Leeds Met forced to reveal that Lee's exit followed governors' ultimatum

V-c chose to leave rather than face suspension over bullying allegations, says Melanie Newman

February 5, 2009

It was not the usual Monday missive from management.

At 12.15pm on 2 February, all staff at Leeds Metropolitan University received something of a bombshell in their email in-boxes.

After weeks of speculation - much of it via more than 300 postings on Times Higher Education's website - Leeds Met sought to end the rumours about the resignation of its vice-chancellor, Simon Lee.

"The university is disappointed it has to disclose information which we would normally regard as confidential," the email says. But as information had leaked to Times Higher Education, it was forced to make a statement.

"In November, the chair of governors (Ninian Watt) informed Professor Lee that serious complaints regarding his treatment of staff had been made by a number of staff in the university in such a way that these could not be ignored.

"Professor Lee was advised that two courses of action were open to him: first, that the allegations be formally investigated, during which time Professor Lee would be suspended, or second, that he resign from the university, leaving at the end of the current academic year. Professor Lee denied the alleged behaviours."

Rather than face a suspension, Professor Lee opted to resign and signed a compromise agreement. "The university is not taking formal action on the complaints. (It) has not taken disciplinary action against Professor Lee," the university said.

The allegations were that Professor Lee had bullied colleagues, accusing them of disloyalty and reducing one to tears.

Although it was designed to end the matter, the statement has raised more questions about the governance of the institution.

Since 2007 Professor Lee, backed by staff and student governors, had been vying with other members of the governing board to keep undergraduate tuition fees at £2,000 - the lowest in the sector.

Matters came to a head at a July 2008 board meeting when Professor Lee recommended that the fees remain at £2,000 for 2009-10.

The board of governors approved this recommendation, although a source said that some members argued against it.

The minutes of the July meeting - which said that fee levels for 2010 entry "would be reviewed in 12 months" - were drawn up by the secretariat and sent to Ninian Watt, the chairman of the board of governors, for approval.

Mr Watt amended the minutes to say that fees "would be increased by an amount to be decided in 12 months' time" and inserted a reference to a "profit-improvement plan".

When Professor Lee saw the amended minutes in September, he asked Mr Watt to retract his amendments. When Mr Watt did not do so, the vice-chancellor tabled his own revisions for discussion at the October board meeting, which led to a heated debate.

A university spokesman told Times Higher Education: "During discussion, the chair made it clear that he had not 'tampered' with the minutes, nor was he trying to misrepresent the deliberations of the board. This was accepted by the board members."

The governors could not agree whether a formal decision to raise the fee had been taken in July and eventually authorised the vice-chancellor, the chair of governors, the deputy chair and the clerk to amend the July minutes "by agreement".

The amended minutes said that fees would be reviewed in 2009 subject to certain assumptions surrounding the Government's planned fees review.

Mr Watt, a former senior partner at accountancy firm KPMG in Leeds, is understood to have been upset by Professor Lee's implication that he changed the minutes to reflect events that had not occurred. He is understood to have told colleagues that Professor Lee's accusations were a direct challenge to his integrity.

A fortnight before the October board meeting, Professor Lee was awarded a £20,000 pay rise by the governing body after an appraisal the university says was "in the main satisfactory", but in which some concerns about his "management approach" were raised. A few weeks after the board meeting, on 11 November, Mr Watt gave Professor Lee the ultimatum to resign or face suspension.

The university confirmed that Professor Lee was not given details of specific individual complaints, but that he agreed to leave the university in summer 2009.

This week, Keith Ramsay, the deputy chairman of the board of governors, told the Yorkshire Post, "the number (of complaints) ran into double figures and complaints came from all ranks of management - junior, middle and senior."

Mr Ramsay added that some allegations were received in October 2008, but others were made as early as July 2008 - preceding the appraisal that led to Professor Lee's £20,000 pay rise, and several months before the matter was raised with Professor Lee in the form of Mr Watts' ultimatum. The university said that although some concerns were raised at the appraisal, "further and more substantial" complaints were made in October, on which Mr Watts acted.

A University and College Union spokesman said: "It appears proper processes have not been followed. If bullying has occurred it should be properly investigated and appropriate action taken. No staff member should be forced out on these terms."

melanie.newman@tsleducation.com

COUNTDOWN TO DEPARTURE

- 15 July 2008

Governors' meeting discusses Simon Lee's policy of discounting tuition fees heavily.

- Date unknown

Draft minutes sent from secretariat to the vice-chancellor and Ninian Watt, the chairman of the board of governors, who amends them.

- 11 August 2008

"Unconfirmed" minutes with Mr Watt's amendments are circulated to all governors.

- 18 September 2008

Professor Lee is given his appraisal, which concludes that his performance is satisfactory.

- 23 September 2008

A £20,000 pay rise for Professor Lee is approved by the remuneration committee.

- September 2008

Professor Lee questions Mr Watt's amendments to the board minutes and proposes revisions. The chair of the governors and the vice-chancellor fail to agree wording.

- 3 October 2008

Governors' meeting. The board is supplied with a copy of the "unconfirmed" minutes approved by the chair. The vice-chancellor tables his proposed amendments (marked "proposed revisions"). The board concludes that the chair, vice-chair and clerk should agree a further amendment.

- 11 November 2008

Mr Watt informs Professor Lee that serious complaints regarding his treatment of staff have been made by senior colleagues - a charge denied by Professor Lee. Professor Lee is given an ultimatum: resign or face suspension and a formal investigation of the allegations.

- 25 November 2008

The board agrees a revised draft of the 15 July meeting minutes.

- 23 December 2008

Professor Lee agrees that he will leave the university in summer 2009, but the announcement is left until the new year.

- 15 January 2009

Mr Watts announces that Professor Lee "has informed me that he will be leaving us this summer" and praises Professor Lee's "six extraordinarily successful years of transformation of the university".

- 28 January 2009

After a six-hour meeting, the university's board of governors announce that retired deputy vice-chancellor, Geoff Hitchins, will take over as acting chief executive with immediate effect. Professor Lee will continue working for the university until the summer in an "ambassadorial" role.

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