An academic has broken a controversial gagging clause to speak out about bullying on campus as she calls on others to do the same to “break the silence”.
Anahid Kassabian, a former music professor at the University of Liverpool, spoke out as figures emerged which show the universities have spent nearly £90 million on pay-offs with non-disclosure agreements attached over the last two years.
The figure, which was revealed by freedom of information requests by the BBC, is said to have been spent on around 4,000 settlements, some of which relate to allegations of bullying, harassment or sexual misconduct.
Concern over the use of the agreements comes in the wake of the Telegraph’s investigation into Sir Philip Green which revealed that the Topshop boss was paying huge sums, in one case in excess of a million pounds, to silence allegations against him.
After breaking her NDA, Ms Kassabian called on others to speak out so that those who go through “horrific” experiences are not left feeling “isolated and bereft”.
She was suffering with cancer when she signed a non-disclosure agreement in 2015.
The University of Liverpool dismissed a complaint she had made of bullying and then “systematically cast doubt" on her research, she says.
They offered her a year’s salary to sign an NDA, Ms Kassabian said, and told her that if they would be announcing her dismissal within the week if she declined.
“I felt coerced, I felt bullied, I felt like I had no option,” she said. “I had no other income and if I didn’t sign I wouldn’t be able to pay my mortgage.”
Since leaving the university she has met academics from other institutions who have suffered bullying and harassment.
“I spent a long time feeling isolated, playing all the tapes back in my head and wondering if I had done something wrong,” she said.
“It was only when people started to tell me what they had experienced that I began to feel a little less crazy and a little less isolated.
“I feel like it is really important for us to speak out because there are lots of people feeling alone and bereft.
“If you know that there are other people out there then that can help. Ideally we would set up a support group or something but even just the data on how often this happens would make one feel better.”
She said that NDAs should “never be used” in cases of discrimination, adding: “The culture of bullying and harassment won’t change until people are allowed to speak out and tell their stories.”
The University of Liverpool said it “refutes these allegations in the strongest possible terms”, adding that Ms Kassabian “was not subject to discrimination or bullying”.
“We can categorically confirm that the settlement agreement entered into with Ms Kassabian was in no way linked to allegations of bullying, misconduct or discrimination,” a spokesman said.
“The University of Liverpool uses settlement agreements with a standard confidentiality clause for a range of cases including conduct, capability and redundancy.”
Dr Emma Chapman, an astrophysicist who accused her former boss of harassment, said that she was “not surprised” by the number of payouts universities are making and called for the system to be reformed.
Dr Chapman, who is a member of the 1752 Group which campaigns against sexual misconduct in higher education, said: “We are having staff and students come to us on a weekly basis saying that they are being pushed into signing these agreements or have signed them and desperately regret it.
“Universities can happily paste the walls with zero tolerance harassment policies and tell students about rape culture but we not holding our staff to the same standards, we are not holding them to account.”