5th February 2004

Dr. Jonathan Nicholls,
Registrar and Secretary,
The University of Birmingham

Dear Dr. Nicholls,

Firstly, I would like to congratulate you on your appointment to the University of Birmingham. I note that you are an English graduate so no doubt we share some common academic ground! I am sorry to bring a thorny issue to your attention so soon in your new post.

I am writing to you on behalf of a group of staff and students of the University who currently run "personal" web pages on University of Birmingham computers. "Personal" does not necessarily mean "non-academic"; rather, these websites are not official University of Birmingham pages and are created and maintained by individuals. Many of them, with content ranging from politics to poetry, are highly popular: indeed they increase the visibility of the University to the outside world and are valued for their contributions to the academic community and the wider community of which the University is a part.

These websites are now under threat due to the University's new policy on personal websites, which was circulated yesterday (4th February). We believe that the new policy is unnecessary, misguided and not properly thought through. We feel that far from protecting the University from legal challenges, it will leave the University more vulnerable and damage its reputation. Of major concern to us are the implications for academic freedom.

Just over a year ago, when complaints were made about the political content of one of my own web pages, the then Registrar and Secretary David Allen wrote to my Head of Department as follows:

"My view, shared by Jane [Usherwood], is that Sue has done nothing wrong. The site does not carry the University's logo and has a clear disclaimer that it is personal to Sue. It does not appear to breach our conditions of use. It does have a bham address and links to other sites but the University does host personal sites for academic staff provided they abide by the conditions of use.

"... In the light of this, unless and until the site breaches our conditions of use or our policy on personal sites changes, we have no plans to remove the site. Academics are protected by Statute in order to enable them 'to challenge received wisdom and express controversial or unpopular opinions within the law without losing their jobs or privileges'. That is academic freedom which this University is pledged to maintain in our mission statement."

I was delighted to see that the University took such an exemplary public stand in defending academic freedom, and I am sure you will share your predecessor's sentiments on this issue. Regrettably, however, the policy on personal websites has indeed changed and I and my fellow website owners believe that academic freedom is threatened by the new policy. It will certainly look that way to the world outside the University.

We have asked for a meeting with Michele Shoebridge, Director of Information Services, along with John Owen (Infrastructure and Technology Development Team Leader), the then Acting Registrar and the University's legal officer. Unfortunately this request has been turned down. We are now writing to yourself to request a meeting so that we can explain our concerns.

We would be extremely grateful if you could spare us an hour of your time to discuss the issues involved.

I look forward to hearing from you, and to meeting with you.

Yours sincerely

(Ms.) Sue Blackwell

Last updated: 26th August 2004