Governor hammers 'megalomaniac' v-c

Brunel council's 'stuffed donkeys' embroiled in latest governance row, writes Melanie Newman

September 3, 2009

A lay governor at Brunel University has accused the vice-chancellor of holding the governing council in contempt in the latest in a string of governance spats in the sector.

In correspondence seen by Times Higher Education, John Murphy tells Tom Webb, chairman of council, that vice-chancellor Chris Jenks "holds council and its members in contempt" and that "his only interest is the academic body".

The governor, who is the founder of a brewery, goes on to say that Professor Jenks must be "brought to heel" and made to answer to governors.

"This, after all, is why council exists - to curtail the powers of megalomaniac vice-chancellors," he says, adding that, in his view, the council is "about as effective as a bunch of stuffed donkeys".

Mr Webb removed Dr Murphy from the council's nominations and remuneration committees in July after the latter complained that members were being "railroaded" over plans for Brunel to join the University of London. Mr Webb denied this and said Dr Murphy's attacks on Professor Jenks were "aggressive and unwarranted".

The testy exchange follows a series of disputes between vice-chancellors and governors.

Most recently, Malcolm Gillies stepped down as vice-chancellor of City University London after a disagreement over the governance of the institution.

At Brunel, Dr Murphy has set out concerns about the university's governance and other issues in a series of emails sent to Mr Webb since last year.

He claims that the institution has no proper corporate plan and that there is no consensus about the future "shape of the university".

While one faction believes Brunel should continue as a broad-based university, others think it should be focused, with "some of the present offerings discontinued", he says.

"Resolving this strategic impasse is of critical importance ... yet little progress has been made," he writes in a memo sent in June.

In February last year, Professor Jenks told Times Higher Education that he planned to "move Brunel from a research-led to a research-intensive university", and had ambitions to join the Russell Group of universities.

However, an application to join the 1994 Group is understood to have been rejected.

Dr Murphy also complains that the university is embarking on a £30 million "Eastern Gateway" building project that might not be needed if the university were to become more focused.

He predicts that if the Conservatives come to power in the next election, "they will make huge cuts to higher education" and some universities will be closed. He says: "To proceed now with this huge project ... is nothing short of reckless."

In another email to Mr Webb, sent last month, Dr Murphy bemoans Brunel's "appalling performance" in student satisfaction surveys, which "never gets proper attention".

The university scored a 77 per cent satisfaction rating in the most recent national survey.

He also claims that council is "wilfully ignoring the likely seismic shifts in government funding ... blandly telling ourselves that 'well, we will simply be able to put up fees'".

"We should start planning for the future now and not wait for external events to overtake us," he says.

Jim Benson, secretary to the council, said Dr Murphy's concerns were not shared by other council members.

A strategic plan for 2008-12, "developed after extensive internal consultation and which has full council approval, sets out our strategy for the next five years but also looks to some years beyond, and details the future shape and scope of the university", he said.

"The plan also charts our commitment to the student experience, which has seen considerable improvement year on year since the National Student Survey was introduced." The plan can be found on Brunel's website.

The Eastern Gateway project was approved by council after it had been made "subject to all usual measures controlling strategic developments of this kind" and was taking place against a background of a "healthy financial position", he added.

Dr Murphy was removed from the remuneration and nominations committees following "a number of disparaging comments made about fellow council members and comments made at a meeting of the remuneration committee".

Other independent members of the committees had "confirmed their support for this course of action", Mr Benson said.

melanie.newman@tsleducation.com.

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