Has the Martyn Percy affair exposed flaws in the Oxbridge college system?

A bitter feud between the head of one of Oxford’s grandest colleges and its dons made front-page news. As a new, internally recruited vice-chancellor prepares to take office, Jack Grove hears from both the dean at the centre of the dispute and those who are glad to see him gone

August 4, 2022
Christ Church, Oxford University
Source: Alamy

When Irene Tracey was announced as the University of Oxford’s new vice-chancellor in May, many dons breathed a sigh of relief: the Merton College warden was someone who would respect the centuries-old structures that made Oxford great and would not be tempted to seek radical change, they thought. Unlike her three predecessors, all seasoned university leaders from abroad, Tracey would resist the urge to push for more central control of Oxford’s multi-layered, Byzantine procedures, some predicted. In other words, the collegiate system was safe in her hands.

Others, though, are not so certain that Tracey can afford to leave things as they stand. For some observers, the deficiencies of the collegiate system – its opaque and tangled governance, unaccountable cliques, lavish spending and archaic disciplinary procedures – have been laid bare by an extraordinarily toxic dispute.

The four-year battle to oust Martyn Percy as dean of Christ Church has accounted for as much as £8 million in charitable fees, investigations and pay-offs and, in its last months, featured on an almost daily basis in The Times. Other national publications, too, were intrigued by the allegations of sleaze in the vestry, bitter divisions at high table and inquiries by the police and the Church of England at one of Oxford’s richest colleges, whose alumni include 13 prime ministers, as well as numerous luminaries in politics, business, media and academia. Percy’s well-wishers and critics piled into the affair, with readers adding their online comments in their hundreds.

As with any good drama, however, it was not easy for outsiders to determine exactly who was in the right or wrong. For Percy’s supporters, his cardinal sin was taking on the interests of a “clandestine” and cosy college elite; he was the modernising dean who wanted to update safeguarding and equality rules but was brought low by dons irked by the teetotal theologian’s willingness to shake things up. Wishing for someone more “clubbable”, they used every trick in the book to destroy him “financially, reputationally and psychologically”, as he himself put it to The Times. But his critics at Christ Church allege a pattern of questionable behaviour that justified their ultimately successful efforts to push him out the door; his refusal to go quietly on generous terms, a well-trodden route for Oxbridge college heads who fall out of favour, only proved how unsuited he was to the role, they add.

But the peak of media attention came after Percy finally accepted a reported £1.2 million payoff to leave at the end of April, when Allanah Jeune, a 29-year-old PhD student, chose to break her silence about her accusation of sexual harassment against the dean. In a front-page interview with The Daily Telegraph, the chapel assistant and verger, who had settled her complaint against Percy as part of the arrangements for his departure, claimed Percy had “stroked my hair for about 10 seconds” after following her up the stairs to the sacristy after a Sunday Eucharist service. “I just froze and tried to defuse the situation by not reacting,” said Jeune, adding that as he left, Percy asked her how old she was and, on receiving her answer (28), commented: “Only 30 years between us, then.”

Other than a sexual one, “there’s no other implication to take from that,” Jeune commented.

For his part, Percy strenuously denies any hair-touching. Moreover, even a college investigation that was stacked against him acquitted him of wrongdoing, he tells Times Higher Education. “The college hired an ‘independent investigator’ to look into this allegation. The investigator’s work was overseen by the college lawyers, who also wrote the terms of reference,” he explains. “Evidence for the defence was unfairly redacted and my witnesses not called. Prosecution witnesses were allowed to change and corroborate evidence after the investigation had ended.” The allegation was also reported to the police and the Church of England’s National Safeguarding Team, leading to a complaint under the clergy discipline measures. But “all three legal proceedings found no sexual or any other misconduct”, Percy says.

However, being acquitted of wrongdoing by these investigations did not draw a line under the matter, he continues. Instead, things escalated; he was barred from seeing students and staff as further risk assessments took place amid Christ Church's efforts to “solicit historic allegations from other women”, according to Percy. “Yet there were none. Effectively I became a prisoner in my own home, in the middle of the college, and to all intents and purposes, treated like some paedophile-pariah,” he recounts.

Other allegations against Percy were also found insufficient for his removal using a college statute that required proof of “scandalous, immoral or disgraceful behaviour”, adds Percy. But his ordeal continued. “I might have fared better in medieval witch trials, or possibly enjoyed improved odds with a hybrid Kafka-meets-Orwell legal process,” he claims.

“Not content with over 40 allegations and charges, members of [the] governing body also sought my removal on grounds of mental incapacity and attempted to subject me to an assessment by a consultant psychiatrist specialising in personality disorders,” he continues. “As with all other processes, I was forced to fund my own defence, whilst the dons driving this spent even more charitable funds pursuing their putsch.”

Very Revd Professor Martyn Percy, dean of Christ Church Cathedral and College, Oxford, 2017
Source: 
Greg Blatchford/Shutterstock
Very Revd Professor Martyn Percy at Nine Lessons and Carols service, Christ Church Cathedral, 2017

But others insist that this version of events misrepresents procedures that were necessarily confidential (although both sides accuse the other of liberally leaking information). While the police and other authorities decided not to pursue the alleged hair-stroking incident, the cathedral had “little option” but to institute a clergy disciplinary hearing and Christ Church “had to apply its own procedures designed to investigate such complaints”, says Fram Dinshaw, emeritus fellow of St Catherine’s College. “As an added precaution, the college submitted its decision to proceed with a tribunal to Sir Wyn Williams, the distinguished judge, who advised that not to do so would be an injustice and leave the college liable to action by the complainant,” he adds.

The recommendation of Dame Sarah Asplin, the most senior legal voice in the Church of England, that a church disciplinary panel should not be constituted on the alleged hair-stroking incident “did not exonerate Percy as completely as his supporters maintain”, Dinshaw adds.

“She found that the complainant’s narrative was perfectly plausible but did not in her view warrant clergy disciplinary action, particularly because the same complaint would shortly be tested again in a college tribunal,” says Dinshaw. In a 4,500-word statement published in June, Christ Church states that its investigator had deemed Jeune’s testimony, reported to authorities almost immediately, as “credible”. Asplin never dismissed the allegation but suggested a college tribunal would be a “more proportionate” way of addressing the claim than a Church of England hearing, it adds. Hence, “repeated claims by Dr Percy and his supporters that Dame Sarah Asplin cleared or exonerated Dr Percy are simply untrue.” At the very least, Percy’s decision to follow Jeune into the sacristy, “an area explicitly only accessible to vergers under Christ Church’s Covid protocol” breached “regulations of the institution of which he was head”.

Percy dismisses as “preposterous” the idea that the college had no option other than to launch its own investigation into Jeune’s allegations, adding that “Asplin says the allegation was not sexual.”

Other allegations were also not as baseless as Percy’s supporters claim, Dinshaw continues. The dean’s assertion that his persecution began when, in 2017, he asked for a pay rise to bring him in line with other college masters ignores the fact that he “was the highest paid member of the Church of England – earning more than the Archbishop of Canterbury” and “was also entitled to additional income from renting rooms to students in his 12-bedroom house”. Moreover, Percy had “no authority to instruct solicitors” to challenge the college’s salaries board, and misrepresented the legal advice to college trustees in the hope of recruiting them to his cause, Dinshaw adds.

“It may well be that some members of the governing body already had good cause for disquiet about Percy’s fitness to run the college, having [seen] a pattern of what they perceived as untrustworthiness in his handling of committee business, but this act [of misrepresentation] was the key to uniting them against him,” says Dinshaw.

Percy counters that it is “manifestly untrue” that he was the Church of England’s highest paid official, pointing to higher paid clergy running Magdalene College, Cambridge (former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams) and Trinity Hall, Cambridge (Canon Jeremy Morris). Christ Church states Percy was “perceived by some as being somewhere between rude and bullying to the college officers” while seeking to increase his £90,000 salary.

His predecessor, whose salary was in the top quartile of college leaders, did not have room rentals factored into his pay, Percy says: “For purely personal reasons, the secretary of the salaries board saw fit to place me in the very bottom 25 per cent, with no pay increase ever granted.”

Ultimately, while none of the charges against Percy were deemed by retired High Court judge Sir Andrew Smith to represent “scandalous, immoral or disgraceful behaviour” worthy of dismissal, that was only because “the statute set a very high bar to the removal of the dean that [the judge] did not consider had been met,” says Dinshaw. “Most impartial observers would agree that a head who has completely forfeited the trust of the governing body should not be left in charge of the college.”

More broadly, the unified front shown by Christ Church’s governing body – constituted by all of its fellows – shows its actions were not being driven by some shadowy, manipulative “cabal”, Dinshaw adds; 43 fellows voted to suspend Percy from office and commence the process of removing him, while only three voted against. “Ousting a head is a momentous matter, and it is very unlikely that any governing body would be sufficiently unified to attempt it without very compelling cause,” he says.

Percy is unrepentant about refusing to bend to pressure to leave, saying he was right to stand up to the “cabal of dons running the project-managed persecution, [which] had made six previous attempts to get me dismissed on ‘safeguarding concerns’ – all in 2020, in a six-month window”. 

The next staging post in the saga will be an independent review led by the former attorney general Dominic Grieve, which will examine whether Christ Church’s governance rules should be updated. Some archaic procedures seem destined to change; for instance, the college’s visitor – the autonomous overseer who can adjudicate in such disputes – is the reigning monarch. However, 96-year-old Queen Elizabeth II would be unlikely to intervene even via her usual representative in such matters, the Lord Chancellor, who is currently deputy prime minister Dominic Raab.

Other issues are knotty at best. Separating the leadership of Christ Church cathedral from that of the college may seem a sensible move that would remove the apparent antagonism between atheist and Christian dons. Even if it required an act of Parliament, it would be worth it, says Brian Martin, a retired member of Pembroke College. “The present position, whereby the dean is head of both the cathedral and the college, is clearly unsustainable,” he wrote in a THE opinion piece in February.

However, pinning the blame on the church is the wrong conclusion to draw from this episode, says Percy. First, negotiating a divorce settlement between cathedral and college would be difficult, particularly given the existence of a £600 million endowment that supports both. “Assets, funds, income streams, liabilities and property belong to one united body [and] much of the original wealth of the college came through its religious roots, including land, treasures, manuscripts and money,” he notes.

Instead, colleges “should embrace accountability in order to survive and flourish”, in Percy's view. “They can no longer be run as private fiefdoms. They must model transparency, fairness, justice, integrity, and public service.” In practice, this would mean overhauling Christ Church’s “unwieldy and inefficient system of trustee oversight”, which currently involves 65 fellows, “most of whom are busy academics with little time for college politics”, Percy says.

“The basics of a modernised, professional infrastructure should also be put in place," he continues. “There is no reason why an institution like Christ Church, with such a sizeable endowment, should not appoint senior professionals in human resources, communications and academic oversight.  This would be a far more effective way of running the day-to-day duties of a college than relying on a small cabal of academics, who in turn strong-arm their colleagues into roles for which they have little appetite or expertise.”

Christ Church might even consider the foundation-based governance model adopted by other Oxbridge colleges, which have created “roles for their head of house which leave the ‘presidential’ aspects intact, while investing in senior professional roles, sometimes including an individual elected from among the fellowship, who takes on a more executive role (like a prime minister with terms of office),” says Percy. “Some Cambridge colleges have developed college councils (of around a dozen), with open systems of elections and time-limited terms, enabling governance to be nimble, forward-looking, proactive and reactive,” he adds.

Others, however, see the Percy saga as illustrating the dangers of recruiting external candidates as college heads, who often fail to understand these unique academic institutions. Although some former diplomats, senior civil servants and newspaper editors have succeeded in these roles, many do not, says Martin. “The mistake so often is that new heads interpret their role as that of a CEO. They fail to grasp that policy changes and new initiatives must all be agreed by the governing body. It may be that administrative dictatorship works for a while because most fellows wish to concentrate on their academic work, but eventually there is always revolution. Indifference and carelessness give way to objection and opposition.”

For Dinshaw, few lessons can be taken from the Percy saga, which he sums up as a “hideous waste of time and money” occasioned by the “pride” of someone whose ill-advised determination to take on Christ Church’s governing body revealed a “deep-seated Luther complex”.

For Percy, the presumption that “some favoured internal nominee [should emerge] to rule the roost” is not an appealing one. “Not least because, to be frank, recent attempts at self-governance have failed to produce convincing or credible candidates who could command any confidence,” he says.

He insists that Grieve’s inquiry “must be genuinely independent and look backwards – forensically and clinically [to examine] recent misconduct – before it can look forwards. Those who caused the conflict must not be allowed to oversee or influence either this or any of the other ongoing independent or statutory inquiries.”

Oxford’s chancellor, Chris Patten, and current vice-chancellor, Louise Richardson, were criticised by college insiders when they intervened in the dispute at the end of last year, expressing concerns about the reputational damage it was doing to Oxford as a whole in the wake of the Charity Commission’s launch of an investigation into the use of the college’s resources. Patten and Richardson’s request to be invited to the college’s next governing body meeting to discuss the matter prompted one trustee allegedly to dismiss Patten, a former Conservative Cabinet minister and Hong Kong governor, as “a dinosaur”. But one or both of the commission’s ongoing inquiry and Grieve’s review (expected to report next year) may expose issues in college governance that cannot be easily ignored by Tracey, however sympathetic she may be towards the collegiate system of her home town university. 

While previous externally appointed vice-chancellors may have tried and failed to rein in Oxford’s ancient system of college self-rule, perhaps it will be an internal appointee that oversees significant reform.

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Does the Martyn Percy affair flag the need for Oxbridge reform?

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Reader's comments (3)

What Oxbridge needs urgently are recusal rules to prevent friends sitting on panels hiring fixed term staff who have weak CVs but have been in Oxbridge in fixed term role networkding and building relations with interview panel members so that it becomes merit based. It is worse that any other place due to the prestige and people will do anything to network their way in. This Dean tried to clean it up and was bullied out.
Most of these College roles are generally through networking and scheming. Lots of cronyism in Oxbridge and no legal requirement for anyone to recuse when there is a conflict of interest such as where they sit on an interview panel interviwing a friend. All Deans, Provosts, Principals and Masters of Oxbridge College should be full professors, however. They need to be full professors to have the research and educational standing to understand the educational mission of the organisation they lead. The Office for Students ought to ask for legislation to make Mastership of any college conditional on the candidate holding a PhD and a professorship. Jesus College Cambridge was a top college that was ruined by people pushing personal political views rather than focusing on the educational mission of such an institution. World famous professor applied for the Master of Jesus and were not even long listed against a person without a Master or PhD let alone a Professorship.
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