The Case of Bode versus Mundell

Getting ready to come in and help with today’s Undergraduate Open Day today at Cardiff University, I checked Twitter this morning and found a number of tweets about a shocking news story that I feel obliged to comment on.  The astronomy community in the United Kingdom is fairly small and relatively close-knit, which makes this case especially troubling, but it does have far wider ramifications in the University sector and beyond.

I don’t usually link to stories in the Daily Mail, but you can find the item here. The report relates to a libel action taken by Astronomy Professor Mike Bode of Liverpool John Moores University against Professor Carole Mundell, a former employee of that institution who is now Head of the Astrophysics group at the University of Bath.  Carole Mundell is a highly regarded extragalactic observational astronomer who works primarily on gamma-ray bursters and their implications for cosmology.

The case revolves around allegations of sexual harassment (and, according to the Daily Mail, sexual assault) made against another former employee of Liverpool John Moores, Dr Chris Simpson, by a female student, and the allegation by Professor Mundell that Professor Bode wrote a misleading reference on behalf of Dr Simpson that omitted mention of the pending allegations and allowed him to move to a post in South Africa before the investigations into them could be concluded. Professsor Bode claimed that this allegation was defamatory and sued Professor Mundell for libel and slander.

The Daily Mail story is not very illuminating as to the substance of the litigation but a full account of the case of Bode versus Mundell can be found here. In fact the case did not go to a full trial hearing, but summarily dismissed before getting that far on the grounds that it would certainly fail; you can find more information about the judgment at the above link.

I had no idea any of this was going on until this morning. The story left me shocked, angry and dismayed but also full of admiration for Carole Mundell’s courage and determination in fighting this case. I think I’ll refrain from commenting further on the conduct of Mike Bode and Chris Simpson, or indeed that of Liverpool John Moores University, except to say that I hope this affair does not end with this failed action and that wider lessons can be learned from what happened in this case. I suspect that Liverpool John Moores is going to have some seriously bad publicity about this, but of greater concern to the wider community is the apparent failure of process in dealing with the allegations about Chris Simpson.

Note added in Clarification (29/10/2016). I am not making any statement here about whether I think the allegations about Dr Simpson were true or false or what the outcome of the disciplinary process might have been. I have absolutely no idea about that. What I do know (as it is in the public domain) is that the investigation lasted five months and did not reach a conclusion. That, to me, indicates a failure of process.

Coincidentally, yesterday saw the publication of a report by the Universities UK Task Force examining violence against women, harassment and hate crime affecting university students.  The document includes a number of rather harrowing case studies that make for difficult reading, but it’s an important document. A new set of guidelines has been issued relating to how to handle allegations that involve behaviour that may be criminal (such as sexual assault).  I urge anyone working in the HE sector (or pretty much anywhere else for that matter) to read the recommendations and to act on them.

I have no idea whether sexual harassment is an increasing problem on campus or what we are seeing is increased reporting, but it is clear that this is a serious problem in the UK’s universities. On paper, the policies and procedures universities already have in place for should be able to deal with many of the issues raised in the Task Force report, but there seems to me to be an individual and perhaps even institutional reluctance to follow these procedures properly. The fear of reputational damage seems to be standing in the way of the genuine cultural change that we need.

Bode versus Mundell may well prove to be a landmark case that makes the astronomy community come to terms with the sexual harassment going on in its midst. As much I’d like to be proved wrong, however, I don’t think it is likely to be the last scandal that will come to light. Carole Mundell’s courage may well lead to more people coming forward, and perhaps changes in practice will mean they are pursued more vigorously. Cultural transformation may prove to be a painful process, but it will prove to have been worth it.





31 Responses to “The Case of Bode versus Mundell”

  1. I’m dismayed of late at the slow progress of change here. This behaviour has been known to be going on for quite some time, and the progress on stopping it seems frustratingly slow.

  2. Reblogged this on Disturbing the Universe and commented:
    I know too many of the people involved in this to be less than flabbergasted. It is also a good example of theme Streisand Effect.

  3. Chris Simpson Says:

    Allow me to make a brief comment, if I may. First, I am extremely saddened that you have, like Professor Kraan-Korteweg, swallowed Professor Mundell’s baseless claims whole. The facts of this unpleasant case are rather more extensive than you are aware. Mundell’s claims would have been investigated fully in her grievance against Mike Bode (a grievance that she freely admits was made in retaliation for disciplinary action against her instigated from a much higher level in the university). Bode was cleared of any wrongdoing. I have it on very good authority that Mundell’s grievance was found to be malicious, and I can only assume therefore that she was unable to provide any supporting evidence or testimony for her claims (which is not a surprise, since they are completely untrue). For you to express “admiration” for such behaviour is disappointing in the extreme.

  4. Bryn Jones Says:

    I’m still trying to catch up with the details of this incident. Taking recourse to court action for libel or slander is such an unusual act in academia that this case will be remembered for many years. It’s extraordinary.

    I did not hear of a single case of sexual harassment in any university department in which I worked. This does not mean it did not happen: it just means that, if there were incidents, they were not discussed. I wonder whether anything happened that I did not learn about.

  5. telescoper Says:

    This is a reminder to potential commenters that I do not allow anonymous posts on this blog.

  6. I am grateful for this post. The document linked to in the post – not the tabloid document, the legal document – states the factual background “which is not in dispute” (starting with number 23,

    There was an allegation of sexual harassment and sexual assault against Dr Simpson from a student. He resigned in the midst of the investigation. The letters of recommendation written for him for his next job – written during this investigation – did not mention the situation.

    Dr Mundell wrote 2 emails to inform 2 colleagues of the facts and her concern that with the 5 month investigation brought to an end by his resignation, he would be able to retaliate against those who complained about him and possibly cause harm to young women in the future. She did act very bravely in doing this.

    I’m very grateful to her.

  7. Anton Garrett Says:

    It must have cost both Bode and Mundell a packet even to get before a judge in the High Court. I trust that public money was not involved in the bringing of this case.

    If the judge ruled the case against Mundell hopeless, did Mundell ask for expenses incurred to date, and if so were they granted?

    • I would prefer to see the dispute between Mundell and Bode as a private matter which detracts from the real issue: how to uncover cases of abuse and discrimination and weed out the problem. The Marcy case was a wake-up call. This case may have happened before that, though.

      But one question it did raise for me: In the UK, there is a legal obligation to be ‘fair’ and ‘accurate’ in a letter of reference, and the employee can sue if they miss out on a job because of an allegation in the letter. Not providing a letter is not always possible: sometimes the line manager is contractually obliged to provide one, or the new employer requires one from the previous one. Letters of reference may be affected by conflicts of interest. Are we too reliant on them?

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        We might legitimately be interested in different aspects of this unhappy business. I share your concerns but in addition would like verified assurance that public money was not involved.

      • telescoper Says:

        It was a civil case, so would not have been supported by the public purse.

        I don’t know what happens to costs in such a situation. My guess is that it is expensive, but nowhere near as expensive as if it had gone to a full trial.

    • I’ve spoken to a barrister friend about a number of aspects of this case. I’m told that in these circumstances that costs would normally be awarded to the winner unless some other mutually acceptable arrangement is reached between the parties. Sounds as if this may be quite expensive for MB & LJM.

      • telescoper Says:

        LivJM is not a party to the complaint, but they may have offered legal help to Professor Bode. I don’t know.

  8. While not really relevant to my comment, full disclosure should specify that I know Carole a bit from the time when we were both at Jodrell Bank and have run into Kraan-Korteweg at various conferences over the years. I don’t know anyone else involved.

    Obviously (although this doesn’t always seem to be obvious to everyone), I can’t comment on any details since I wasn’t there and have no first-hand testimony of any kind. Still, surely “innocent until proven guilty” remains a valid principle. If an investigation is ongoing, would it be fair to mention it in a letter of reference? Sure, one could mention that it is ongoing, but like the right to remain silent being tantamount to an admission of guilt in most cases if it is actually used, mentioning that an investigation is ongoing might swing the pendulum too far the other way.

    If proper procedures are in place, this means that any allegation must be investigated. But we don’t want a situation such that any accusal automatically results in the accused being judged guilty. Combating sexual harassment is of course on many people’s agenda, and should be, but one needs to make sure that it is not abused in that any allegation is deemed automatically true. I am certainly aware of cases where sensitivity to sexual abuse has itself been abused by false allegations, and perhaps other readers here are as well. One of the main reasons to combat such abuse of the system is to avoid justified complaints not being taken seriously.

    Again, I can’t comment on this case. My comment is aimed more at other people who know no more than I do but jump to conclusions. Tabloids are particularly guilty here. There have been cases where there was a tabloid allegation, the accused was exonerated, but still lost his job, reputation etc because many people believe that where there is smoke there must be fire.

    This case is somewhat unusual in that the accused has posted here (and perhaps elsewhere) under his own name and that the accuser has been sued for libel; due to the stakes involved, hopefully this was not a decision which was taken lightly.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Your last paragraph appears to conflate proceedings internal to JMU with the case that reached the High Court.

      • telescoper Says:

        Quite. Chris Simpson was not a party to the libel action. The High Court judgment says nothing about what the outcome of the investigation would have been had it continued.

        My comment in the post about “apparent failure of process” applies to the fact that a procedure was initiated but was not properly concluded one way or another. I find that deeply regrettable.

      • “Your last paragraph appears to conflate proceedings internal to JMU with the case that reached the High Court.”

        True, my bad. Still, the two are of course not unrelated.

  9. Anna Watts Says:

    The game of ‘Pass the Harasser’ is one that indeed affects the willingness of victims to report harassment. Why bother reporting when the perpetrator can simply move to another institution? If the victims remain in the field the perpetrator can continue to have an adverse effect on their careers, reviewing papers and proposals, and cropping up at conferences, for years to come. The easiest solution, for most victims, is simply to leave or to change field. I wish we had a better way of dealing with this as a community.

    The other thing that often discourages reporting is the possibility of being threatened with legal action. The idea of facing months of stress and legal costs is a powerful deterrent, particularly for junior scientists without substantial reserves of personal funds, and perhaps working in a foreign country and legal system. Actions like the one taken by Professor Bode contribute to the climate of fear around reporting harassment, and I hope he takes the opportunity to reflect on this. Carole is to be saluted for her efforts to make our field a better place.

  10. I’ve thought long and hard about how to comment on this post and the follow-up comments, many of which have chosen to take a particular side with a complete lack of knowledge about the case, and essential taking a Daily Mail article as the truth (if people take the time to read the whole of the court manuscript then people would probably take a more considered view).

    From the court docs and the previous posting, what is clear is that this case is far more complicated than what is currently in the public domain. A further case against Mundell has been mentioned both on here and in a Facebook post that was then deleted on the basis of “ongoing legal issues”. Yet the vast majority of people have dismissed this and are very quick to castigate the person in the alleged sexual harassment case. So on one hand we have a case that was proven (according to other posts) against Mundell, and we have the case that was brought forward by Bode against Mundell for slander. If anyone were to read what was written in the email sent by Mundell, then the unavoidable conclusion was that at best it had unsubstantiated and unproven comments about Simpson, and also suggested that by writing a reference for Simpson, Bode was essentially part of a cover up. Remarkably, in my view, smart and sensible people are using the premise of no smoke without fire in respect to Simpson & Bode, yet are not applying the same reasoning to Mundell.

    The fact that Bode brought a case against Mundell in the first place should not be taken lightly. He would have known that it would have meant likely publicity but was still compelled to move forward with it. I’m sure if people took a step back and thought about this, and what might make them go forward with such a case, then they may start thinking about the implications this has. I am not going to be drawn on rights and wrongs of the case, but feel (like Phillip’s comments above) that it is very easy to take the easy path and join the bandwagon of attacking anyone who has had an allegation made against them. But by the same reasoning they should think long and hard about why they are not taking the same view about all people involved, all of whom have had allegations made about them.

    • telescoper Says:

      I have seen the assertion that a disciplinary claim against Carole Mundell was upheld, but can find no objective confirmation of it. Normally the outcomes of internal disciplinary procedures are strictly confidential so there are potential legal consequences if there is deliberate disclosure by any party.

      I repeat that my issue in this case is that a disciplinary action was initiated but not concluded. I have no idea what the outcome would have been had it continued, but the fact that it was never resolved seems to me to be a failure of process, and likely to deter future complainants from coming forward.

      • So in the case of alleged sexual harassment, it would be common practice to also have a non disclosure agreement I assume? If this were the case, am I right in thinking that by sending the email, Mundell may well have broken NDA?

      • telescoper Says:

        I don’t know enough about the facts of this case to comment meaningfully on that.

        A Non Disclosure Agreement is a very specific form of legal contract. There may or may not have been one and if there was one concerning the harassment case it is not obvious who would have signed it.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      It is obvious – and even acknowledged – that a large amount of relevant information about this matter is not in the public domain. Until or unless it gets there, the only position one can reasonably hold derives from generic principles of proper behaviour rather than the particular situation.

      • Bryn Jones Says:

        Yes, I agree with Anton about this. It is difficult or impossible to discuss this particular case given our limited information. We can still discuss generic principles about the diverse issues touched upon.

  11. I have to agree with our host here.

    In fact, this case has made matters worse by highlighting the claims against Simpson while the disciplinary process will never be concluded. A cloud remains that can never be dispelled, and this legal case has only made it far, far more public.

    To paraphrase comments from a barrister friend who looked over the judgement: Simpson has been thrown under a bus by Bode pursuing a case that was ill advised and should never have been commenced since it had no realistic chance of succeeding in this form.

  12. […] A blog about the Universe, and all that surrounds it « The Case of Bode versus Mundell […]

  13. […] sooner has the deluge of emails I’ve been receiving about the Case of Bode versus Mundell started to dry up when I hear about another alarming story revolving around sexual harassment in […]

  14. […] thought a lot about this issue since I blogged about the Bode versus Mundell case a few years ago (here and here). I hope we can all agree that we need to strive to create working environments wherein […]

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