'Fatal blow' to v-c as committee rules to overturn plan to axe chemistry

April 28, 2006

Sussex University may be forced to make a humiliating U-turn on its controversial decision to axe chemistry, placing a question mark over the future of its vice-chancellor, The Times Higher can reveal.

Last month Sussex sparked an international outcry when it confirmed plans to close its high-ranking chemistry department, which has produced three Nobel laureates.

But the internal committee set up by Alasdair Smith, the vice-chancellor, to review the decision is understood to have ruled that the closure proposal should be withdrawn. The review group will tell the senate and council next week that instead there must be reinvestment in chemistry, with the recruitment of six new members of staff.

A chemist in the department said: "The committee reviewed the whole of the life sciences, and its decision was to reinvest in chemistry. The proposed plan was announced to staff this week."

A senior chemist with close links to Sussex said: "Remarkably, the biologists, medics and biochemists have agreed to forgo the investment in new academic posts that they had been promised to allow the funds to be transferred to rebuild chemistry."

The move was being interpreted by other university chiefs as a worrying line in the sand.

One vice-chancellor said: "Professor Smith isn't going to be allowed to close chemistry. This is a potentially fatal blow to his authority."

Michael North, a professor of chemistry at Newcastle University, said: "I would have thought the vice-chancellor's position is now almost untenable.

What chemist will move to Sussex with a vice-chancellor who has made it clear that he doesn't want a chemistry department?"

Professor Smith said the review was still at a "preliminary stage", but he agreed that there might be an option for the chemistry degree programme to continue.

He said: "Listening to and taking account of what people say outside and inside the university is not a weakness and is not a U-turn."

He added: "The crucial thing is that the university is strongly committed to academic developments that build on strength. We are not interested in rescuing weak activity."

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