Durham University suffers from a “real culture of fear”, according to evidence cited by a review of governance that was debated the week before the vice-chancellor announced his retirement.
The interim review – released this week to Times Higher Education under the Freedom of Information Act – mentions a series of concerns, including the influence of “personal relationships” on decision making, the dominance of management staff in the university’s senate and the “undermining” of junior decision-makers by the executive.
The report quotes one respondent to the review who says that “a real culture of fear has developed in the university” and that there was “little confidence” that governance gave a “fair and transparent route to recourse”.
Other feedback collected by the review team expressed “frustration” that “personal relationships can have undue influence over the outcome or expediency of decision-making processes”.
Set up by the council in 2012, the review was managed by Peter Judge, who has been named the next Attorney General of the Falkland Islands.
It follows tussles over ethics and conflicts of interest in Durham’s upper echelons related to its acceptance in 2010 of a £125,000 gift from British American Tobacco.
In accepting the gift, the university overruled its ethics committee and communications office, and tried to keep the donation under wraps. Although the review does not explicitly mention this episode, the governance report recommends that the ethics committee, which the university came close to scrapping, should be re-established as a council committee, rather than a joint committee of council and senate, in order to “provide scrutiny at the highest level”.
It also warns that the university executive “cannot be dominated by any single individual or succumb to ‘groupthink’ ” and the vice-chancellor “cannot be the only voice” when appointing members of the executive. The report suggests creating the position of provost to oversee the “internal academic mission” of the university, freeing the vice-chancellor to focus on their role as chief executive and “ambassador” for the institution.
There is also a recommendation that Durham’s college principals gain “greater delegation of budgets and responsibilities” and that the college system should not be viewed as an “unfortunate ‘administrative complication’ or an unnecessary ‘overhead’ ”. That comes against the background of revelations last month about plans to centralise college services.
The governance review also raises “significant concerns” about the effectiveness of the senate, which is supposed to guard Durham’s academic standards.
“There are few members of senate who do not have their line manager present during debates on management proposals, leaving some members feeling potentially uncomfortable about expressing dissenting views,” it says.
Durham’s senate debated the review on 25 February, but it appears to have decided that it did not go far enough to rein in the university executive. Following a vote on 3 March, it demanded a revised version that would “clearly recognise the co-governance of the university by council and senate” and make Durham’s executive “clearly accountable” to these two bodies.
The next day, Durham’s council held an extraordinary meeting, and the day after that Chris Higgins, the vice-chancellor, announced his retirement.
A spokeswoman for Durham said that the university was a “remarkably successful institution that is committed to the highest standards of governance and management”. She added that the interim report had not yet been considered by the council and that it would “not be appropriate to comment on individual aspects of the report out of context”.