Conflict of interest fear as City seeks v-c

Writers of report that triggered Malcolm Gillies' exit advise on his successor. Melanie Newman reports

January 14, 2010

A firm of management consultants that produced the report that prompted the resignation of Malcolm Gillies as vice-chancellor of City University London has been hired to help select his replacement, leading to concerns about a potential conflict of interest.

Professor Gillies' departure from City in August 2009 was directly linked to a report on the university board's effectiveness by consultants Egon Zehnder International.

The report, which cost the university more than £40,000, was presented to the governors at a council meeting on 13 July.

The minutes of the meeting state that following the consultants' presentation, the vice-chancellor made representations to the council, then left the room.

"Council members debated the report and at various points sought advice from Egon Zehnder and the university's lawyers," the minutes say.

"Council agreed unanimously that there were differences with the vice-chancellor on matters of governance and that, all things considered, it was therefore in the best interests of the university that he step down as vice-chancellor."

Professor Gillies resigned on the spot, and has subsequently been appointed vice-chancellor of London Metropolitan University, where he is due to start work this month.

In early 2009, Professor Gillies clashed with City's lay governors over the council's composition. He complained of a lack of skills and knowledge of education among board members.

His complaints are not believed to have been supported by the report, although City has refused a request made by Times Higher Education under the Freedom of Information Act to release the document.

On 17 September, the same Egon Zehnder consultant who produced the report, Mark Byford, wrote to board member Cherry Freeman setting out the firm's charges for helping the university to select a replacement vice-chancellor.

He refers to previous discussions on the best approach to finding a new leader and adds that "recent experience has demonstrated the difficulties and substantial costs associated with making the wrong appointment". He suggests a headhunting firm should be used to compile a shortlist, which Egon Zehnder would then assess at a cost of £9,500 per candidate.

He also advises that the firm be kept on a monthly retainer to help generate "lateral candidate ideas for the vice-chancellor search", among other things.

A City spokeswoman confirmed that the consultants had been "invited to undertake a competency-based assessment" of the final candidates for the vice-chancellorship.

"Egon Zehnder International was invited to prepare a letter setting out potential roles it could fulfil and was not active in seeking additional business," she added.

"We do not consider that Egon Zehnder International has a conflict of interest in this matter."

However, a spokesman for the City branch of the University and College Union said he was concerned about the firm's involvement in Professor Gillies' departure and the search for his replacement.

The union "considers it essential that City management ensures there are no conflicts in the appointment procedure and that any selection process is transparent", he said.

melanie.newman@tsleducation.com.

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