Universities and wildlife

In my role I spend a lot of time trying to ensure that my university, DCU, gets serious media attention. But there are some things you don’t want to be in the media for, and our colleagues in University College Cork have just discovered one of them: getting edgy about the sex lives of fruit bats.

I don’t really want to take you through the alleged facts of this episode, and if you haven’t come across it yet you can read about it here. In very short summary, it is alleged that a lecturer in behavioural science was disciplined when he showed a colleague an academic article on the sex lives of these animals, and when the colleague concerned took offence. As far as I can see the matter became public when the lecturer being disciplined distributed a letter to friends and colleagues, and a copy got into the hands of the online news site, Huffington Post, on Friday.

Well, this is the age of the internet, and before you could say ‘moral outrage’ the story was spreading in a viral manner, and as we speak there are nearly 5,000 websites (one more when I have finished writing this) offering a view on it. I deliberately am not saying ‘views’, because there is only one view coming across, which can be summarised as: ‘have these guys in UCC totally lost it?’

This is where you need strong media management. As far as I can tell – and I have looked – the university has made no attempt to tell its side of the story, or even just to explain why it cannot do so. Right now they are at risk of being subjected both to anger at the apparent denial of basic academic freedom, and to ridicule because of the subject-matter of the article that apparently caused such offence.

I have now read 30 or so articles brimming with righteous indignation about this case. We should perhaps be just a little slow to follow that example. We haven’t heard the college’s side of the story. More importantly, we don’t know what it was, or what underlying circumstances existed, that caused the colleague to whom the article was shown to react the way they did. Really we should know this before rushing to judgement.

My guess is that this bandwagon is now full, and we should perhaps wait for the next instalment in the saga before saying any more. Though I must admit I am rather curious now about it all – so come UCC, get moving on this! And fruit bats: have fun!

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28 Comments on “Universities and wildlife”

  1. Mark Dowling Says:

    I realise one thing has nothing to do with the other thing, but I can only wonder at the character of a man who stood over a proposal to charge 80 euros (later reduced, later “deferred”) to shake his hand and receive a piece of paper from him.

    I had the opportunity to receive my DCU qualification from the author of this blog but chose to receive it by post due to being out of the country. Were I to know it was of such value that people would charge money for something I was being offered for free – who knows, maybe I would have changed my plans!

  2. Vincent Says:

    You would have to wonder all the same about the institution that payed for the research. I’ll bet there was no begging letter for funds, for how the dickens would one frame it.
    I think you are correct to hold fire on the UCC thing. You never know but he objector might be a Nun or someone in that business. Anyhow this could easily turn on a sixpence I feel.

  3. Jilly Says:

    UCC really MUST make a statment, because if they don’t, we will all have to conclude that there is no more to this story than meets the eye, and that a gross breach of academic freedom (not to mention basic common sense) has occurred. It is rather puzzling, as on the face of it, Dr Evans could go to the courts tomorrow: after all, he was cleared by a formal disciplinary panel.

    As for the research in question, Vincent, I’m sure that a funding proposal was written for it. I’m not a scientist but I can see quite clearly why this kind of work is useful, has wide ramifications in evolutionary biology, and would be relevant to a discussion on that topic.

    So, the mystery continues…

    • Vincent Says:

      Yes Jilly, but Min Tan would need that video actually displaying the operation in question. For without it, a written proposal would be nothing more that evidence of a very disturbing bestial fitish.

      • Jilly Says:

        Sorry Vincent, don’t know what ‘Min Tan’ refers to. But beyond that, I don’t agree with what I think you’re saying here. Reproductive practices and behaviours are central to biological study – it’s no different from wanting to pursue initial evidence of a particular form of food-gathering, or hibernation practice, or whatever. Sexual practices aren’t a ‘special case’ of any kind. To think of them as such is anthropomorphism of a deeply unscientific and damaging kind.

        As I understand it, the point of all this to evolutionary biology is the issue of human exceptionalism, or otherwise. Sexual practice is an obvious area to study for this.

        • Vincent Says:

          Tan et al are the authors.
          While my point has nothing at all to do with biology. Anyone watching the video could see that there was something to study. But it had to be a video. Still photos would not do nor would a ten-thousand word proposition for at first glance this seems as logical as Lions setting up a red-light district on the north-western slopes of Kilimanjaro.

  4. Kelly Says:

    I am not interested in the behaviour of fruitbats. But I am very interested in the behaviour of people in organizations, especially universities. And I am finding it extremely hard to get my head around this scenario: an academic shows someone an article, this someone is offended by the nature of the discussion and/or the production of the article, makes a complaint, and a full investigation is launched just like that by HR, which ends in some form of probation/disciplinary action? For real???

    In my experience, complaints about offensive behaviour (or more serious charges of sexual harassment) require, of course, a very large amount of detailed evidence before the accused person is investigated. It is notoriously difficult in universities to get such charges taken seriously to the point where disciplinary action is taken, for obvious reasons.

    So my first reaction to this story was not a concern about academic freedom but complete disbelief that an allegation of offensive behaviour would be pursued to such lengths unless there was extremely good evidence to support it. Or am I missing something?

    • Jilly Says:

      Yes, that’s my response too. And add to that the fact that after the investigation was launched (complete with external investigators), the ‘defendant’ was cleared of the charge of sexual harrassment. So WHAT is his ‘probation’ for, exactly? It cannot possibly be the case that UCC has a policy of placing people on probation simply for having been accused. Can it?!

      • iainmacl Says:

        well that does sound intriguing, but if there was no reason for such a probation then he’d have a strong legal case surely??

      • Steve Says:

        But it’s not a “fact” that he was cleared – that’s simply Dr Evans’s reading of the investigation’s report. A more natural reading of the report suggests that they found one charge proved and one charge not proved. But judge for yourself – the report (and other docs) are online at http://felidware.com/DylanEvans/.

  5. iainmacl Says:

    Well, I wonder too. I mean we just have the one side of the story in the press, but the report on the incident was posted up on the facebook site of the lecturer and when you read that then it doesnt seem quite as ludicrous as the reported stories.

    I’m sure that there is a different perspective that could be taken from the description of the scenario, although the report does say it was a joke and there were misunderstandings. It seems that the person offended had been concerned about the accused coming into their office frequently and then slipping them this paper which happened to have an extremely sexually explicit title involving the word ‘fellatio’ (sorry that’s going to wreak havoc now with this blog’s ratings on google) . A case was then taken and investigated by a committee.

    Whether or not the procedures and actions taken were appropriate is another matter, but I’d suggest that this story actually revolves around accusations of harassment and has nothing to do with ‘academic freedom’. Indeed that phrase is thrown around a lot these days. Is it really a fundamental academic freedom to make your colleagues feel threatened sexually by your actions?

    So before the signatories of this petition send me any more emails about it, or bombard facecebook as they are doing, perhaps there needs to be a bit of clarity and understanding that this is a local HR case, involving personal feelings, staff behaviour, allegations and internal processes more than it involves ‘academic freedom’. Of course, I could be wrong too on the details I’ve read, but I’m not rushing to judgement or the barricades on what I’ve seen thus far.

    • Jilly Says:

      Yes, I agree. Certainly we don’t know what happened exactly: and I just cannot believe that it’s all about that fruit-bat article. But I’m still puzzled about UCC’s actual procedures, and I do think they’ll have to make some kind of statement.


  6. Steve has (above) given us a link to documents which appear to be the formal documents applying to this case. Assuming they are accurate, they do rather balance the story. Worth looking at:

    http://felidware.com/DylanEvans/

    • Vincent Says:

      Balance. But not in the way I thought it would hang. If I was a betting man I’d say there will be some high level vacancies by the end of the summer.

    • wendymr Says:

      Very interesting. I’d need to study UCC’s policies on the subject, but I am rather surprised at the IFUT president’s assertion that a single act doesn’t constitute sexual harassment (and this is not a comment on the particular case as there is insufficient evidence in the public domain to form a judgement, and what is available is contradictory).


  7. […] F Von Prondzynski calls on UCC to say something, and say it very soon […]

  8. SM Says:

    While I was tempted to sign the petition at first, it became clear quite quickly that this is not about academic freedom but about a personal fight that’s been blown out of proportion.

    But can I just point out something? As the documents show, Evans was not subjected to disciplinary procedure, only some confidential counseling and awareness training. Given the confidentiality of the whole process, it probably would have had absolutely no impact on his career.

    However, through his own actions in launching a full scale internet campaign, he has now seriously threatened his career.

    In particular, he has published communication that is clearly marked as confidential, breaking Section 25 of the UCC’s Dignity Policy. He has also given enough details about the complainant that she can be easily identified, and her name is already out in some mailing lists. In other words, he has deliberately exposed a colleague to public ridicule, which could well constitute harassment and bullying.

    It is important that grievances are handled in a sensitive and confidential way, and if somebody feels harassed, they should be able to ask for support with a guarantee that the matter is handled appropriately. Most policies on harassment therefore include confidentiality clauses, and rightly so.

    In my opinion, the UCC now has no choice than to open serious disciplinary proceedings against Evans, who is abusing his experience in internet campaign against a colleague.


  9. Looking at the paperwork, the charges being brought are not clear-cut enough to justify putting anything on the employee’s file that would prejudice his establishment (i.e., being made permanent). That is the issue from the point of view of Evans (I understand from the interview on the radio this morning).

    On the other hand, it looks like the process was basically successful in that it achieved what was required to the satisfaction of all parties, i.e., all parties accepted that there was a problem and apparently worked in conjunction with the process to resolve it; the complainant was able to get the assurance she required and the person complained of was compliant with the requirements of the University to ensure a dignified environment for all going forward by making sure that the same or a similar problem did not arise again. And, apparently, no legal budgets were harmed in the process, which is obviously a good thing. Full marks to UCC on that.

    However iIf UCC was unhappy with the resolution and felt that more was required, they really should have held a further investigation to remedy the problems that Evans seems to have found with the process. This would have been inexpensive to do, and would have put them on a much firmer footing. They would also have been wise to invoke the disciplinary procedures if they wanted to make a negative finding and take a disciplinary measure.

    My own (somewhat extensive) experience on both ends of employment disputes and judicial reviews is that you have to do two things: 1. Keep an eye on the objective you and the other parties actually want to achieve, and 2. for the decisionmaker, do the process as well as possible, and if you make a mistake, correct it.

    Unfortunately you can’t draw any grand general conclusions from these things, other than the importance of due process. Employees always had this right, it’s just that the Internet has now come along as another way to vindicate it, for better or worse.


  10. University College Cork views with the utmost gravity the fact that confidential documentation concerning an internal allegation of sexual harassment, including the report of a formal investigation, conducted by experienced senior external investigators, was posted to various social media platforms, in contravention of University policy and well-established procedure.
    For more information, please follow the link:
    http://bit.ly/b0tPFs


  11. University College Cork views with the utmost gravity the fact that confidential documentation concerning an internal allegation of sexual harassment, including the report of a formal investigation, conducted by experienced senior external investigators, was posted to various social media platforms, in contravention of University policy and well-established procedure.
    It is imperative, in the interests of fairness to all sides involved, and for such procedures to work effectively, that the University and the parties to procedures of this nature, maintain the confidentiality that governs them. Failure to do so, impinges on the rights of staff who feel it necessary to lodge a complaint against a fellow staff member. The rights of staff who may wish to take similar action in future or defend themselves against such allegations, would also be affected, were confidentiality to be broken in such a manner. There are, therefore, serious consequences for the University and for its policy on Duty of Respect and Right to Dignity in the workplace.

    The University has a duty of care to both parties in a dispute and well established policies and procedures that are fully compliant with Irish law and supported and approved by the Governing Body of the University. In the interests of upholding the principle of confidentiality and in fairness to both sides, the University feels it would not be appropriate to comment further.

  12. AM Says:

    I think this writer does an excellent job of arguing the other side:
    http://pulsatance.com/2010/05/16/sexual-harassment-is-not-your-academic-freedom/


  13. […] Fruit bats fellatio Funny reading the shenanigans going on UCC re Dylan Evans & his censure about showing a colleague a paper about fruitbat fellatio. I don’t think we are getting the whole story but what’s more interesting is people’s opinion of what UCC should/shouldn’t have done to deal with the situation. […]

  14. John Says:

    Perhaps the small number of UCC individuals concerned should now be given a second chance at sorting this thing out on their own. A bit of humility and forgiveness all round wouldn’t go amiss.


  15. […] itself) can be found at Huffington Post, New Scientist, Boing Boing, Irish Times, Stephen Kinsella, University Blog, Pharyngula, Times Higher Education, Demure lemur, NeuroDojo, NeuroDojo again and probably the best […]

  16. wdf Says:

    I found this case to be intriguing. But when I sat down to comment on it, the main thought that ran through my head is that there are no winners in this story. All are going to be marked – at least for a short while over something that could have been nipped in the bud quite early.
    http://whatdefocal.blogspot.com/

  17. Victor Says:

    A great many academics are very, very angry at Evans because he conned them and duped them with a PHONY petition that he wrote, framed and published.

    And because he used the Web 2.0 to humiliate and bully a female colleague–Dr Kennedy

    1/He cynically twisted the issue of “Academic Freedom ” to try to get out of trouble, as he has done before, and to intimidate his employer.

    2/ When that did not work he changed his story to portray Dr Kennedy, the complainant, as a hysterical Italian woman, as a liar and as a co-conspirator with her husband, who he attempts to portray as an Irish prude– not wise coming from Evans,– a middle-aged, over weight, balding, burnt out Brit– whatever– his narcissism has no limits

    3/ When that did not work he invented a mysterious 3 rd party— 6 months after the investigation ended.

    4/ When that did not work, this Sunday, he invented a vast underground conspiracy between Big-Pharma and Academia that, he claims, is targeting him in devious and mysterious ways.

    What next?

    Evans has profoundly damaged the legitimate campaigns for Academic Freedom and against Sexual Harassment by his lies, false claims and manipulations of Web 2.0.

    See what leading academics have to say about him now
    http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2010/05/bat_sex_is_not_protected_by_ac.php

    Then you will understand why he is now an unemployable pariah in the academic world everywhere the Web 2.0 reaches.

    That is why we suggest he try N Korea–

  18. Victor Says:

    Addendum— the verdicthttp://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2010/05/bat_sex_is_not_protected_by_ac.php

    “Maybe people will think twice before signing petitions about things they don’t know much about? – Carlie

    *Raises hand shamefacedly*
    Me for one.

    My thanks to the Pharyngula investigative team!”

    And that Evans is a very disturbed man who at one point could have benefited from counseling and monitoring– as Prof Murphy suggested — a good, kind judgment at the time.

    But—-

    The matter has gone WAY beyond that in the last 10 days of Evans Web behavior.

    Evans is now a danger to himself and others—

  19. John Says:

    High Court forces UCC to halt disciplinary proceedings against Dylan Evans


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