When Leah Peters was offered a prestigious research job at London’s Imperial College she was the talk of the tightly-knit Tyneside community where she had grown up.
A brilliant student from a modest background, she had studied hard to get a first-class chemistry degree at York University, working as a waitress and bingo caller to pay her way.
When she won a place to do a PhD at Imperial College, one of the country’s top research centres, she and her family assumed she was destined for a glittering career. But within two years, her dreams were in tatters because of her head of department, Professor Donald Davies. Instead of the fatherly support she might have expected, she found herself the object of his sexual interest when a boozy party ended up with them on a bed in a hotel room in Paddington.
The issue at stake is that he took advantage of her sexually and that was, by any interpretation, a breach of the trust placed in him by those in his charge. Leah claims he pursued her, and the professor later admitted in a secretly taped conversation that he was attracted to her. When the pressure grew too much and she complained to college authorities alleging he had sexually harrassed her, she became locked in a bitter, protracted and unequal dispute with the college and her professor.
At first, the college was supportive. A statement from a personnel officer to Leah that is being considered in the inquiry says: ‘I’ve made it clear [to Professor Davies] that it is a big issue – it was up to him to take appropriate steps to look after your welfare and he accepts he erred.’
But later college authorities tried to get her to drop her allegations. And although Davies admitted a sexual encounter had taken place and that he was fond of Leah, he denied claims of sexual harrassment. Yet Leah refused to give up. She pursued her complaint to an employment tribunal, which rejected her claims. In her quest for what she regards as justice she turned down an offer of £40,000 to keep quiet.
Davies maintains Leah is a fantasist whose inability to get on with others in her department and fear of failure caused her to go to desperate lengths to find someone to blame. But to Leah, her case is an example of what happens when a working-class woman, of mixed race, comes up against one of the last bastions of power and privilege.
Now 28, Leah is back in her parents’ tiny flat in North Shields, Tyne and Wear, her career in ruins, her relationship with her boyfriend over, her fractured self-confidence shored up by anti-depressants.
Meanwhile, Professor Davies, who at 61 is old enough to be her father, thrives at Imperial College. She says: ‘I’m angry with myself – how could I have let this happen? I’ve accepted that I’m not going to get my PhD, that he’s not going to answer for his actions but I’m going to try to make sure he’s recognised for the person he is so that he can’t do this again and so that the college thinks twice about protecting people like him.’
When Leah joined Imperial College, in 1996, Davies was far removed from her social circle. He was a world-renowned scholar, who became a millionaire after the company he co-founded developed an AIDS drug. He enjoyed a lavish lifestyle with his wife and four children in a Buckinghamshire mansion, staying at five-star London hotels and socialising at the Athenaeum Club. His connections and influence were vital to secure university funding and as important as the day-to-day running of the clinical pharmacology department. He met Leah at a college party in 1997. She had drunk a lot of wine and was upset after an argument with a colleague. Leah says: ‘He came over to me – apparently his secretary had sent him to check that I was all right. I was a bit of a mess. He said he was going back to his hotel and he would get his taxi to take me on to my flat in Streatham.’
According to Davies, they began kissing in the taxi and she was a willing partner in the drunken fumblings when they were finally alone in the hotel room. Yet Leah insists Davies took advantage of her position as a student, kissed her, tried to remove her dress, and performed a sex act on her.
She says: ‘I didn’t have any money, so he gave me the money to get a cab home.’ Leah blamed herself for being drunk, forcing herself to go to work the next day. Her colleagues noticed Davies was taking an unusually close interest in her. Leah says: ‘He started taking us all out for drinks,
but gave me all this attention, making my situation in the department unbearable.’
According to Davies, this was the least he, as department head, could be expected to do for someone who was obviously having problems. Why, he asks, did Leah meet him for drinks and allow herself to be alone with him on other occasions if she was so hostile? Why was it, as Davies apparently believes, that she was happy to reciprocate? Eventually, the stress was unbearable and in March 1999 Leah told her mother, Priscilla, an auxilliary nurse. They consulted her union, Unison, and Leah made a complaint to a university personnel officer, backing up her allegations with tape recordings.
According to minutes of meetings between Leah and personnel officers, Davies denied anything of a sexual nature had taken place in the hotel incident . But when challenged, he admitted he had behaved inappropriately and regrets it. However, he denied he pursued her later. According to the minutes, the personnel officer told Leah: ‘There will be no more attention from him – he can’t afford anything else to happen. It has had an impact. I’ve seen a change in him. It also has an impact for other girls who come after you – any whiff of anything else and he’d be out.’ However, when Leah told the university she wished to make a formal complaint and take the case to an industrial tribunal, she learned the power of the academic establishment.
After assessing her evidence, rector Lord Oxburgh decided to convene an internal disciplinary hearing for gross misconduct.
Davies denied Leah’s claims. He hired top barrister James Watson, who had the hearing postponed. It has been adjourned several times, and has still not reached a final conclusion. After the first adjournment Davies’s QC offered Leah a settlement. In return for £40,000 – £20,000 from the college and £20,000 from Davies – the internal inquiry would stop and Leah would be required to retract her allegations. She would have a year to finish her PhD and receive references stating she had made a complaint against an employer, and withdrawn it. Davies would be given a final written warning but would continue as a professor and department head. They would continue to work alongside one another for the good of staff morale. Surely, here was at least a partial victory, but Leah rejected it on a point of principle. She says: ‘To me it was dirty money – £40,000 to say I had lied.’ To Unison, however, her decision was unreasonable and they withdrew their support.
Leah, not eligible for legal aid and unable to afford a lawyer, represented herself at the tribunal two months later. Faced with barristers representing the college and Davies and ill from the stress, Leah lost her case for sex discrimination. It was probably an impossible task.
She says: ‘The barristers intimidated me. When I cross-examined Professor Davies he refused to give certain answers, answering questions with questions and making jokes. It was a nightmare.’
The college inquiry rumbles on, but for Leah time has run out. Her contract with the college has run out and she has been barred access to her study material or facilities necessary to finish her PhD, ten per cent away from completion. She is unemployed, her nine-year relationship has been destroyed by the stress, and she is a virtual recluse. Ten years after a glittering start to her career, she hopes she will soon be well enough to look for work probably as a shop assistant.
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