Oxbridge job 'not a hobby'

June 26, 1998

St Edmund Hall fellows defend decision to oust Sir Stephen Tumim

Ousted Oxford University head of house Sir Stephen Tumim was rejected by fellows at St Edmund Hall because "a modern Oxbridge principal's job is not a retirement hobby", the college's benefactors and emeritus fellows are being privately briefed.

Although contractually bound not to discuss the matter, the fellows have privately mounted a robust defence of their much-criticised decision to get rid of Sir Stephen, 66, whose departure has sparked student protest and prompted calls for a royal commission to reform the ancient Oxbridge system.

At an old boys' dinner today, and in a confidential draft briefing letter to honorary and emeritus fellows, St Edmund Hall's leaders will argue that the decision to oust Sir Stephen, with a pay-off said to be Pounds 120,000, was the right choice.

Sir Stephen, according to the draft letter, "did not appreciate how voluminous have become the burdens of administration, paperwork, fund-raising, and general supervision of all the detailed complexity of college and participation in modern, bureaucratic university life". He did not realise how "arduous" and "complex" the job (of principal) had become. Sir Stephen is accused of cherry-picking those aspects of the job he found "most rewarding or congenial". Fellows are arguing that Sir Stephen was resisting essential modernisation.

Even student leader John Haughton, who initiated protests in support of Sir Stephen, conceded he "was not perfect at all aspects of the job".

The fellows are rejecting widely circulating claims that Sir Stephen was removed because of a simple clash of cultures - a popular, liberal outsider who failed to understand the stuffy, other-worldly life of the Oxbridge don.

They cite the list of dynamic fellows at St Edmund Hall, which includes John Kay, head of Oxford's Said Business School, and Derrick Wyatt, a leading practising QC. The decision about Sir Stephen was made, it is stressed, by a democratic vote of the 40 fellows, and was almost unanimous.

The Pounds 120,000 pay-off has also been defended. The sum, it is argued, is justifiable for an employee on what is understood to be a salary of Pounds 39,000. It was less than it would have cost to keep him for the three years left on his contract, and was agreed after extensive legal advice. St Edmund Hall's acting principal, John Dunbabin, said the "true, net cost" to the college "will be a good deal less than the six figures", as he is planning economy measures next term.

Claims that Sir Stephen was ousted after a personality clash and power struggle with bursar Geoffrey Bourne-Taylor have also been rejected. One don conceded that Mr Bourne-Taylor's style was "swashbuckling", which has not made him popular with students, but he is praised for "running a tight ship".

St Edmund Hall, Oxford's third poorest college, is about to win a major share of the central College Contribution Fund for cross-subsidising poorer colleges, it is understood, in recognition of its improved financial state. Conference income has increased to Pounds 589,505, the seventh highest college total, despite some of the poorest buildings. This is all attributed to Mr Bourne-Taylor.

Criticism of Mr Bourne-Taylor's past has also been rejected. Claims that he used false information about his previous posts when he applied for the bursar's job were dismissed in 1994, fellows argue. The "misunderstanding" was a result of an inaccurate article in the college magazine and no false claims were made, it is claimed.

His alleged role in destroying the career of a colleague in the special branch of the Metropolitan police in the 1980s is also contested. Although the police have been censured for the incident, Mr Bourne-Taylor was not personally involved in the consequent court action, the fellows claim.

Sir Stephen is subject to the same contractual gagging clause as the college.

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