9th July 2004 Prof. A.J. Randall,
Dean of Arts and Social Sciences,
The University of Birmingham

Dear Prof. Randall,


Further to recent e-mail correspondence between ourselves and Prof. Alex Hughes, I submit herewith a formal grievance concerning the way in which the University has handled the issue of personal web pages and other computer facilities on the Sun7 machine. Most of what follows was stated in my original letter to Prof. Hughes, my Head of School, of 2nd June: in accordance with the Grievance Procedure outlined on the website of Personnel Services I had directed my grievance to Prof. Hughes in the first instance, but I understand from our correspondence that she feels unable to deal with it and that the next step is therefore to take the matter to the Dean.

My grievance is against the University as an institution rather than any of the people employed by it. Nonetheless it will become apparent from the e-mail correspondence attached in support of my complaint that I am particularly unhappy about the way in which certain individuals have dealt (or failed to deal) with the issues I have attempted to raise: namely Michele Shoebridge and John Owen of Information Services, and the Registrar and Secretary of the University.

I appreciate that it will take some time for all the issues I have raised to be addressed. I look forward to hearing from you in due course, and apologise for the burden this adds to your personal workload.

Yours sincerely,

Ms. S.A. Blackwell

c.c. Dr. Maureen Bell - acting Head of Department

Grievance concerning computer facilities

S.A. Blackwell, Department of English

Numbers in brackets refer to items attached as appendices. [ These are provided via hypertext links here - SAB ]
[ E-mails have been edited and some names and e-addresses have been removed - SAB ]
  1. Lack of Consultation

    The first issue is a general one concerning the manner in which the University changed its policy concerning personal websites. The existing policy (1a-d) had been in place for about a decade and was working well; it was viewed in other institutions as an example of good practice. The University decided abruptly to end this policy, without any consultation whatsoever of the people directly affected by it, namely the owners of the web pages concerned. When I approached the Director of Information Services (2) to request a meeting with herself, the Acting Secretary and Registrar and the University's Legal Officer, this request was refused without any good reason being given (3).

    A request to the new Secretary and Registrar for a meeting (4a) was similarly rejected (4b). The website owners continue to believe that the University's policy is ill-advised. It is claimed that the change is based on legal advice but this advice has not been made available to the website owners.

  2. Misrepresentation of Senate

    At my request, the School of Humanities' elected representative on Senate, Ron Speirs, raised the issue at Senate using briefing notes which I provided. There was some discussion of the issue; I have seen the minute of this and consider it accurate from what I have heard of the discussion. However, subsequent to this, in an e-mail to myself of 5th January 2004 (5) the Director of Information Services stated that "the new approach to personal websites was endorsed both by Senate and Council before Christmas". Moreover, an earlier e-mail sent to various IS staff by Liz Robinson, dated 4th December 2003 and later copied to myself, stated "the policy we proposed regarding personal web sites was approved in Senate yesterday" (6). This, as I understand it, is a misrepresentation of the remit of Senate, whose role is not to approve policy: see correspondence from Paul Baker (7) . Moreover, it gives a totally false impression that IS submitted their proposed policy to Senate for its approval. To the best of my knowledge and belief the matter would never have come to the attention of Senate at all if Prof. Speirs had not agreed to place it on the agenda at my request. Copies of the proposed new policy were not given to members of Senate prior to or at the meeting of 3rd December, so they did not even have sight of it let alone "approving" it. This misrepresentation of the affairs of Senate raises serious issues of principle.

  3. Blocking of IAFL site despite promises to the contrary

    I now turn to more practical and specific matters. On receiving an e-mail from Mark Connop of Arts IT saying that "unregistered sites will cease to be visible from the Internet after 31st March 2004", I e-mailed Prof. Alex Hughes, my Head of School, expressing my concerns that my application to keep my websites would not have been considered by that date (8). Prof. Hughes accordingly e-mailed John Owen of IS saying "I wouldn't wish any changes to any such to be made until the School committee has looked at all the sites concerned" (9). John Owen replied on 23rd March (10), saying "I am happy to defer any action on sites in the School of Humanities until after your IT Committee has met and made recommendations". He specifically mentions the site of the IAFL (International Association of Forensic Linguists) about which I myself, Jess Shapiro (IAFL Web designer) and Prof. Malcolm Coulthard had contacted him, saying "we will ensure access to that continues also". Despite these assurances, at some point during the Easter Vacation in mid- April access to the IAFL site was blocked. On my return to the University I found a number of e-mails from IAFL members complaining that they were unable to obtain important information about forthcoming conferences which was provided on the site. I had to contact John Owen, who to be fair did apologise for the inconvenience (11) . Nonetheless, considering all the correspondence which had taken place in the preceding weeks with the precise intention of preventing any such disasters, it was highly incompetent of IS to allow this to happen in the first place.

  4. Blocking of personal pages despite promises to the contrary

    I was now awaiting the result of my application, submitted to the School of Humanities on 5th March 2004 (12), to retain all my web pages hosted on the Sun7 machine. On my application form under "current web address" I listed two URLs, namely: http://web.bham.ac.uk/sue_blackwell (my home page) and http://web.bham.ac.uk/forensic. The latter is in fact a sub- directory of the former, but has an alias URL created for ease of access. I had been assured by John Owen that all the pages would be left up and running until the School IT committee had made its decision on my application (see above). I also expected that if the decision was that some sites would not be permitted to remain, I would be given a reasonable amount of time in which to arrange alternative hosting facilities.

    What happened was entirely different: I started once again receiving e-mails from colleagues saying that they were unable to access various of my web-pages from outside the University. On checking this I found that it was indeed so: apparently the pages had been blocked at some time during the week commencing 10th May. To exacerbate matters further, network problems that week made it almost impossible to access the Sun7 from across campus and I was unable to access my e-mail. On 18th May I was finally able to e-mail John Owen (13) to request an explanation. His reply (14) made a number of untrue statements. Firstly, he claimed: "subsequent to the meeting we were informed that you had been asked to remove certain material". In fact I was not even aware of whether the meeting had taken place by then; I most certainly had not been informed of any decision made there, let alone asked to remove any material whatsoever. When I forwarded this correspondence to Prof. Hughes she replied "no final decision has as yet been made in the School about future siting of material" (15). I therefore do not see how anyone could have informed John Owen's team of the decision he reports. Moreover he goes on to say "we allowed a period of grace for this [i.e. removal of certain material] to be completed". Needless to say, since I had not been asked to remove anything in the first place, I had not been given a period of grace to do so! He then refers to the "deadline of 1st April", which is irrelevant because in correspondence he had agreed to wait for the School of Humanities IT committee meeting which was to take place after that date.

    He then states "When we received further complaints about material on your site last week we had no choice but to block access, in line with University policy." Of course Information Services had a choice: they could have investigated the complaints to see whether they contained any substance, and they could have copied the complaints to me and invited me to respond to them. Even if they felt that the complaints had some prima- facie basis in them and consequently that they ought to suspend the page concerned, there was no need to block access to anything other than the page complained about. I still have not been told the nature of the complaints, but on the basis of past experience I can guess. Typical complaints in the past have concerned my pages on Palestinian human rights, and have accused me of "anti-semitism", "racism", displaying "visual glorification of suicide bombers" and expressing "support for terrorism". Not only are all of these untrue but I consider them defamatory and damaging to my personal reputation and prospects for future employment. If the latest complaints are of a similar vein then I find it personally hurtful and offensive that IS should apparently take them at face value. Removing access to the web pages in response to such complaints sends a message to the complainants that their allegations are justified.

    Mr. Owen continues: "If you wish to remove all material except the undergraduate teaching material we could restore access to this". This assumes that no other material had been approved: for instance my pages on research. There was no basis whatsoever for taking such a position: when I did eventually receive the decision of the School (see below) it explicitly mentions "Links for Teaching Staff" and "PG courses".

    I replied to Mr. Owen's e-mail on 20th May (16) pointing out all the above inaccuracies. By 23rd May I had not received a reply so I e-mailed him again (17). Although I have had further correspondence with Mr. Owen since then, he has never acknowledged my corrections to his untrue allegations let alone offered an apology for them. I consider this to be unprofessional behaviour towards a colleague. While he may initially have been misinformed and made the untrue statements in good faith, he should have had the good grace to apologise when it became apparent that his information had been incorrect.

    The denial of external access to my websites has caused enormous disruption and inconvenience, not only to myself but to students, colleagues and the wider academic community and beyond. It occurred at the worst possible point of the academic year, when I was immersed in a heavy marking load just prior to the Examination Boards and had no time to explore alternative hosting possibilities for my web pages.

  5. Arbitrary Decision by School of Humanities

    Finally, on 28th May I received an e-mail from Prof. Hughes (18) stating that the School IT strategy Committee had now met and made its decision concerning websites. It states that the group considered the material "related to Research and Publications, UG courses, Links for Teaching Staff and PG courses" as fitting with the remit of my "academic/admin activity". I wish to challenge this decision and ask on what basis it was made. One obvious omission is the Forensic Linguistics website: when I raised this with Prof. Hughes she told me that this had been omitted in error, which I accept. However, the fact that such an error could be made suggests that the IT Strategy Committee was not very diligent in examining and listing my web pages and I would like to know exactly which pages they looked at. Secondly, by implication my Trade Union pages are ruled inadmissible. The AUT, of which I am an officer locally and a Council Member nationally, is the recognised trade union for academic and academic-related staff at the University of Birmingham. Its main Home Page is hosted on the main University server. On what grounds, therefore, is a member of staff not permitted to run supplementary pages (linked to from the BAUT home page) on a University computer? I consider this to be an infringement of the right to engage in trade union activity on campus and to provide advice to fellow members of AUT requiring information and assistance (I am an accredited AUT Case Officer and regularly deal with personal cases).

  6. False information to members of the public

    Since my websites were blocked to the outside world, understandably a number of people have complained to the University about the lack of access. Some of these complaints have been copied to myself and in some cases I have also been copied the replies they received from the University. It appears that the office of the Registrar and Secretary is currently sending out a standard reply (19) which repeats the false statements made by Mr. Owen as documented above: it gives the impression that my pages were blocked because I had missed a deadline for making changes to them rather than because of complaints received while I was still waiting for the outcome of my application.

  7. Facilities on Sun7 machine

    There is a general issue about the Sun6 and Sun7 machines, on which personal websites are currently hosted, and the machine which is to replace them, which I believe is to be named the Sun18. Firstly, I have received from John Owen a further e-mail (20) saying that all websites on the Sun7 will be blocked from the end of July: I take this to mean that there will be no access even from within campus and even to sites which are deemed "relevant" to one's academic work. However, he gives no details about what will happen to the IAFL website which is currently hosted on the Sun6 and Sun7 machines. This is despite a previous assurance to IAFL (mentioned above) that the site would not be disrupted and that we would be able to continue to run the site on Unix-based facilities with "a simple transfer of files" being all that was necessary. I had assumed that the IAFL site would be moved to the Sun18, but I am no longer sure whether this is the case, and if not which Unix facilities IS is offering us. Bearing in mind the disruption which this site has already suffered and the fact that Jess Shapero is only available to work on it for a few days each month, I am now extremely concerned that once again IS is going to cause disruption to the site. All I have received from John Owen is a vague assurance to Jess Shapero and copied to myself (21) which is so lacking in specifics that it offers no reassurance whatsoever to us.

    The IAFL web pages are very closely linked to my personal pages on Forensic Linguistics, and yet I have the impression that IS want to break this link by forcing me to put my personal FL pages on a different machine from the official IAFL pages. This makes no sense whatsoever since the two sets of FL web pages constantly link to each other and probably share files. At present the IAFL website is a sub-directory of my general FL site and this is a logical way of organising the material. The division between "official IAFL" and "personal" FL material is somewhat arbitrary and the boundaries may well move in the future as a result of decisions taken by subsequent IAFL meetings. The IAFL material is currently split between two machines because the Sun7 does not support PHP or MYSQL, but we had hoped to be able to integrate all the FL pages on a single machine in the future, not to have to split them yet further.

    In addition to the issue of the IAFL site, I am concerned about my personal academic work. All my academic work (apart from lecture handouts) is currently on the Sun7. I use the Sun7 for my e-mail, my administrative files, access to the Web (e.g. for the Departmental Intranet) and much of my Ph.D. research. I will be using it intensively over the next few months as I am in the final stages of my doctoral thesis and will be running a suite of programs written in "C" over the CHILDES corpus of child language. I have downloaded the entire Manchester corpus of CHILDES onto the Sun7 along with the suite of programs known as CLAN which are used to process files in CHILDES format. It took me some time and effort to compile these programs and get them running and I do not now expect this research to be disrupted. However, IS have given me no assurance that I will be able to move them onto the Sun18 or indeed that I will have any facilities whatsoever on that machine or any other Unix machine. I have been using the Sun7 because large amounts of filespace were available there, plus an excellent team of IS staff (Chris Bayliss, Roy Pearce and Alan Reed in particular) who have given me copious advice whenever I have encountered problems. It is simply not an option to transfer this work to a Windows-based machine as I would have to download a different version of the entire suite of programs and compile them all for a Windows platform, and I am not at all convinced that anyone on campus would be capable of helping me debug them if I ran into problems. Any disruption to this research will jeopardise my plans to submit my doctoral thesis by the deadline of January 2005.

    I understand that the replacement machine, Sun18, will be running a webserver for various administrative purposes. What could be simpler than to allow me to move all my files and programs from the Sun7 to its replacement - which I am sure will offer a superior service - along with my personal web pages and the IAFL web pages currently split between Sun6 and Sun7? Yet for some reason which I do not understand, John Owen seems to be resisting this obvious and relatively painless solution. I currently have no idea what facilities I will be offered, either for my web pages or for my other files, when the Sun7 is decommissioned; nor have I been told when that decommissioning will take place. This is causing me a good deal of stress at the moment.

What I am asking for (numbering matches the points above):

  1. Lack of Consultation:

    1. Acceptance by those responsible for the new Website policy that with hindsight it is not ideal, and may not be the best way of addressing either the security or the legal issues it was intended to deal with;

    2. Agreement to meet and consult with a representative group of website users (staff and students of the University who have hitherto had personal websites on the Sun7 and/or departmental servers).

    3. The legal advice on which the new policy is based should be made available to the website owners and be an item for discussion in the meeting and consultation described in 1.2 above.

  2. Misrepresentation of Senate

    1. A clear statement from the University that when ordinary members of the University have issues placed on the agenda of Senate for discussion, this does not constitute Senate's "approval" of the policies concerned, since that is not Senate's role;

    2. An assurance that University staff will not misrepresent policies as having been "approved by Senate" in the future.

  3. Blocking of IAFL site despite promises to the contrary

    1. I have already received an apology for this, which I accept was a genuine mistake. However, I would like IS to investigate how its communications broke down to such an extent that this could occur, and to take steps to prevent such unfortunate events from occurring in the future.

  4. Blocking of personal pages despite promises to the contrary

    1. All my web pages on Sun7 should have external access restored while this grievance is being investigated and dealt with.

    2. I expect an apology from IS for removing access to my websites without any prior notice or the "period of grace" claimed by John Owen.

    3. I expect a retraction of the untrue statements made in John Owen's e-mail of 18th May (as I said above, I accept that he may have made them in good faith at the time).

    4. I would like to know the date on which the School of Humanities IT Committee discussed my application to retain my web pages, and to whom the outcome was communicated at the time. If in fact the outcome was communicated to John Owen as he claims, while not being communicated to myself, I expect an apology for this from the School of Humanities.

    5. I request a copy of all complaints received by the University in connection with my web pages, and the University's reply in each case. I believe that in any event I an entitled to this information under the Data Protection Act, since they constitute information held about me by my employer. In connection with the most recent complaints mentioned in John Owen's e-mail, I should be given the opportunity to respond to whatever allegations are being made and my responses should be communicated back to the complainant by the University.

    6. In view of my personal experience in this case, I feel that the University should put in place a proper complaints procedure to deal with any future complaints about webpages of University staff or students, which should include at least (a) a requirement of the complainant to substantiate their allegations giving "chapter and verse" (i.e. actual web page URLs and exact passages complained about), and (b) an automatic right to reply for the web page owner concerned. (If the University is so naive as to believe that no future complaints will arise once its new policy is in place, it is sadly mistaken).

  5. Arbitrary Decision by School of Humanities

    1. I request a list of those of my web pages which the School IT Strategy Committee considered, and a detailed account of the criteria used to decide which of my pages were to be allowed to continue on University machines.

    2. Since the criteria, whatever they are, cannot have been applied consistently, I request a meeting with representatives of the School of Humanities IT committee to work out a reasonable compromise on a consistent basis. In particular my Trade Union pages should be included in the list of permitted pages.

    3. If the reasonable compromise results in an agreement that some of my web pages should be moved to new hosting facilities, I should be given a "period of grace" in which to do so - as indeed John Owen wrongly believed I had already been given.

    4. I expect the University to provide forwarding and/or linking to any of my pages hosted on an external site, since the Registrar and Secretary is stating to the public that this is the case.

  6. False information to members of the public

    1. I expect an apology from the office of the Registrar and Secretary for the misleading information which has been sent to members of the public who have complained about the blocking of my web pages. All those who have complained should now be informed that my pages were in fact blocked as the result of complaints received and not because I had missed some alleged deadline for moving material.

  7. Facilities on Sun7/Sun18 machine

    1. I request a meeting with appropriate representatives of Information Services, with a mediator present, to resolve the issue of (a) future Unix facilities for my personal web pages and the IAFL pages, and (b) future Unix facilities for my research and administration.

Last updated: 17th September 2004