Imperial lawyers warn unions over meeting as Gast heads for exit

University expresses concerns about ‘untrue statements’ but UCU remains in dark over what caused problem

February 19, 2021
Alice Gast
Alice Gast, president of Imperial College London

The row over bullying by senior staff at Imperial College London has escalated with the university’s lawyers issuing a warning to union leaders in the week that president Alice Gast announced that she would step down at the end of her term.

Imperial’s lawyers contacted the institution’s University and College Union branch following an all-staff meeting, attended by more than 900 employees, that discussed issues surrounding the investigation that found that Professor Gast and chief financial officer Muir Sanderson had bullied colleagues.

An Imperial spokesman said the university’s lawyers had “simply reminded union leaders of their responsibility only to issue true statements”. “We did not threaten them with legal action, but we reserved our rights should untrue statements be repeated,” the spokesman said.

It comes as the English higher education regulator, the Office for Students, launched an investigation into governance issues at Imperial and Professor Gast told staff that she would step down next year.

A spokesman for the UCU branch – which organised the all-staff meeting jointly with other trade unions – said that it did not know which statements at the meeting were of concern.

The meeting discussed the institution’s power structures, plans for a working group looking at how to improve governance and the latest events in the bullying scandal, the UCU said.

It concluded with the passing of a motion of no confidence – the second in as many months – in Professor Gast and Mr Sanderson. The motion passed by 596 votes to 49, with 127 abstentions.

Staff learned about the allegations against the pair, which date to early last year, in December, via the media. Both issued apologies and were offered coaching but were allowed to keep their roles.

Imperial faced more controversy when it emerged that its harassment and bullying policy had been edited online to remove references to bullying being treated as gross misconduct. The updated version instead said that all incidents would be “treated seriously”.

An Imperial spokesman blamed the change on a “clerical error” and said the investigation into Professor Gast and Mr Sanderson had “used long-standing and approved policies, which remain in place”.

In an email to staff following the all-staff meeting on 17 February, the UCU branch said it had been emailed by the college’s lawyers “with a threat of legal action on the basis of what was discussed. We immediately responded with a request for the details on which this threat was based. We have as of yet not received a response.”

The Imperial spokesman said that, after the meeting, “the college received complaints from a number of individuals outside the senior leadership team about untrue statements that had been made in a public forum”.

“Our lawyers simply reminded union leaders of their responsibility only to issue true statements,” the spokesman said. “We did not threaten them with legal action, but we reserved our rights should untrue statements be repeated.”

Tonight a spokesman for the UCU branch said: “We do not know what statements were of concern, hence our response to the lawyers. We have not received any further clarification.”

Professor Gast, who joined Imperial in 2014, said in her email to staff that she had visited different university departments in recent weeks to share “the lessons I have learned from the events of the past months and to hear your views and hopes for the future”.

“As you prepare to search for my successor, I am focusing on how I can best use the final 18 months of my term as president of Imperial to continue my work with governments, partners, friends and donors to ensure a positive trajectory and a firm foundation for my successor,” she wrote.

Imperial told the Daily Mail that Professor Gast had only ever planned to serve as president for eight years.

The OfS has said it is “looking into regulatory matters relating to Imperial College. While this work continues, it would be inappropriate to comment further.”

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Reader's comments (3)

Oh stop at the end of her term when it would not have been renewed anyhow !
On December 14, 2020 THES reported that Jane McNeill QC, who conducted the investigation into their behaviour, found that Professor Gast had bullied one person, while Mr Sanderson was found to have bullied two colleagues between late February and mid-March". These findings alone should have resulted in their dismissal. Why was this not the case?
“bullying” what a nebulous laughable term with every vulnerability to elasticated interpretations. Slippery road and... trap. . Basil jide fadipe.