Post-1992s need new governance structures, argues Leeds Met head

Lee says that his forced resignation highlights an urgent need for reform. Melanie Newman writes

February 12, 2009

The departing vice-chancellor of Leeds Metropolitan University has called for the reform of governance structures in higher education - after claiming that he was forced to resign because he clashed with governors over student tuition fees.

Simon Lee announced his resignation last month, but it later emerged that he had been told by the chairman of governors, Ninian Watt, that if he did not quit, he would be suspended while "serious complaints regarding his treatment of staff" were investigated.

In an interview with Times Higher Education, Professor Lee denied the allegations - which included claims that he had reduced colleagues to tears and had accused them of disloyalty. He said: "I pointed out that none of these things was mentioned at my appraisal and suggested that the underlying reason for putting me in this position was our disagreement over fees."

Professor Lee and Mr Watt had clashed at board meetings over whether or not tuition fees at Leeds Met should be raised from their current level of £2,000, the lowest in the English higher education sector.

In particular, Professor Lee said, the atmosphere at the board meeting of 3 October 2008 became "very unfortunate" after he questioned Mr Watt's amendments to minutes from the previous board meetings.

Professor Lee said he was left with little choice but to resign when he was approached with the ultimatum by Mr Watt and his deputy, Keith Ramsay, on 11 November.

Visitors welcome

He suggested that an appeals system for post-1992 universities was necessary to prevent clashes over strategy leading to such situations.

"There is a lot to learn from the traditional universities," he said. "I like the idea of a university visitor (a quasi-judicial arbiter) who can adjudicate in these kinds of disputes."

Under the articles of government of post-1992 universities such as Leeds Met, the chair or deputy chair of governors "may suspend from duty, with pay, the holder of a senior post for alleged misconduct or other good and urgent cause".

The articles lay down rules on how suspensions and subsequent investigations should be carried out, but there is no procedure for a vice-chancellor to appeal a suspension.

In the older, chartered universities, staff were able to appeal to the university visitor to adjudicate in disputes.

However, a 2008 Higher Education Funding Council for England toolkit on resolving disputes in higher education says that "to all intents and purposes the university visitor was removed as a 'player' in dispute resolution in universities by the Higher Education Act 2004". Under the terms of the Act, the visitor's role in adjudicating on student complaints has been taken on by the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education, which is not open to staff.

The Hefce document proposes the appointment of an "ombudsman" by each higher education institution to carry out functions once provided by a visitor.

Professor Lee compared his situation to that of Josef K, the protagonist of Franz Kafka's story The Trial, who is arrested and accused of a crime that is never made clear and that he did not commit. "I never thought it was really about the allegations, but I could not get any details out of (Mr Watt)," he said.

Times Higher Education understands that the university's chancellor, Brendan Foster, tried to act as a mediator between Professor Lee and Mr Watt.

The vice-chancellor eventually decided to resign on the advice of his lawyer, who suggested that his reputation would be irreparably damaged whatever the investigation's outcome.

"I didn't see many vice-chancellors who'd been suspended coming back and picking up where they left off," Professor Lee said. "I didn't see resigning as an ignoble thing; it was not about running away from clearing my name."

He pointed to Winifred Mercier, the first female vice-principal of Leeds Training College in 1913-15, who resigned after clashing with the Secretary of Education of the day.

"She became convinced that she had lost the confidence of the governors and decided to resign. She was not only giving up the work that she loved but also her means of livelihood. Her story was very much in my thoughts on 11 November," Professor Lee said.

In a speech to the sports faculty shortly after he received the ultimatum, Professor Lee quoted from a book about Miss Mercier, which described her as never currying favour with anyone and turning "a white flame of indignation" on those who were giving "less than the best". Miss Mercier was "ultimately vindicated", he noted.

Differing accounts

There are several discrepancies between Professor Lee's account of events surrounding his resignation and that of the university.

Leeds Met has said that concerns about his "management approach" were raised in his appraisal in late September 2008. Professor Lee received a £20,000 pay rise after the appraisal, and he denies that such concerns were raised.

Geoff Hitchins, the acting chief executive, has also said that links between the vice-chancellor's resignation and disputes over tuition fees "have no basis in fact".

Some Leeds Met staff have called for Mr Watt to resign, arguing that correct disciplinary processes do not appear to have been followed and that details of Professor Lee's appraisal should have been kept confidential.

The university said that Mr Watt, as chair of governors, "acts on behalf of, and with the full support of, the board". It added that Professor Lee will not now be required to undertake the "ambassadorial" duties that were originally planned for him in the months leading up to his formal departure date in August 2009.

melanie.newman@tsleducation.com.

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