Plymouth offers no information on Wendy Purcell's leave status

Vice-chancellor’s absence fuels speculation but university stays quiet

July 10, 2014

The University of Plymouth has adopted a policy of total silence over the reasons behind its decision to “place on leave” its vice-chancellor, Wendy Purcell.

The university stated last week that Professor Purcell had been “placed on leave by the university’s board of governors as part of an ongoing review process”.

There is said to have been unhappiness among some staff over her strategy to brand Plymouth as “the enterprise university”, a move that some thought unlikely to pay off given the university’s distance from the UK’s economic heart.

The decision to market Plymouth as a “world-class university” and supposedly to prioritise league table performance is also said to have prompted concern.

Questions have also been raised within the university about expenses, including those for travel and promotional activities. The University and College Union said that Plymouth had spent an extra £1.2 million on consultancy fees last year, while “other expenses” had risen to £10.4 million. A number of staff were meanwhile set to protest on 9 July outside the university about job losses.

Others have cited turnover among the chairs of governors in recent years as a possible indication of tensions.

However, in a sign of the lockdown over Professor Purcell’s situation, the university refused to state the names of its chairs of governors since 2011 or their terms of office.

Times Higher Education asked the university’s press office for the information on chairs of governors, as well as for comment on the questions raised about spending.

In response, a Plymouth spokesman said: “The university asked that confidentiality be observed in order that due process could be followed without unhelpful and inaccurate speculation. On that basis it does not believe that it would be appropriate to respond to your enquiries at this time.”

Nevertheless, Plymouth’s annual reports show that Rodney Bennion served relatively briefly as chair of governors from April 2012 to August 2012. Then, Mike Leece served as acting chairman until October 2012.

The current and permanent chair of governors, Judge William Taylor, was appointed later that month. Judge Taylor, the senior circuit judge for Plymouth, is said to be a popular figure at the university.

Plymouth’s original statement, issued on 1 July, said: “We can confirm that the vice-chancellor of Plymouth University, Professor Wendy Purcell, has been placed on leave by the university’s board of governors as part of an ongoing review process. As with all internal matters relating to members of staff, we request that the confidentiality of the situation be respected.

“Professor Purcell’s position as vice-chancellor remains unchanged, and in her absence the university is being led by deputy vice-chancellor Professor David Coslett.”

Professor Purcell is regarded by many in the sector as having been a strong leader. Her departure shrinks further the small number of women at the head of UK universities.

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