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Inquiry cleared astronomer over RAE 'faggot' posting

Offended party was not asked to give evidence and disputes judgment. Hannah Fearn reports

It was apparently intended as a joke to liven up a blog about the research assessment exercise. But for the openly gay academic who wrote the blog, the use of the word "faggot" in a message posted by a former colleague was not funny.

The comment was made by Michael Merrifield, professor of astronomy at the University of Nottingham, beneath a blog by Peter Coles, professor of theoretical astrophysics at Cardiff University. The men knew each other, having worked together at Nottingham.

In a thread debating how the RAE should measure the quality of research, Professor Merrifield wrote: "Since it is at least in part a measure of how much dead wood there is in a department, I would be inclined to go for that fine old English unit, the faggot, but in these politically correct times it might be misconstrued."

Professor Coles, who took offence, said he was advised by Stonewall, the gay rights charity, to contact the police, but decided instead to make a formal complaint to Nottingham.

However, speaking last week after Stonewall criticised the sector for its "lack of focus on sexual orientation compared with other diversity strands", Professor Coles said he had been disappointed by the way his concerns were handled.

Jaspal Kaur, director of human resources at Nottingham, acknowledged his complaint, and Richard Bowtell, head of the School of Physics and Astronomy, carried out an investigation.

But Professor Coles said he heard nothing for more than three months, and when he finally contacted Nottingham, he was told that its inquiry had absolved Professor Merrifield.

It ruled that the comment was an isolated incident and had caused "unintentional" offence.

Professor Coles said he was surprised that he had not been contacted to give evidence to investigators and disputed their findings.

"I find it hard to understand what the intent was if it wasn't meant to be offensive; my understanding is that 'it was just a joke' is not an appropriate defence," he said.

He added that he now wished he had approached the police at the time of the incident in 2008.

Nottingham confirmed that an investigation had been carried out, but denied that it had been mishandled.

Ms Kaur said: "This case was properly dealt with according to the university's complaints procedure and a thorough investigation took place ... it concluded that Professor Merrifield's comment had been ill-judged, but its posting was an isolated incident.

"He gave assurances that this would not happen again and made further attempts to apologise to Professor Coles."

She added that during an interview with his head of school, Professor Merrifield "gave assurances that he had not intended to be abusive" towards Professor Coles.

"Professor Merrifield recognised that the comment, while intended to be light-hearted wordplay, was in very poor taste," she said.

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