Face suspension or resign, Leeds Met told v-c

Bullying allegation triggered Simon Lee’s departure, reports Melanie Newman

February 2, 2009

The chairman of the board of governors at Leeds Metropolitan University gave its vice-chancellor the option of resigning within 48 hours or facing suspension while allegations that he bullied senior colleagues were investigated, Times Higher Education can reveal.

At a meeting on 11 November 2008, Ninian Watt and his deputy, Keith Ramsay, told Simon Lee that they planned to call in an independent solicitor to investigate allegations that the vice-chancellor had reduced senior colleagues to tears and accused them of disloyalty.

Professor Lee denied the allegations but agreed to leave in summer 2009. Had he chosen suspension, his absence would have been immediately apparent to the public as the university’s winter graduation ceremony was scheduled to take place three days after the meeting.

The vice-chancellor signed a compromise agreement with Leeds Met, and his resignation was announced on 14 January 2009.

Leeds Met’s chancellor, former Olympic athlete Brendan Foster, resigned on 12 January after his efforts to mediate between Professor Lee and Mr Watt proved fruitless.

Times Higher Education has learnt that the university’s governing board approved a £20,000 pay rise for Professor Lee at the end of September 2008, following a satisfactory appraisal. But the university said some concerns about his “management approach” were raised at that time.

Professor Lee and Mr Foster are understood to have not been told who made the complaints of bullying or to have been given any details of the context of the alleged bullying.

A statement from Leeds Met released today said: “The university is disappointed that we have to disclose information which we would normally regard as confidential between a responsible employer and a senior employee. However, in light of some confidential material now coming into the public domain, the university is making a statement about the circumstances surrounding the resignation of Simon Lee.

“In November, after receiving advice from university lawyers and several governors, the chair of governors informed Professor Lee that serious complaints regarding his treatment of staff had been made by a number of staff in the university in such a way that these could not be ignored. At no time has the chair used the word “bullying”. The chair specified the nature of the behaviours alleged, but did not provide the details of individual complaints. Professor Lee was advised that two courses of action were open to him: first, that the allegations be formally investigated, during which time Professor Lee would be suspended, or second, that he resign from the university, leaving at the end of the current academic year. Professor Lee denied the alleged behaviours. It was agreed that he would have a period of time to decide which option he would prefer to pursue. At the end of that period he chose to resign.

“Discussions took place between the respective legal advisers to negotiate a compromise agreement. This was concluded on 23 December with an agreement that Professor Lee would announce his resignation in the week commencing 12 January. Professor Lee has not received details of the individual complaints. The university is not taking formal action on the complaints. The university has not taken disciplinary action against Professor Lee.

“The vice-chancellor was awarded a pay increase in 2008 and his performance was in the main satisfactory, but some concerns were expressed in the meeting about his management approach.

“Professor Lee has signed a compromise agreement with the university.”

Relations between Mr Watt and Professor Lee have been strained since last October, when Professor Lee challenged the minutes of a board meeting in July, which had been approved by the chair.

The minutes suggested that a decision to raise undergraduate tuition fees for students joining in 2010-11 had been reached at the July meeting.

Professor Lee argued that no firm decision to raise fees in that year had been made and tabled his own amended set of minutes for discussion at the next board meeting in October. The board resolved that the chairman, vice-chancellor and clerk to the board should agree a further amendment.

The board has been split on tuition-fee policy for some time, with staff and student governors backing Professor Lee in his determination to keep fees below those charged by the rest of the sector, and some lay governors questioning the strategy.

The board first discussed the matter in September 2007, when a governor proposed raising fees to £2,500 and ring-fencing the extra money for student satisfaction initiatives. Professor Lee argued that this suggested that the other £2,000 was spent on matters unrelated to student satisfaction. During the discussion Professor Lee said he would resign rather than propose the idea.

The university statement said:

“The minutes of 15 July 2008 meeting were drafted by the secretariat and approved by the chair. The vice-chancellor would normally comment on the draft, but did not do so as he was on leave. The draft minutes were circulated to all governors by email on 11 August 2008. These were marked “Unconfirmed”.

“During September, preparations began for the October board meeting. It was only at that stage that the vice-chancellor queried the wording of the minutes and proposed amendments to them. The chair, vice-chancellor and clerk had several discussions on the precise wording, but there remained a disagreement between the wording proposed by the vice-chancellor, and the wording of the drafted minutes which had been approved by the chair.

“At the board meeting on 3 October 2008, the board as usual was supplied, as part of the agenda, with a copy of the “unconfirmed” minutes approved by the chair.

“The vice-chancellor tabled at the end of the meeting his proposed amendments (marked “proposed revisions”). The board deliberated these proposals and rejected the vice-chancellor’s proposed amendments.

“The board at its meeting on 25 November 2008 contained:

a) a revised draft of the minutes of the 15 July 2008 meeting, approved by the Chair (marked “APPROVED by the CHAIR”)

b) the draft minutes of the 3 October 2008 meeting, approved by the Chair.

These were approved by the board at that stage. No member of the board was asked to sign a confidentiality agreement. Board members were asked to respect the confidentiality of the proceedings.”

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