Letter VC Koen Lamberts 24/05/2024

The below email was sent to VC Koen Lamberts on Friday 24th May.

Dear Professor Lamberts,

I am writing with regard to several serious issues raised by staff at the University. Over recent months, we have expressed concerns in negotiations with Human Resources regarding the University’s continued affiliation with Rabbi Zecharia Deutsch. Rabbi Deutsch has produced public materials in relation to the ongoing violent conflict in Gaza. We believe the content of these materials is at odds with the stated values of the University of Sheffield, including the objectives of the Belief, No Belief, and Religious Life Centre, and principles outlined in the Staff and Student Codes of Conduct.

It has been particularly disappointing to be told in negotiations that the University does not intend to discuss our concerns because the BNBR Centre is not considered to be part of the terms and conditions of staff employment at this University. This position sidelines the important role of the Centre as a source of support for the entire University community, including staff, and overlooks the fact that the Centre is itself a place of work for employees who we represent and who deserve to feel safe.

At our most recent General Meeting, members brought a motion which passed without opposition, which I have linked to here. Staff, as well as students, from a wide range of faith backgrounds, are expressing risks to their wellbeing and sense of safety that are posed by Rabbi Deutsch’s continued presence at the University, and the incompatibility of this with our commitment to religious tolerance and non-violence. In the interests of promoting safety, inclusivity, and opposing all forms of intolerance, we are calling on the University to reconsider its affiliation with Rabbi Deutsch.

We also query the University of Sheffield management’s lack of meaningful engagement with the student and staff members who are currently taking part in and supporting the encampment on the SU Concourse. These members of our University community are taking part in protest over a critical and ongoing humanitarian crisis which our University cannot and should not ignore, as well as our relationship to the military industrial complex both in general and in relation to this conflict.

The management of other Universities, including at Goldsmiths, University of London and many in other countries, have taken a more productive and proactive approach to encampments on their campus, and have reached agreements that directly address the issues raised by protestors. In contrast, the management of this University does not seem to have met at all with those engaged in protest over extreme and ongoing violence, although I would welcome correction on this point if meetings have occurred that I am not aware of.

While your recent email to staff clarified the legal standing of our University’s research programmes and emphasised a commitment to transparency, it did not itself offer transparency on the university’s investments, nor did it seem to address the key ethical and moral issues that are currently being raised by staff and students. This email explicitly asserts the rights of academic staff (under the aegis of academic freedom of speech) to conduct research on “any subject within the law”: in particular, without any requirements as to ethics or propriety. This assertion seems incompatible with agreements to which the university is a signatory (including but not limited to the Universities UK Concordat to Support Research Integrity), as well as with disciplinary or regulatory codes for research ethics. Academic activity is governed by ethical codes, regardless of whether it is technically within the law; so too should be the university’s provision of staff- and student-facing services.

We are additionally alarmed by the all-staff email of 14 May on the topic of the encampment, which reminded readers not of the reason for the protest, but rather provided information on how to report harassment and bullying, while downplaying the ongoing genocide as ‘a situation’.

We would welcome the chance to speak with you regarding these issues as representatives of staff at the University of Sheffield, but with greater urgency, would prefer that you engage meaningfully with our staff and students who are supporting the encampment and have founded Sheffield Campus Coalition for Palestine, to discuss and address the foundational issues they have raised about the priorities, goals, and future vision of this University.

I look forward to your response.


Robyn Orfitelli

Sheffield UCU Branch President

Response from Ian Wright 30th May 2024

From: Ian Wright
Date: Thu, 30 May 2024 at 15:06
Subject: Re: Concerns regarding recent University positions
To: Ucu Trade Union Account

Dear Robyn

The Vice-Chancellor has forwarded me your email and asked me to respond.

The University seeks to support its community of students and staff irrespective of their beliefs, religion or views. We aim to provide an environment on our campus where all can feel safe and welcomed. We know that this can sometimes be difficult when people’s views and values are challenged.

We also have a duty to uphold freedom of speech within the law. It is recognised that sometimes people will have different opinions and will potentially find the views of others to be disagreeable or offensive. We encourage debate with tolerance, openness and respect to avoid the risk of conflict. We do not tolerate discrimination, harassment, bullying, Islamophobia, anti-semitism or any other form of racism or religious hatred.

As you know, Rabbi Deutsch is not a member of staff of the University. We continue to engage with his employers, the University Jewish Chaplaincy, to ensure that appropriate support can be provided to those students who wish to access their offering. Whilst Rabbi Deutsch has not been present on our campus since he returned from Israel earlier this year, we also signpost our Jewish students to two other local faith advisers – one Jewish Chaplain and one Jewish Adviser from different denominations of Judaism.

We also provide appropriate support for students of other religions or beliefs and those who do not follow a religion or belief.

You will be aware that the provision of chaplaincy support to our students, and who provides that support (particularly where they are not an employee of the University) are not matters that fall within the scope of our agreed trade union recognition agreement. It is therefore not something we would negotiate or consult with the Trade Union body on.

In relation to the protest, you are aware that the Vice-Chancellor recently wrote to all staff regarding the issues relating to our ongoing work with a number of external partners and that remains the University position.

The University respects the right of its students to engage in peaceful protest. Our actions have been focused on facilitating this and supporting the safety of those who are protesting, as well as those who are not.

The University’s Israel Gaza conflict webpage (hyperlink), contains a range of information, support and guidance for staff and students affected by the conflict. Please feel free to share this with any members who have concerns or queries regarding the conflict, the protests currently on campus and the University’s position and how we are supporting people from across our community.


Ian Wright
Director of Human Resources
The University of Sheffield

Are you interested in Health and Safety within your work area?

Sheffield UCU is intending to expand its work in the field of Health and Safety (H&S), both by increasing our team of H&S reps, and also by raising awareness among members of what your H&S rights are, and how you can advocate for them. While the legal rights of workers have been significantly reduced since the end of the 1970s, H&S legislation remains relatively strong and provides significant opportunities for collective representation in ways that make a real difference to all those working at and attending the University. Trade Union H&S representatives are therefore an important role in all workplaces, and have a legal right to time off to perform their duties. 

This activity is not limited to matters such as ensuring fire exits are kept clear, hazardous substances are handled correctly and tripping hazards are removed, but many areas that impinge in the daily operation of the institution, including stress and mental health problems, which have reached epidemic proportions across the HE sector. In the past, employer response to workplace stress has often unfortunately been to treat it as a solely individual issue, rather than recognising the systemic and collective causes which can underpin it.


Stress Risk Assessments at the University

Employers have a legal duty to protect workers from stress at work by undertaking a risk assessment and acting on it. They are required to assess the risk of stress, and its impact on mental and physical ill-health, in the same way as other work-related health and safety risks. 

In recent years, we have worked with the new leadership of Health and Safety Services to develop a Stress Risk Management policy to ensure the university is compliant with its obligations.

Stress management includes addressing matters of excessive workload, inadequate training, bullying and other institutional problems with which we are only too familiar. Given the large-scale restructuring underway at the institution, it is essential we know our rights and hold management to account on these questions, and that means we need more people actively taking a role in H&S matters.


Constructive engagement in the approach to H&S

There has been a significant improvement in the institution’s management of H&S in the last two years, and this has provided opportunities for constructive engagement. 

During the pandemic Campus Unions pushed the University to increase ventilation, install CO2 monitors in naturally ventilated spaces and issue staff guidance on reporting risk and vacating unsafe working spaces. After very strong initial resistance, we managed to achieve these things, which form a crucial part of protecting people not only from COVID-19 but also influenza and the other respiratory infections that are common across the institution. 

We need to build on these achievements and ensure the University is a safe place to work and study, but we cannot rely on management to prioritise staff welfare when institutional pressures are to maximise workloads and marginalise professional concerns in order to compete with ‘rivals’.


Become a Health & Safety Rep

H&S representatives are essential to participate in inspections, sometimes alongside management, but often independently, to hold them to account. We need to ensure all risk assessments are, in the legal language, ‘suitable and sufficient,’ and that the policies we have negotiated are being adhered to. We need people to participate in departmental H&S meetings and to ensure staff priorities are being taken seriously.

If you are interested in getting involved in H&S work, or becoming a H&S rep, please do get in touch, via ucu@sheffield.ac.uk

Employers have an obligation to provide time off normal duties for TU representatives to perform H&S duties – such vital work can be carried out in addition to your day job, but workload remission is essential. Depending on the level at which you are prepared to be involved, UCU provides a range of training, which the employer must also enable you to attend. This might range from shadowing experienced representatives on an inspection to attending a formal course run by the regional union – it is up to you to decide how much you want to be involved, but at all levels of involvement, the work is meaningful and makes a real difference to all colleagues.

Solidarity in action: casework as support for colleagues

What is casework?

It’s rare we want to think about distressing experiences that could happen to us at work – for instance, questions asked about our capability to perform a role; concerns raised by colleagues or students about our behaviour; or a health condition making our established pattern of work temporarily unachievable. However, despite a natural aversion to considering them, such things do happen, and while clearly shaped by individual circumstances and conditions, they are almost invariably stressful, painful, and difficult.

At these points of challenge, there is union support available. This takes the form of casework supporta trained colleague who has experience of institutional processes working with a member to offer information, advice, and a listening ear.  It may be that you will reach the end of your career and never need to draw on caseworker support, in which case your good fortune should be celebrated. But if you do find yourself in a position where things are going less well than you hoped, having an effective casework structure in the local branch can be invaluable.


Casework support within Sheffield UCU

In our branch, we have a team of talented caseworkers, with rich experiences and strong connections to other aspects of the branch’s work.

There are around 18 colleagues involved with casework, and in the twelve months up to October 2022, the branch received 89 requests for casework support.

If we were to divide this equally, that would result in around 5 cases each, and it represents a significant increase from the twelve months before this point.  Even brief consideration of the current working conditions in higher education broadly, and this institution in particular, might offer some indications as to why.


What does a caseworker do?

The kinds of thing that a caseworker can do include accompany members to meetings, support them through institutional processes such as around disciplinary matters or sickness absence, offer information and guidance to help contextualise individual circumstances, give personal and moral support, and, when required, put members in touch with regional union officials as a step towards engaging legal representation.  It is work that is frequently challenging but also rewarding, as the impact it has on colleagues at the sharp end of uncomfortable experiences can be significant. It is also work that makes a material difference to colleagues’ working lives and experiences, as it is partly through understanding the difficulties individual members are facing that the branch determines priority areas for policy development.


Join our Casework Team!

As strong as the current casework team is, we are always open to new colleagues who would like to join. You might want to consider it if you are good at working with people, you are willing to become familiar with volumes of HR policy and semi-legal documentation, and you’re comfortable with questioning those in positions of authority. There is full training and support available locally, regionally, and nationally, and a mentoring and shadowing structure in-place to ensure that no-one takes on work for which they do not feel prepared. Facility time is available at certain points in the year, so this is a responsibility that can be workloaded, and time spent training can also be recognised by line managers.  If you are interested in becoming a caseworker, please email ucu@sheffield.ac.uk, and we can discuss the options from there.


Contact us early if you think you might need casework support

And one final, different, request:

if you feel that you might be entering a situation of difficulty – if you’re not yet in the storm, but you can see the clouds approaching and feel the wind rising – we would encourage you to make contact with the union sooner rather than later.

That might be through your departmental rep, or by emailing the branch; the main thing is the more we know earlier on, the more likely we are to be able to support you if the storm breaks. This is particularly true if something like an Improvement Support Plan (ISP) has been discussed in your working context, or concerns have been raised about the amount of sick leave you are taking. Both of these – and more – are areas where even members confident in their managers might be well-advised to seek support, as the institutional processes around them sometimes have momentum that override the good intentions of individuals involved.


Casework is one way of making tangible the solidarity we profess as a union.  Whichever end of the process you are involved with at different times, we would encourage you to be engaged, both for your own benefit, and the collective benefit of all members.