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Trinity College 'unfairly dismissed' lecturer at centre of controversial Prime Time FGM comments

Dr Ali Selim is one of the leading figures in the Irish Muslim community.

Dr Ali Selim
Dr Ali Selim
Image: Photocall Ireland

A UNIVERSITY LECTURER at the centre of controversy last year over TV comments he made about Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) has won his unfair dismissal case against Trinity College Dublin (TCD).

In the case, Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) Adjudication Officer, Penelope McGrath has ordered TCD pay Arabic lecturer, Dr Ali Selim a total of €6,144 after finding that he was unfairly dismissed by the college last September.

Dr Selim is one of the leading figures in the Irish Muslim community and Ms McGrath has ordered TCD to pay Dr Selim €4,000 for his unfair dismissal, €1,644 for non-payment of notice and €500 for not receiving his written terms of employment.

Dr Selim’s unfair dismissal came seven months after comments he made on RTE’s Prime Time on female circumcision sparked widespread criticism from students at TCD, doctors and other Islamic leaders.

Dr Selim told Primetime that female circumcision is acceptable in some cases where it is carried out by a doctor and practised in a safe environment.

Days after the Primetime interview, Dr Selim apologised and stated that he condemned Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in the strongest terms.

He said: “I admit that I caused confusion based on my misunderstanding of the term [circumcision] and I do apologise for this… I was out of my comfort zone and I misunderstood the terms as the medical experts would use them.”

Referring to the controversy in her findings, McGrath stated that Dr Selim “got caught up in a wave of negative publicity” arising from the ‘Primetime’ comments.

McGrath stated that Dr Selim had subsequently asserted that he had been mis-interpreted but “there can be no doubt that the damage had already been done and as his “views” came to be known on the campus these was a significant backlash against him. Students protested and boycotted his classes”.

‘Lacked the fortitude’ 

In the days after Dr Selim’s comments on Prime Time, TCD confirmed that a different lecturer would teach Dr Selim’s Arabic language students who were offended by his Primetime comments.

TCD confirmed the move in response to complaints “from a large number of Dr Ali Selim’s students”.

In her report on the case, Ms McGrath stated that she accepts fully that the majority of Dr Selim’s existing students did not avail of the alternative lecturer and Dr Selim himself suggests that those that left him may not have known him as well as his 3rd and 4th year students.

In September 2018, TCD told Dr Selim that his services were no longer required.

Offering its rationale for no longer employing Dr Selim, TCD told the WRC that Dr Selim’s core subjects were not being availed of by the student body. 

The college stated that whether that was because of a general disinterest or an active movement to boycott his classes is unknown to the university. 

TCD stated that either way, it could not retain Dr Selim to give classes that no-one would attend.

In response, Dr Selim stated that he was never provided by TCD with a cogent reason for letting him go and instead asserted that TCD “lacked the fortitude” to retain him as a lecturer when his retention might have been unpopular with the student body arising out of cultural differences.

In her findings, Ms McGrath has found that Dr Selim has “made an almost irresistible connection” between the public outcry that he admits he himself created, and the subsequent move  -as he perceives it – by TCD to drop its association with him.

Ms McGrath found that TCD “emphatically denies there is any nexus between the two and makes the case that the Complainant’s position was made redundant wholly and or mainly by reason of the re-configuration in the department which brought in an Assistant Professor with many talents, one of which was the ability to teach the language which the Complainant had been teaching”.

However, Ms McGrath found that TCD’s actions were “inadequate”.

‘Unreasonably weighted’

Ms McGrath concluded: “It cannot have been reasonable for them to present the complainant with a termination of his employment without any notice or any discussion at the end of September 2018. There is no transparency here.”

Ms McGrath also found that “there was no obvious clear and deliberate process for selection for redundancy and even if it had been inevitable the process of getting to the end point should be clear and unambiguous”.

Ms McGrath also stated that what is clear is that Dr Selim was not advised of the drop off in numbers “and was most certainly not given the opportunity to suggest alternative programmes, nor in any other way asked for proposals which might meet with some approval and which would allow the complainant to continue with his cherished association” with TCD.

Ms McGrath stated that on balance, whilst there may ultimately have been a legitimate redundancy, “the procedures for getting there were inadequate and unfair”. 

Ms McGrath stated that she accepted Dr Selim’s argument that the procedures adopted -if any – “seemed to be unreasonably weighted against him”.

Ms McGrath stated that she didn’t think it appropriate that Dr Selim should be reinstated or re-engaged within TCD as a new Asst Professor has legitimately absorbed some of Dr Selim’s hours.

Asked to comment on the outcome of the case, a spokeswoman for TCD stated on Tuesday that as a matter of policy “the University does not comment on individual staff matters”.

Dr Selim was out of the country on Tuesday and could not be reached for comment.

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Gordon Deegan

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