Why Professor Barker must go

 

RICHARD WEBSTER

 

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The Times Higher Educational Supplement

11 October 2002 
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WHEN SHOULD A PROFESSOR resign? When should a university choose to dismiss an academic? What constitutes bringing a university into disrepute? The very fact that such questions are posed at all may seem to strike at the foundations of the academic freedom which university teachers rightly guard so zealously.

But academic freedom is not an unconditional birthright of those who hold university posts. It is part of an implicit contract. The right to claim such freedom depends upon university teachers scrupulously discharging their duties to the community of scholars as a whole. It has traditionally been agreed that the most important duty of all scholars is to maintain standards of rigorous intellectual honesty. In short they have an obligation to tell the truth.

When, on 30 July, in the Royal Courts of Justice in London, Mr Justice Eady handed down his judgment in the Shieldfield libel trial, he raised questions about such scholarly obligations in the starkest possible form. It is almost certain that never before in British legal history has a finding of malice (a term which should be understood in its legal sense as a finding of deliberate and serious dishonesty) been made about a university academic who is responsible for teaching undergraduate students.

The real issue is not that Mr Justice Eady described Professor Richard Barker’s evidence as ‘rambling and defensive’ nor that he observed that he ‘seemed incapable of giving a straight answer to a straight question’. Nor is it that the judge characterised the Review Team’s approach to evidence as ‘unscientific and irrational’ and spoke of Professor Barker’s ‘willingness to use his position to bully’ potential witnesses.

The real issue is that, in the course of his 400-page judgment, Mr Justice Eady found that the Review Team which Professor Barker headed had deliberately misled the public they had been appointed to inform. As the judge put it, ‘they had consciously … set out to misrepresent the state of the evidence available to support their joint belief that Mr Lillie and Miss Reed and other local residents were child abusers (and indeed abusers on a massive scale) … The Team made a number of claims in the Report which they must have known to be false.’

The Review Team had, for example, entered into a secret understanding with the police: if the police would grant them access to the key evidence in the case – the video interviews with the children – they would refrain from criticising the interviewing techniques. Not only did the members of the team fail to disclose the existence of this deal in their report, but they went further. They claimed that the interviews ‘would not support the view that the questions were in any way leading’. In fact, as members of the Team accepted during the libel trial, the video interviews contained numerous leading questions. As emerged from a document disclosed late in the trial, Professor Barker himself had even noted at the time that one of the interviews contained ‘some leading questions, very focused on getting answers’. As the judge put it ‘What is clear is that [the members of the Team] all chose to make a blatantly false claim which is quite indefensible.’

This is but one of a series of examples where the Review Team doctored the evidence which had been presented to them and made false claims in their Report in order to render the case against Dawn Reed and Chris Lillie more powerful. The fact that the Review Team’s overall belief in Reed and Lillie’s guilt was apparently honestly held does nothing to mitigate their specific acts of dishonesty. The consequences of the false claims they made were of the gravest possible kind. For Professor Barker and his team used them to lend credibility and authority to a report through which two of their fellow citizens (who were in fact innocent) were driven to the brink of suicide and placed in real danger of being murdered by vigilantes.

To any ordinary reader of Mr Justice Eady’s judgment it must seem quite clear that Professor Barker is not fit to be entrusted with teaching social work to undergraduate students, let alone with heading an entire social work department. Yet as a new academic year begins at the University of Northumbria, it is Professor Barker who continues to preside over the teaching of social work and over courses concerned with child protection.

Any reasonable commentator should recognise that the Vice Chancellor of the University of Northumbria, Kel Fidler, and his senior colleagues, have been placed in a difficult position. Unlike other professions universities can have recourse to no outside body to resolve questions of professional misconduct. As a result academics are placed in the unenviable position of passing judgment on their own colleagues – who may also be friends.

That task is unpleasant, but it is one that the University of Northumbria should face up to. So far it has not done so. Instead it has attempted to justify its continued support for a senior academic who has been found guilty of grave intellectual dishonesty by claiming that there is no connection between his role as leader of the Review Team and his duties as an academic. As a spokesman for the university put it to me, ‘The finding of the judge was in relation to a particular situation which had no bearing on Professor Barker’s activities at the university.’

This cannot be regarded as a serious argument. Its absurdity can perhaps best be conveyed by a parallel: if a bank were to discover that one of its branch managers had been embezzling money from a charity of which he was a trustee, it would not disregard this on the grounds that the action did not relate to its own assets. By demonstrating dishonesty the discovery would show simply and starkly that a man who had been trusted implicitly in the past should not be trusted in the future.

The proposition that Mr Justice Eady’s findings have no bearing on Professor Barker’s activities at the university is in any case unsustainable. Professor Barker’s main qualification to lead the Review Team was his reputation as a scholar, the academic position he held and his special interest in child protection. In the light of the evidence which emerged at the trial, the Shieldfield case must now be recognised as one of the most disastrous and incompetent child abuse investigations ever conducted in this country. Responsible social work departments in universities have a duty both to learn the lessons of Shieldfield and to impart those lessons to their students.

Professor Barker, who has shown no recognition of the terrible damage which he has helped to wreak on the lives of two innocent people, is surely not in a position to do this. Just as importantly, his position as head of department would in practice make it very difficult for these grave issues to be addressed adequately by any of his junior colleagues. His continuing role as a professor might have the effect of placing the truth in quarantine and paralysing the critical independence of an entire university department.

There are other questions which arise. How could Professor Barker conceivably deal with the case of a student who was shown to be guilty of plagiarism or of cheating in exams? For these, though serious enough, are much lesser sins than the kind of dishonesty of which he has been found guilty. If the University of Northumbria condones his conduct and continues to employ him as a teacher, it will surely place itself in a position where it cannot reasonably or without hypocrisy enforce any demands for scholarly integrity or intellectual honesty either in relation to its students or in relation to other members of staff.

In the extraordinary circumstances which have come about as a result of the Shieldfield judgment, university teachers both inside and outside the University of Northumbria should recognise that their own interests demand that the traditional standards of their profession should be upheld.

If he has any sense of honour left Professor Barker will himself now tender his resignation. Failing this the University of Northumbria should dismiss him. If it does not do so it not only runs the risk of destroying its reputation as a scholarly institution and betraying its own undergraduates. It threatens to undermine the principles on which the whole scholarly community rests and by doing so to devalue an entire profession.

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A shorter version of this article appeared in the Times Higher Educational Supplement on 11 October 2002

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© Richard Webster, 2002

www.richardwebster.net

 

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