.

Certainly staff at Central College are looking for that kind of leadership, perhaps forlornly.

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