Professor’s court challenge against university upheld

A CHALLENGE by a university professor to the conduct of an investigation by his employer college into allegations that he grabbed a female staff member by the throat, has been upheld by the Supreme Court.

The three-judge court yesterday unanimously rejected University College Cork’s (UCC) appeal against a High Court decision that the disciplinary procedures invoked by it towards Professor Connell Fanning, head of the economics department of UCC, were beyond its powers.

Where a proposed disciplinary action interferes with rights of tenure or conditions of service, Prof Fanning and anyone else appointed prior to the 1997 Universities Act may only be dealt with under pre-1997 statutes, said Mr Justice Nicholas Kearns.

The case arose after UCC sought to suspend Prof Fanning arising from an incident on August 31, 2001, in a staff car park on the university campus.

Mr Justice Kearns said Prof Fanning was walking his dog in the car park and speaking to his wife on his mobile phone.

Joan Buckley of the university’s language department was leaving in her car when Prof Fanning suddenly gestured to her to stop out of concern she might injure his dog, which she had failed to see.

Mr Justice Kearns said this led to “a fairly heated exchange” between Prof Fanning and Ms Buckley and she alleged Prof Fanning put his hand in the window and grabbed her by her neck, squeezing and shaking her.

She alleged she drove off, ultimately causing the professor to release her.

Prof Fanning accepted there was an incident but vehemently denied assaulting Ms Buckley.

Ms Buckley reported the matter to the university’s department of human resources but made it clear she wished merely to report and was not making a complaint as such.

However, UCC contended it was obliged to investigate the incident and to suspend Prof Fanning on full pay pending the outcome of its investigation.

Mr Justice Kearns said one would have thought the incident would have been deemed closed after Ms Buckley’s solicitor told UCC in October 2001 she was withdrawing her report.

It would be “an exercise in unreality” not to acknowledge there was a “significant background of unhappy differences” between Prof Fanning and UCC, he remarked.


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