Paper binned after backlash over 'feathering nests' claim

Executives' document criticises 'talking shops' and 'avoiding responsibility'. Zoë Corbyn reports

August 27, 2009

A deputy vice-chancellor's suggestion that staff at his university were "feathering their own nests" with internal research money has provoked an outcry from academics.

The suggestion is made in a discussion document at the University of Winchester that proposed a revamp of the institution's internal committee system. It has been withdrawn by the vice-chancellor Joy Carter after academics complained that it was inaccurate, derogatory and poorly drafted.

The document, which has been seen by Times Higher Education, was produced by a group of eight senior executives chaired by deputy vice-chancellor Tommy Geddes. It says that there is an "unhealthy committee culture" in the university. It cites meetings that deteriorate into talking shops and committees interested more in "protecting people from taking responsibility" than in decision-making.

It also accuses research academics of exploiting committees for their own gain. "Research and knowledge exchange sub-committees are mostly populated by research assessment exercise research-active staff who tend to support each other's bids," the document says.

One Winchester academic, who asked not to be named, said staff had been shocked by "terrible inaccuracies" in the report. The academic said: "The implication that staff are purposely wasting time in committees, when the university has imposed on them an incredibly bureaucratic structure, and the implication that researchers are feathering their own nests with research money, is highly offensive.

"The general tone of the report is typical of the management - that academic staff are lazy and need to be chastised."

The Winchester employee also claimed that research was "generally looked down upon by management", which saw it as a "distraction from making money through teaching".

Winchester, which received powers to award research degrees last year, did well in last year's RAE, winning a significant increase in mainstream quality-related research funding.

Yvon Bonenfant, director of research and knowledge exchange, said the document had contained some "pretty strong" misconceptions, but insisted that there was "no institutional agenda" to destroy research. Professor Carter said the reference to nest feathering should not have appeared. "Certainly it is not a senior management team view," she said.

"As soon as we saw it, irrespective of any academics' concerns, it disappeared into the bin." She also denied that research was under- valued at the university.

It is not the first time Mr Geddes has found himself in hot water with staff. An email leaked to Times Higher Education shows that after a "faculty forum" in December, he apologised for his tone.

"If on this occasion my open and blunt style transgressed into patronising and belittling, as it obviously did for many of you, then I gladly take the criticism on the chin, apologise unreservedly and commit to learn from it," he wrote.

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