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‘Bullying and harassment’ at Edinburgh

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Dean of Edinburgh vet school David Argyle is at the centre of the bullying claims

By Adele Waters

Several current and former members of staff at the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, Edinburgh, are calling for the current dean, David Argyle, to be removed from his post.

They have spoken to Vet Record following the conclusion of an investigation into alleged ‘bullying and harassment’ at the institution (see case studies, pp 296–297).

Alongside his role as dean of the vet school, Argyle is currently junior vice president of the RCVS, meaning he is set to become its president next year. Some staff also claim that he is unfit for that role.

As part of an investigation carried out by an external agency, Intersol Global, 21 staff across a wide range of roles at the University of Edinburgh’s vet school and Roslin Institute were interviewed in February and March this year. The probe identified eight allegations:

  1. An ‘intolerable breach of basic health and safety standards’ in terms of aggressive and abusive language and physical behaviour by the head of school (among others).

  2. ‘Shocking levels of harassment’, leading to many staff taking sick leave due to stress.

  3. Long-term members of staff leaving due to feeling marginalised, harassed and eventually bullied out of their jobs.

  4. Unacceptably high workloads.

  5. Negligible faith in the impartiality of human resources when dealing with staff complaints.

  6. Negligible faith in the impartiality of recruitment and promotion processes.

  7. A culture of extreme fear of being labelled as a troublemaker.

  8. Use of disciplinary procedures, marginalisation and unprofessional conduct against those who question inappropriate behaviour of management.

Staff interviewed by investigators identified three areas for improvement: first in Argyle’s interpersonal skills; second, the university should acknowledge the existence of a poor workplace culture; and third, honesty and transparency from the university’s HR department when dealing with staff issues.

In its report filed to the university in April, investigators recommended the university carry out a full survey – an electronic anonymous survey for all staff (853) in the vet school – to establish the extent of problem behaviour. However, the university has not done so.

They also recommended that the university management follow its own complaints policy to instigate corrective action.

According to the report most (93 per cent of those interviewed) believed the head to be ‘highly skilled in his profession’ but that he had ‘poor people management skills when dealing with staff’.

This deficit had led to aggressive and abusive language as well as physical behaviour in some instances by, but not limited to, the head of school (according to 67 per cent of those interviewed).

It had also overspilled into unprofessional conduct and abuse of disciplinary procedures, 38 per cent said.

Staff have been filing complaints to the university’s leadership for several years

Staff have been filing complaints to the university’s leadership – in particular Moira Whyte (head of the college of medicine and veterinary medicine at the University of Edinburgh and Argyle’s boss) – for several years but have been disappointed and frustrated by the lack of action to improve the workplace culture.

In 2015, as part of Athena Swan accreditation (for advancement of women in science), a staff member organised a focus group to examine issues of workplace bullying and it reported its findings to management.

Several complaints (seen by Vet Record) were filed to management over subsequent years, culminating in a grievance and appeal case by three staff (often referred to as an internal investigation) – both were rejected by the university.

However, following a report in The Sunday Times in August 2019 based on the concerns of a former senior academic Andrew Brown, the university commissioned Intersol Global to conduct a review. The university has refused to release those findings (full or summary report) but Vet Record has obtained a copy of the summary report.

Several staff at the vet school (current and former) have given testimonies to Vet Record. All have given their stories under the condition that their identities will be protected due to fear of damaging consequences.

One senior academic at the vet school who has worked there for more than 10 years told Vet Record: ‘I’ve seen David Argyle take issue with colleagues in a way that they couldn’t defend themselves in open meetings. I’ve seen email trails with comments from him that are unacceptable. And I’ve seen him undermining, excluding, isolating colleagues and making disparaging remarks about staff members, often dressed up as banter.’

There has been a clear pattern of behaviour consistent with bullying and cronyism

Another senior staff member said: ‘There has been a clear pattern of behaviour consistent with bullying and cronyism that has emanated from the head of school’s office over the past five years. Meanwhile college HR has hidden behind process, failing to investigate the wider picture fully. To say that the full allegations have been investigated is farcical and they have repeatedly failed to provide opportunities for the staff to air their views without prejudice. Presumably they are scared of the result.’

See all case studies pp 296-297.

Vet Record asked for interviews with Argyle and Whyte but the request was declined. Instead a University of Edinburgh spokesperson said the wellbeing of its staff was of the ‘utmost importance’ and ‘it took such matters very seriously’. It was working with the University College Union (UCU) and had ‘well-developed plans for staff development at the Easter Bush campus and for a survey of all staff who work there’.

Last week, following a series of questions to the university’s press office, Argyle sent out an email to trusted colleagues and associates, a copy of which was forwarded to Vet Record. In it he dismisses the concerns as being from ‘one or two’ individuals who were unhappy and says this is a fact of life in such a large organisation. He refers to an internal investigation that exonerated him but accuses some people of having an agenda against him, including journalists.

Whyte also sent a statement: ‘These serious allegations have been thoroughly and robustly investigated by senior management unconnected with the school or the college, following all appropriate procedures, and the inquiry concluded that there was no evidence of misconduct. This conclusion was upheld after an appeal. We do not intend to reopen this investigation.

‘The impact of the accusations and the subsequent inquiry has been highly distressing and challenging for all those affected. Our efforts now are to work with colleagues across the school to ensure that they feel supported and able to air any concerns that they have.

‘We have held discussions with UCU and commissioned a third party to provide a safe space for members of staff to anonymously express their views. As a result of this exercise, which two dozen colleagues contributed to, we have well-developed plans for staff development at the Easter Bush campus.

‘We are incredibly proud of the world-leading research and outstanding teaching that takes place at the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies and Easter Bush campus. Since Professor Argyle’s appointment as head of school in 2011, this work has gone from strength to strength. This year we were ranked – for the fourth year running – first in the UK for veterinary science in the Guardian League Table and rated sixth in the world in the QS Rankings. We have been recognised as first for veterinary medicine in the Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide for six years in a row. And the 2020 National Student Survey scored our overall student satisfaction at 95 per cent.’

However, counter to this statement, an internal email leaked to this journal revealed the university does acknowledge there is a problem with the workplace culture that needs addressing.

Also, it reveals the university’s intention to roll back on a decision to conduct a full staff survey, a recommendation by Intersol. The email says there is no need for a full staff survey as it was unlikely to reveal any new information that the management team did not already know. Instead, the university has organised some anti-bullying and harassment training, and Whyte and Argyle have offered to meet with staff to explain their approach to tackling concerns.

Meanwhile, the university and the UCU remains concerned about the lack of progress to tackle a poor workplace culture at the vet school. A spokesperson said: ‘UCU raised the very serious concerns on a culture of bullying and harassment at the university’s veterinary school with the employer last year.’

The BVA confirmed that it has been contacted by a few members who are concerned about the allegations of bullying at the vet school; however, without knowing the full facts, it said it would not be appropriate to comment. But James Russell, BVA president, added: ‘Having recently launched our Good Veterinary Workplaces position we believe very strongly that all working environments should treat all members of the team fairly and equitably, with no tolerance of prejudice, discrimination, bullying or harassment. BVA’s legal helpline is available for any member who needs support on employment matters and Vetlife is available 24/7 to help everyone in the veterinary community.’

An RCVS spokesperson said: ‘We are aware of the recent press coverage regarding our junior vice president David Argyle, and accusations of bullying at his workplace, the University of Edinburgh. We know that the University of Edinburgh takes any such accusations extremely seriously and that its internal inquiry fully and robustly investigated the claims in 2019. This inquiry found no evidence of misconduct, a decision that was later upheld after an appeal.

‘The RCVS has a no-tolerance approach to bullying and we are pleased that the university’s inquiry found no issues to be addressed.’

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