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Professor sues Brunel as 'promised' post is scrapped

Academic's contract ended only after his work was submitted to the RAE. Zoe Corbyn reports

A distinguished professor who believed he had been promised a post at Brunel University until 2010 is suing the university after it ended his employment once his work had been submitted to the research assessment exercise.

Leading anthropologist Adam Kuper had received what he took to be a personal assurance from Brunel vice-chancellor Chris Jenks that he could stay on for at least three years after normal retirement age, from 2007 to 2010.

But after one year - and his work making "a considerable contribution to (the university's RAE) submission" - his employment was terminated.

Professor Kuper, a professor of anthropology who had been at the university for nearly 23 years, is one of Brunel's most distinguished academics and is a former vice-president of the British Academy.

In a case due to come before the Central London County Court, Professor Kuper, now 67, is claiming that the assurances he received from the vice-chancellor were "made negligently" and in breach of Brunel's "duty of care". He is suing the university for a "breach of contract" over the termination of his employment, and is seeking damages.

The issue goes back to July 2006, when the university wrote to Professor Kuper to ask him whether he intended to retire or to continue working beyond the age of 65, the normal retirement age.

Based on discussions with both the vice-chancellor and head of human resources, he replied indicating he wished to continue in post for three years from September 2007.

But the confirmation letter he received said his request had been approved for only one year.

He signed the one-year contract but continued to pursue the university about the extra years.

An email exchange then followed with Professor Jenks, leading Professor Kuper to believe that the one-year extension was only procedural and that the three-year extension had, in effect, been approved.

The vice-chancellor said in a email in February 2007: "It appears that council requires that every appointment made beyond statutory retirement age is on a year-by-year basis. I will continue to approve your reappointment for the full three years should you wish it."

Taking the vice-chancellor at his word, Professor Kuper said he decided to stay at Brunel rather than seek out another post before the RAE.

A year later, after the census date in which academics must be in post to be included by their universities in the RAE, Professor Kuper asked the university to confirm that his contract would be extended, "as promised by the vice-chancellor".

Meetings followed, with Brunel informing him at the end of June 2008 that he would now need to make a "business case" to stay on, based on being able to secure external funding for his research.

Appeal turned down

With Professor Kuper saying he had "no possibility" of raising the funding in the available time, in August last year the university told him it was refusing to let him work beyond the one-year extension. An appeal hearing followed, but on 30 September 2008, two years earlier than he had anticipated, Professor Kuper's employment was terminated.

He told Times Higher Education: "They strung me along until after the RAE deadline had passed and then turned me down. I do not know if this was a cynical strategy to hold on to me for the RAE, but it was a shoddy way to deal with a long-serving and senior professor."

Sir Roderick Floud, a former vice-chancellor and former president of Universities UK, who is a friend of Professor Kuper's, said: "It is vital that all university employees are able to rely on a promise made by their vice-chancellor."

Brunel is to counter Professor Kuper's claims. Its defence against the legal action argues that Professor Kuper's employment was not terminated or ended prematurely, and that there was no breach of contract.

"(Professor Kuper's) employment came to an end on 30 September 2008 at the end of a one-year fixed-term extension to that employment, his request for a further extension beyond that date having been refused on the grounds that there was (an) insufficient business case to support his continued employment, in particular because he had no plans to secure external funds in order to cover his salary," it says.

Brunel argues that the vice-chancellor had "no authority" to agree a three-year extension, and the fact that he did so was negated by Professor Kuper's employment contract.

"Professor Jenks was indicating that he personally would support and approve further extensions ... but not that his support would be sufficient to secure (them)," it says.

Brunel also acknowledges that Professor Kuper's contract was extended by a year because he would "make a considerable contribution to the (RAE) submission".

Its governing council, it reveals, delegated authority to the vice-principal of the university, Mansoor Sarhadi, to make such extensions to optimise its RAE submission.

In a statement, Professor Sarhadi says the university strongly denies the allegations made by Professor Kuper. "While we cannot go into any further detail at this time due to the ongoing court case, we are of course disappointed that Professor Kuper's time with Brunel has ended in this way," he says.

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com.

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