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Married lecturer fired after having sex with 'vulnerable' student loses his four year 'unfair dismissal' fight

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A University of Reading lecturer who was fired after having sex with a student, whose dissertation he was supervising, has had his unfair dismissal claim rejected by an employment tribunal.

Dr Jonathan Dronsfield was fired in 2014 after a complaint was made allegeding he had a sexual relationship with a vulnerable female student. He was dismissed for failing to report the relationship and for his abuse of power, which led to a serious conflict of interest.

Believing his dismissal to be unfair, the married fine art professor took his case to an employment tribunal but after a four year fight he has now had his case rejected, with a judge supporting the university's decision.

 

Named only as ‘A’ in the tribunal, the 25-year old student had her dissertation supervised by Dr Dronsfield, 55, she also submitted other university work which he assessed.

 

Reading University said his actions went against guidelines given to staff which state: “A member of staff who is in a relationship with a student must not be directly professionally involved with assessing or examining that student, and in general this would apply also to teaching.”  Staff are also told they must declare any relationships to their head of department or an appropriate Dean, something Dr Dronsfield never did.

 

The illicit relationship between Dr Dronsfield and A took place during the 2011 to 2012 academic year. Reading was unaware of this relationship until A’s former boyfriend made a complaint to the university in 2013 after he observed Dr Dronsfield  “behaving in a sexualised manner with other students at a degree show.”

The boyfriend claimed A had been ill and vulnerable during her time at Reading, including when she entered into the sexual relationship with the academic. "She was going through a breakdown during the full period of her degree. She was in a vulnerable place and he took advantage," he told the university.

Dr Dronsfield admitted having sex with A on one occasion in November 2011 but said he had “succumbed to her advances” and denied that this amounted to a relationship.

However, A said they had sex on two occasions and they often stayed up late drinking whisky and port in his office.

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Following the complaint, Reading’s Vice Chancellor appointed Professor Stuart Green to conduct an investigation with the support of Ms Claire Rolstone, a HR officer.

Their investigation focused on the following allegations against Dr Dronsfield:

  • “ Acting in breach of his duty of care responsibilities towards students;
  • Having a sexual relationship with a student without reporting it, creating a potential conflict of interests;
  • Abusing his position of power to influence a vulnerable student and enter into a personal relationship; and
  • Holding late night meetings with female students involving alcohol.”
While they found no evidence to support the fourth allegation, there was evidence to support the other allegations he had been in a relationship with A which he had not reported. It was down to a disciplinary hearing to decide whether this amounted to a conflict of interests, they said.

A disciplinary panel looked at the investigation and produced a report upholding the three allegations and recommending Dr Dronsfield’s dismissal. The university dismissed him on April 8th 2014.

Dr Dronsfield believed this was an “unfair” dismissal so he appealed the descision which led to an Employment Appeal Tribunal held in London in April 2016. The judge at this particular hearing granted him a further hearing.

Now after four years of fighting against his sacking, and after a series of court hearings, an employment judge at Watford Employment Tribunal has thrown out the lecturer's unfair dismissal claim. Judge Alastair Smail ruled the university was right to sack Dr Dronsfield because he demonstrated “immoral, scandalous or disgraceful behaviour incompatible with the office”.

The University of Reading has been approached for comment.

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