The man in charge of the school of modern languages at Bristol University has strongly contested claims by a former lecturer that she was subjected to persistent micro-aggressions because of her race, that ultimately led her to leave with ill-health.
Prof Andreas Schonle was in charge of the languages school at the university when Dr Christabelle Parker complained about a range of issues and problems she was having with colleagues back in the late 2010s.
Dr Parker’s health suffered because of the situation and she ended up suffering from a stroke, which ultimately led to her retiring from her post through ill-health.
Dr Parker then issued a complaint for race discrimination against the University of Bristol, which culminated in a week-long industrial tribunal at Bristol Civil Court, this week.
Earlier in the week, Dr Parker – who represented herself – cross-examined many of her former colleagues at the university, over the way they treated her, and subsequently dealt with her complaints. During the week, the tribunal judge heard that one senior colleague challenged her application to research a particular subject around language in sub-Saharan Africa by telling her ‘no one gives a s*** about Africa’.
All her colleagues strenuously deny they treated Dr Parker differently or negatively because of her ethnic background, and the university has been contesting the claims throughout. On the final morning of evidence, Prof Schonle was quizzed by Dr Parker about he and his department’s handling of Dr Parker after she suffered a stroke, which she said was brought on by the mental toll and stress of the situation.
Dr Parker asked about emails which Prof Schonle advised colleagues in the HR department that Dr Parker had ‘an unjustified resentment towards the school’, and that it would be best for HR to deal with her instead of her bosses. But after six months of Dr Parker being off sick, he did email her, with a message reaching out to make contact with her again. Prof Schonle said he had to begin planning for the following year’s staffing levels, and needed to know what Dr Parker’s situation was.
“I had thought it best to leave it a while and let things, your emotions, settle,” he said. “It was six months so the situation by early 2020 was that we had no information about Dr Parker’s conditions and prognosis on her return to work. For planning purposes, it would have been good to have a sense of what the likely development of her case would be,” he explained.
When she told him she was thinking about resigning from her position or taking early retirement on the grounds of ill-health, he arranged for the university’s occupational health to get involved.
“Was ill-health retirement the first option to be finally rid of a resentful or complex employee?” Dr Parker asked Prof Schonle. “No not at all. I was doing my best to support you given the circumstances of your health. I was not pushing for retirement,” he replied. “We did everything we could to support you.”
After the Black Lives Matter protests around May and June 2020, and the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol, the university issued a lengthy statement responding to the issues and challenges that arose from those protests, and the university’s own history. In that statement, the university said it had recently appointed an equality and diversity lead, as well as the country’s first professor of the history of the slave trade, Prof Olivette Otele – who has subsequently left the university.
At that time, Dr Parker wrote a letter to the equality and diversity lead, spelling out her experiences of working at the university, which she copied in Prof Schonle, as the head of her school.
“I wrote about the micro and macro aggressions I had faced, and I was told that it was too toxic for me there, that it was doing me harm,” Dr Parker told the tribunal. “I sent that to both of you – were you embarrassed that the Black Lives Matter email had been sent to both you, where I am talking again about that I had no support?” she asked Prof Schonle.
He said: “No I thought it was a good thing that I was copied in, so I could see what you had written.”
“Did you think I was accusing you of being negligent in your duties as head of the school?” she asked her former boss. “No,” he replied.
The judge summarised the part of Dr Parker’s allegations that applied to Prof Schonle. “She says she made a complaint to Dr Crow regarding alleged racism and because of that complaint being made, the school refused her advancement, a place in the accelerated development programme,” he said.
But Prof Schonle categorically denied that was the case. “No, because I was not aware of the complaint at that time, and in any case, she was not eligible to apply for the accelerated programme,” he said.
The judge said Dr Parker was also claiming that her desire to return to work with adjustments for her health had been denied, in a way that would not have been the case if she was white. “She also claims an option to teach online instead was denied, and that a white employee would not have been treated in such a way,” the judge said – something again Prof Schonle denied.
“My recollection is that we did not discuss a return to work at all. She was under a fit note saying she was not fit to work in October 2020, and secondly the reason we met was that she was thinking about retirement and wanted to hear about the process, and that was the purpose of the meeting. I didn’t discuss this, because the discussion about this starts with an occupational health assessment, and that had not happened at that point,” the professor said.
The tribunal ended with the judge inviting written submissions, with a ruling expected in the next few weeks.