‘This is straight victimisation’ - Orville Taylor alleges malice in professorship battle with UWI
A dispute between labour laws specialist and industrial relations expert Dr Orville Taylor and The University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona, over its decision not to promote the senior academic to professor is deepening amid claims of a ‘kangaroo court’ and conflicts of interest involving top leaders of the institution.
News came Friday that the University Appointments Committee (UAC), by majority vote, agreed that Taylor’s application did not meet the standard for “distinguished original work” and that publications were “undeveloped and not professorial”.
But the committee, chaired by the UWI Vice-Chancellor Sir Hilary Beckles, said it would reconsider the application using its discretionary powers to request new external assessors and invite Taylor to submit an updated résumé.
The UAC was forced to reconsider Taylor’s application on February 3, after the university’s visitor – the final internal arbiter on disputes involving staff and students – ruled last November that a previous consideration on February 13, 2019 was unfair.
“No clear picture emerges as to the basis for the decision … . The further reconsiderations and varied explanations provided by the UAC make it difficult to conclusively determine that the discretion of the UAC was exercised reasonably and rationally,” stated retired Justice Rolston Nelson in his November 30, 2020 judgment.
That ruling put the lid on a series of contradictory correspondences from the UAC in response to Taylor’s requests about how his case was handled from the time the recommendation for his promotion was first made on December 15, 2017 by the Faculty of Social Sciences.
Taylor, a Gleaner columnist and co-host of Radio Jamaica’s ‘Hotline’, is head of the Department of Sociology, Psychology and Social Work.
After receiving the recommendation, the UAC decided on February 19, 2018 that five external assessors be appointed to review Taylor’s publications.
Almost a year later, on February 13, 2019, the application was considered and the committee determined that the case would not go forward on the basis that the criterion regarding distinguished original work had not been met.
Subsequent attempts by Taylor to get the reasons for the decision proved futile.
In one instance, then University Registrar William Iton indicated in a February 26, 2019 letter that of the five assessors’ reports received, two were negative.
Taylor replied the following month, on March 13, asking for clarification on whether there were three positive reports, the number that that university guidelines say should be used as the basis to determine whether there was distinguished original work.
In a response 15 days later, Iton said he could “confirm that three of the external assessors’ reports were positive”, a contradiction of an earlier response.
Taylor later had a meeting with Beckles on April 15, 2019, after which he wrote a letter to the vice-chancellor, who is the university’s executive head, requesting that the registrar be instructed to give the reasons for the UAC’s decision.
Section 62 of Ordinance 8 of the UWI’s system of rules says appointments committees shall give reasons for decisions.
The UAC reconsidered the case on May 29, 2019 and maintained its position.
Taylor did not give up, and on January 30, 2020, he elevated the matter to Chancellor Robert Bermudez, this time alleging that Beckles and Iton committed acts of misconduct by not providing the reasons.
Almost two weeks later, the UAC reviewed the case for a third time with no change in its position.
“There continues to be concern about the number and quality of your publications as well as a largely unchanged scholarly profile since your promotion to the level of senior lecturer,” wrote Registrar Dr Maurice Smith, who took up the position on August 1, 2019.
In a July 23, 2020 response to Taylor’s concerns, the chancellor said, among other things, that it was doubtful whether he had an appellate jurisdiction and directed that the complaint of alleged misconduct against Beckles should be made to the university registrar in line with protocols.
On September 10, Taylor wrote two letters – one to the registrar pointing to the conflicting reports on the assessors’ feedback and the second to the chancellor – outlining that the allegations of misconduct would be reported to the registrar and that an appeal against the non-promotion will be filed to the visitor.
That appeal was lodged on September 18, 2020 and came up for a virtual pretrial hearing on November 12, where it was agreed that an oral hearing was not necessary as “there was no factual dispute between the parties”.
In submissions for the UAC, the registrar argued that “at all times”, the committee complied with university rules in deciding that Taylor did not meet the criterion addressing distinguished work and confirmed that there were two positive external reports, two negative ones and a fifth that was unclear.
According to the ruling, the registrar explained that there was a “miscommunication” in the responses to Taylor in 2019, resulting in the contradictory breakdown of the assessors’ feedback.
Meanwhile, the retired Trinidadian judge noted the recommendation of Professor Bridget Brereton, which was adopted by the university in 2008, that external scholars should be the principal assessors of staff’s work and that final decisions on promotions should not be made until at least three acceptable reports have been seen.
Brereton’s recommendation was amended by reports from pro-vice-chancellors Alan Cobley and Densil Williams in 2017, whose new suggestion that the UAC should only promote when it has received three positive assessors’ reports was accepted into university guidelines.
Justice Nelson affirmed that the Brereton and Cobley-Williams reports “do not and cannot supplant the discretion vested in the UAC … who must bring its own judgment to bear upon the application”.
However, he said, in exercising that discretion, the UAC must provide “clear and rational basis for its decision”.
But that was largely absent as the visitor said “it was difficult to discern the precise basis for the UAC’s first determination in February 2019.
“Much of that difficulty arises from the fact that the UAC reconsidered its decision … on at least two further occasions. I cannot discern any material change in circumstances which could have necessitated such a course of action,” Nelson wrote.
“If the UAC accepted the recommendation of a majority of the external assessors, it must say so. If the UAC did not, it must state why it rejected that opinion,” he added, noting the significant weighting that the university, through its guidelines, give to external assessors in evaluating academics’ publication record.
There was no evidence from the minutes of the UAC’s February 2019 meeting that the assessors’ reports were taken into consideration and no reason on why it was concluded that Taylor did not meet the criterion.
In fact, the visitor observed that it was at a subsequent meeting of the UAC on May 29, 2019, that the committee “revised” its view on the external assessors’ reports and “canvassed other reasons for the decision not to promote”, including views on the quality of Taylor’s book, Broken Promises, Hearts and Pockets: A Century of Betrayal of the Jamaican Working Class, and his “unchanged scholarly profile”.
Additional concerns were raised when the visitor reviewed the assessors’ reports which he said presented “divergent” views on Taylor’s work.
The first assessor said Taylor’s book was limited in its “scholarly originality” while the second said it was “neither distinguished nor original”.
The other reviews, however, appeared more favourable.
The third assessor concluded that there was “sufficient evidence to justify his appointment to the rank of full professor” while the fourth recommended promotion “in the strongest terms”.
The fifth assessor said Taylor had “produced an impressive body of work”.
“A reasonable bystander might well consider that three of the five reports were positive,” Nelson said, contradicting the UAC’s finding that there were two positive reports.
“A decision not to promote in those circumstances must be clearly and cogently explained and justified. The material before me cannot be thus described,” Nelson argued, setting aside the February 2019 decision and confirming that the committee violated the university rules.
In Friday’s letter to Taylor, the registrar said the academic’s concerns about the participation of himself, Beckles, and Pro-Vice-Chancellor Densil Williams were determined that there was “no conflict of interest”.
The misconduct issue was not raised at the appeal.
Sunday Gleaner questions to Beckles on, among other things, his presence on the committee amid the accusation from Taylor were not specifically answered in a response provided by the registrar.
“The university’s procedure regarding the appointment of staff is a private and confidential matter,” Smith said.
”Such decisions are made by a committee, which is constituted and functions in accordance with the university’s statutes, ordinances, policies and procedures.”
Taylor said that while he will not reapply for professorship, he will be pursuing the case up the Supreme Court if necessary, as well as his allegation of misconduct against the university officials.
“This is straight occupational detriment and victimisation,” he asserted. “VC and registrar even attending the meeting of February 3, 2021 is another breach of ethical code, integrity standard 10 and natural justice. The decision of UAC is quadruple jeopardy.
“I have not been given a reason as to why I should not be promoted. … Any attempt now is a continuation of the malice from May 2019.
“What the vice-chancellor has presided over is a kangaroo court,” Taylor said, alleging the discarding of the principles of due process in the consideration of his application.
Under university rules, the vice-chancellor and campus principals decide how complaints of misconduct are treated.
UWI appointments committee membership
n Campus principals
n Dean/Deans of faculty of applicant
n Any pro-vice-chancellor with special responsibility for research or graduate studies, or both
n One professor from each campus
n One other professor