'I was no bully' says McKenna

July 8, 2005

Gerry McKenna, Ulster University's former vice-chancellor, has revealed that accusations against him of bullying and impairment through alcohol could have been misunderstandings of his heart and ulcer problems.

Professor McKenna stepped down as vice-chancellor in May and is now on sabbatical. He is expected to return next month in the post of president, to promote the university internationally, before retiring next year.

In January, his solicitors rejected the university's offer to discuss a severance package, just before the launch of an investigation by Sir Michael Buckley, former parliamentary ombudsman, into Professor McKenna's "conduct or capability" in running the university.

Sir Michael's conclusions can only now be revealed with the lifting of a High Court injunction against The Belfast Telegraph , which obtained a leaked copy of the Buckley report in April.

The report, based on the evidence of some 30 witnesses, does not determine whether or not the allegations are true.

But it determines that Professor McKenna had a case to answer in terms of allegations of bullying and intimidating staff, being affected by alcohol at official university meetings, lax financial controls and loss of senior staff confidence.

It says a picture emerged of Professor McKenna as a forceful and challenging person, "with a rough, even abrasive, style", but who in the past had been willing to listen to opposing views.

"However, from around the spring of 2004, it was said he had become increasingly dogmatic, irritable and arrogant with a marked tendency to refuse to engage in debate of merits of opposing views - or even to listen to them - and to attack and belittle those who put them forward," the report says.

"His attitude, sometimes explicit, was one of 'I am the vice-chancellor and what I say goes without question'."

In his submission to the Buckley inquiry, seen by The Times Higher , Professor McKenna rejected all the allegations and questioned the appropriateness of the investigation. In February this year, he told Sir Michael that he had been suffering for at least 18 months from atrial fibrillation and for at least nine months from gastric and duodenal ulcers.

In later documentation to council members, he said that his pattern of behaviour, which had been normal until spring 2004, was in keeping with these illnesses.

Professor McKenna, who went on sick leave last November but who told council members he was now restored to good health, highlighted the university's successes in the previous academic year. This included a £5 million surplus, more than £40 million in research funds and the fact that the university had come eighth in the UK for the number of undergraduate applications.

He also pointed out that he had been awarded a pay rise of almost 15 per cent last October, based on performance and agreed by senior lay officers, who the previous year had extended his contract until 2014. Ulster has refused to comment on whether it offered to discuss a severance deal, saying that matters relating to employment contracts are confidential.

Gerry Burns, chairman of the university's council, this week confirmed to The Times Higher that Professor McKenna will not face a formal disciplinary tribunal on the grounds that this would not be in Ulster's best interests.

Mr Burns said: "As nothing had been proven, such a process could have been quite costly and potentially damaging to the university.

"In addition, (the council) recognised the significant contribution that Professor McKenna had made in the past and decided it would be best to facilitate an agreement by which the vice-chancellor could stand down but retain the title of president."

But Sammy Wilson, education spokesman for the Democratic Unionist Party, said: "Professor McKenna doesn't have the moral authority to do this job or the public credibility, and the university should reconsider its decision."

Mr Wilson is demanding a ministerial inquiry into Ulster's use of public funds in commissioning the Buckley report, taking out the injunction against The Belfast Telegraph and in retaining Professor McKenna as its president.

olga.wojtas@thes.co.uk

ALLEGATIONS AND REBUTTALS

* The behaviour and performance of Gerry McKenna, pictured, was impaired because of alcohol on seven occasions, including during a meeting with Barry Gardiner, the former Education Minister for Northern Ireland.

Professor McKenna rejects categorically that he ever conducted university business while under the influence of alcohol. He has a heart condition and intestinal bleeding and so he may have appeared tired or irritable.

* Two firms of consultants were engaged, at a cost of some £400,000, without undergoing any form of competitive selection process.

The university does not have a policy on employing consultants. The appointment, usage and performance of both consultants was entirely satisfactory and beneficial to the university.

* Professor McKenna bullied, intimidated and harassed staff.

No senior officers were treated unfairly. In the past year, as the university began reducing staff costs and reinforcing research selectivity, senior officers were inevitably challenged in ways they had not experienced previously. Professor McKenna may have been less patient or diplomatic because of his medical conditions.

* Professor McKenna had lost the confidence of the majority of the senior executive management committee.

There were no complaints from the planning committee, senate, council or senior lay officers.

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