Imperial College London to ‘review procedures’ after death of academic

Colleagues say failed grant applications had made Stefan Grimm fear for his job

November 27, 2014

Source: Smart7/Shutterstock.com

Imperial College London is to examine its staff policies after the death of an academic who was believed to have been placed under a performance review.

Stefan Grimm, professor of toxicology in the Faculty of Medicine at Imperial, was found dead in Northwood, Middlesex, in September. An inquest was opened and adjourned at the West London District Coroner’s Court on 8 October.

Speaking to Times Higher Education on condition of anonymity, two academics who knew Professor Grimm, who was 51, said that he had complained of being placed under undue pressure by the university in the months leading up to his death, and that he had been placed on performance review.

He is understood to have been unsuccessful in a number of grant applications, and to have been told that if he continued to struggle in this regard his job would be at risk.

The academics said Professor Grimm had felt let down by Imperial and did not feel he was given sufficient support in the months leading up to his death.

THE understands that shortly before he died, Professor Grimm asked not be named as the corresponding author on one of his recently published papers, and one of his colleagues took on the role instead.

A spokeswoman for Imperial said that the college would provide “all the assistance it can” as the statutory authorities conduct their investigation, and that the university was to conduct its own review.

“Following Professor Grimm’s death, Imperial’s provost has tasked the director of human resources and one of the college’s senior elected academic representatives to review the relevant college policies and procedures,” she said.

“Their report will be considered by a senior group led by the provost, and the college will move swiftly to implement any recommendations.”

Her statement also says: “Imperial College London seeks to give every member of its community the opportunity to excel and to create a supportive environment in which their careers may flourish.

“As with all serious and tragic events involving the loss of life of serving staff or current students, the college conducts appropriate reviews of the circumstances in order to see whether wider lessons may be drawn.

“At a time when family, friends, colleagues and students are still coming to terms with a death, it is important to undertake any reviews in a manner that respects these sensitivities, and that does not create a more difficult or challenging environment for those people.”

In response to claims that the university had not circulated information to colleagues of Professor Grimm, other than a short announcement of his death, the spokeswoman said she was “aware that a number of Stefan’s former colleagues and students have written an obituary and have submitted it to one of Nature’s publications”. She said that Imperial was “planning to republish this, with permission, when it appears”.

Details of Professor Grimm’s funeral, she added, were “a matter for the family”.

chris.parr@tesglobal.com

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Reader's comments (6)

You will be missed Stefan. https://fanismissirlis.wordpress.com/2014/11/26/stefan-grimm-rip/
Given what's already well known about bullying at Imperial, this tragedy should surprise nobody. http://www.dcscience.net/?p=182
RIP Professor Grimm, you will be missed
I make no comment about Imperial College as I have no knowledge of the management culture there and the facts of this particular case are yet to be ascertained. However, commenting in general terms about moves in the UK generally towards more aggressive management approaches, a couple of points are worth mentioning. First, the civil courts in recent years have been willing to award six figure damages to employees whose mental health has been harmed by the behaviour of their employers. In economic terms, therefore, placing undue pressures and targets on employees may make little sense. Second, where the death of an employee can be shown to have been caused by the employer, Health & Safety legislation can result in criminal prosecution. In the most extreme cases the law relating to gross negligence manslaughter can result in the imprisonment of those deemed to be a fault. I have yet to encounter an English case in which the latter principle has been linked to harm to mental health, but the time must be ripe for trades unions to look out for a suitable test case to seek to develop the law in this area. I would hope that basic morality would ensure that HE managers seek to end policies which are harmful to their employees. However, if that is insufficient motivation then the prospect of large damages awards and, at the extreme, personal imprisonment should ensure that they stop and think.
Stefan Grimm's last email has been posted at http://www.dcscience.net/?p=6834 Warning: it is heartbreaking.
I think this raises important questions about what is and what is not acceptable treatment of staff. My personal view is that if a member of staff is employed on a "permanent" contract, the University should be in it for the long run and accept the inevitable oscillations in grant and publication success. That said, how do you respond as a manager if the department is broke and the number of grant applications is falling? Not all academics are as diligent as Stefan clearly was. Perhaps it's time for UCU to engage with employers to develop a code of practice for performance review meetings and for a structured approach to dealing with failing departments. In the end, if a department really is failing, there may have to be a decrease in staff numbers. However, there should never be a need to treat people cruelly or disrespectfully. Too often academics are managed by other academics who are pressurised to take on a managerial role for which they are ill prepared. We suffer on their learning curve, and just as they work out what it's all about, they move on. I say all this as department heads across the UK nervously await the REF outcome and the (inevitable?) rounds of redundancies and restructuring that will follow.

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