Durham keeps its ethics committee

January 10, 2013

David Matthews reports on apparent policy U-turn after university weathers tobacco-gift controversy

Durham University has abandoned plans that appeared to involve scrapping its ethics committee, a body that objected to the institution taking a controversial £125,000 donation from a tobacco firm in 2010.

The committee, which is chaired by the Very Reverend Michael Sadgrove, dean of Durham, can provide ethical advice to the university’s governing council or academic senate if it thinks it is necessary.

Plans to disband the committee as part of the implementation of a new “ethical framework” were debated at a senate meeting on 19 June last year, according to minutes seen by Times Higher Education.

The draft framework, put to the senate by Chris Higgins, the vice-chancellor, did not include any mention of the ethics committee.

The two members of the committee that were present “were not supportive of the proposal to disband (the) Ethics Committee and indicated they considered the expertise of the Committee to be a valuable asset”, the minutes say.

It was noted after “lengthy discussion” that “greater clarity” was needed on who would take over the committee’s responsibilities if it were scrapped.

However, when contacted by THE in late November, a spokeswoman for Durham said that the committee “is not being disbanded”. She did not elaborate on why Durham appeared to have changed its plans.

THE revealed earlier in November that Durham had overruled the committee when debating whether to accept a donation from British American Tobacco in 2010.

According to committee advice seen by THE, Mr Sadgrove had argued that taking money from a tobacco company would create a “perceived inconsistency with the University’s aims and values especially in respect of social and public health promotion” and advised against accepting the donation.

Durham’s communications office also warned against accepting the donation, but the university executive committee ultimately decided to take the money.

The decision was condemned by groups such as Cancer Research UK after the existence of the gift was revealed by the student newspaper Palatinate in 2011.

The university has taken money from a variety of controversial sources over recent years, including the former prime minister of Kuwait, Sheikh Nasser Al-Mohammed Al-Sabah; the Iranian government; and the US State Department, which provided funding for a series of seminars on Iran.

It has also emerged that Carolyn McInnis, Durham’s former registrar who left the university in June 2012, has taken up a position as interim academic registrar at Murdoch University in Australia.

Ms McInnis - who was called Carolyn Fowler until her marriage in spring 2012 to Tim McInnis, director of Durham’s Office of Principal Gifts - was at the centre of a tussle over ethical issues and conflicts of interest in the university’s governing council, although it is still not known why she left Durham.

Following a Freedom of Information request, it has also emerged that the university spent £600 hiring external public relations consultants to deal with enquiries raised by THE for a November 2012 article on Durham.

The university did not explain specifically why it used MDA, a communications agency, to handle some of THE’s queries, but said in its FoI request response that it was policy to “use a combination of internal and contracted resources for PR and media matters to cope with the media office’s fluctuating workload”.


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