Imperial professors call for openness after Gast bullying case

President and finance chief under pressure to resign amid anger that staff learned of allegations via the press

December 21, 2020
Imperial College London
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Professors who chair disciplinary panels at Imperial College London have warned that the institution’s handling of the bullying cases involving its president and finance chief could hamper their ability to fulfil their roles.

There is mounting anger at the prestigious institution that president Alice Gast and chief financial officer Muir Sanderson were allowed to keep their roles despite being found to have bullied colleagues earlier this year, and that senior staff only learned about the disciplinary proceedings against the pair via the press.

Details of the case emerged after a whistleblower alerted Labour MP Alex Sobel, who posed a parliamentary question which was picked up by the media. A letter was sent to staff on 4 December by chair of council John Allan confirming that an investigation into alleged bullying had taken place but also stating that he was “more confident than ever that Imperial has the right leadership”.

Ten more days passed before it was confirmed that Professor Gast and Mr Sanderson had faced disciplinary hearings for bullying and the pair offered apologies.

In a letter to all staff, seen by Times Higher Education, Imperial’s consuls – academics elected to act as “the conscience of the college” – and Stephen Curry, the assistant provost for equality, diversity and inclusion, wrote that they were “dismayed to learn from the chair of council’s email on 4 December of the events that took place in March”.

The consuls, led by Peter Openshaw, professor of experimental medicine at Imperial and a government adviser on Covid-19, usually participate in or chair disciplinary and appeal panels.

“As senior members of the college, we share fully in that shock and disappointment [felt by the college community] and feel deeply for those who were bullied. We are determined to do what we can to remedy the situation and want you to know that you can reach out to us in this,” the letter said.

“We have sought greater transparency and responsibility from the college. These are essential not just for us to carry out our roles with integrity but for the good of the college as a whole.”

Michael McGarvey, president of the UCU branch at Imperial, has said that allowing Professor Gast and Mr Sanderson to stay in their posts “sends a terrible message to staff and creates a culture where bullying can thrive”.

The university has not revealed what, if any, sanctions the pair faced following their disciplinary hearings. UCU has called for them to resign on the grounds of gross misconduct.

But Imperial faced more controversy when it emerged that its harassment and bullying policy had been edited online to remove references to such offences 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 that the investigation into Professor Gast and Mr Sanderson had “used long-standing and approved policies, which remain in place”. The whole policy is now under review.

One senior Imperial academic told THE that bullying was a “serious issue” and that staff “need to see that it results in sanctions”.

“It would have been so much better if this had come to light without external pressure,” the academic said. “It’s hard, but being a transparent organisation is important to protect staff.”

Another Imperial employee said that staff were “furious” about how the news of the investigation against Professor Gast and Mr Sanderson had emerged. “This is likely to translate into substantial internal pressure for them to go,” they said.

Imperial has said that its leadership team “will drive changes as a result of [the investigation’s] recommendations, while redoubling ongoing efforts to improve the college’s operations, culture, transparency and management”.

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Imperial professors call for more transparency after Gast bullying case

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