The vice-chancellor of Leeds Metropolitan University has broken his silence for the first time since his controversial resignation last month – by categorically denying the university’s statement that concerns about his management approach were raised in his last appraisal.
Last November, the university’s chairman of governors, Ninian Watt, told Simon Lee that he had a choice between resigning or being suspended while allegations that he had reduced colleagues to tears and accused them of disloyalty were investigated.
The university has said that concerns about Professor Lee’s “management approach” were raised in his September 2008 appraisal, after which he was awarded a £20,000 pay rise. “Further and more substantial complaints were made in October,” a university spokeswoman said. These led to Mr Watt’s ultimatum.
Keith Ramsay, the deputy chair of governors, also told the Yorkshire Post that allegations were first made against Professor Lee in July 2008.
In an exclusive interview with Times Higher Education, Professor Lee denied that any such concerns had been raised. He claimed that the real reason he was pushed out was a clash over the university’s policy of charging discounted undergraduate tuition fees.
He said: “The allegations were first put to me on 11 November. I made the point in that meeting that this had not come up in my appraisal. My lawyer asked for details and was told that up to a dozen allegations had been made, channelled through two people.”
Professor Lee revealed for the first time that Mr Watt and Mr Ramsay told him at the 11 November meeting that there were three concerns about him. “Firstly, that some senior people had been in tears because I’d criticised them for underperformance or disloyalty. I was told that the complaints were sufficiently serious that they would have to suspend me within 48 hours unless I chose to resign. They said the other two issues were of a ‘different order’: these were concerns about the National Student Survey and about fees and finances.”
Professor Lee admitted to Times Higher Education that the university’s performance in the NSS had not been good, but he said he had put in place measures that he hoped would result in future improvement.
“On the finances issue, [acting chief executive] Geoff Hitchins has made clear that the university is financially sound. I felt the real issue was fees.”
Professor Lee had pioneered a policy of charging just £2,000 a year in student tuition fees, while most English universities charged the maximum £3,145. Some governors, however, were keen for Leeds Met to raise its fee levels.
Professor Lee said he denied the allegations of bullying. “I never accepted that the allegations were true or that they were the real reason for the ultimatum. I pointed out that none of these things was mentioned at my appraisal and suggested that the underlying reason for putting me in this position was our disagreement over fees.”
As Times Higher Education has reported, Professor Lee clashed with Mr Watt and Mr Ramsay over the issue of fees at board meetings in July and October.
The vice-chancellor said he was advised that if he approached anyone he suspected of being involved in the allegations, “that would be a serious matter that would merit immediate dismissal”.
After speaking to his lawyer and the then chancellor, Brendan Foster, Professor Lee negotiated an extension of the 48-hour deadline to 19 December. He finally agreed to resign on 23 December, when he signed a compromise agreement.
“The advice I received during that time was that suspension would damage my career and me irreparably whatever the outcome. It was also suggested that even if I were confident the allegations would not stand up, more charges would be produced against me. I would have been trying to fight a number of things while suspended – none of which was the real issue.”
Professor Lee added that if he had accepted suspension he would have been removed from the university until 2009 even if he were eventually found innocent.
“My lawyers had asked me when the right moment would have been to go under normal circumstances and I concluded that I would have left in 2010 anyway – all the building work would be finished by then, the new name would be embedded in the life of the university and Brendan [Foster] had agreed to a five-year term, so he would also be leaving then.
“My feeling was that by agreeing to leave at the end of summer 2009 I would be leaving a year early, without my reputation being besmirched and with the opportunity to remain involved in the university for the rest of the academic year. I also hoped [Leeds Met] would not be engulfed in the kind of saga we now have.”
The university has confirmed it will not be acting on the alleged complaints against Professor Lee or taking disciplinary action against him, and that he is to continue working at Leeds Met in a “ambassadorial” role until the end of the academic year.
Professor Lee shared with Times Higher Education the text of Mr Watt’s letter of 24 December 2008 accepting his resignation.
“I should like to thank you, personally and on behalf of the board of governors of the university, for the very considerable success you have had as vice-chancellor over a period of what will be six years,” Mr Watt wrote. “In particular you have led the transformation of the university’s estate, revitalised the ‘Carnegie’ brand, transformed the external perception of the university and achieved the designation of the UK Centre for Coaching Excellence. For all of this I thank you most sincerely. May I also wish you every success in your future career.”
Professor Lee concluded: “When the chair of governors saw me just before the board meeting last Wednesday [from which Professor Lee was excluded], he urged me to quell speculation by talking about my future plans. Among other projects, I am writing a book on universities, drawing on my experiences here and elsewhere.”