Purcell set to have showdown meeting with senior figures at Plymouth

Suspended v-c still wants her job back as details about legal bills are disclosed

October 2, 2014

Plymouth University’s vice-chancellor, Wendy Purcell, was set for a showdown meeting with the institution after being suspended three months ago.

Meanwhile, the university’s legal bill of more than £170,000 for the affair has also been disclosed and questions have been raised about the institution’s account of spending on ceremonial chairs.

Professor Purcell - who was suspended by Plymouth in July but is now on paid leave - still wants her job back, it is understood. She was due to discuss her future in a meeting with senior figures at the university scheduled for the end of September.

William Taylor, the chair of governors who suspended Professor Purcell, stood down this week after saying that the “very public focus” on allegations that he sexually harassed female staff and students - which he denies - “potentially distracts” from the internal investigation into Professor Purcell.

Mr Taylor’s departure could now clear the way for Professor Purcell to return. But others suggest that any return by her could prompt resignations among senior figures at the university.

Other possibilities include negotiating a pay-off with Professor Purcell - likely to be substantial - or dismissing her and facing an employment tribunal, with the potential for embarrassing revelations to emerge.

Plymouth has so far spent £170,387 on legal costs and VAT in its dealings with Professor Purcell, according to details obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by Times Higher Education. The bulk went to lawyers Veale Wasbrough Vizards.

Also included within that sum are Professor Purcell’s £8,212 legal costs plus £1,642 in VAT, covering her fees with Archon solicitors until 30 May. “This is in accordance with standard practice to ensure she had access to appropriate legal advice,” the university said.

The issue of the ceremonial chairs was the latest development in the battle between senior figures at the university and Professor Purcell.

On 19 September, the BBC reported online that it had been told by sources that the university had “agreed to spend £150,000” on seven handcrafted chairs by furniture designer John Makepeace, to be used at graduation ceremonies.

On 21 September, the university released a statement which said that in March 2013 “the vice-chancellor, Professor Wendy Purcell, initiated a project to commission a set of furniture for use at graduation and other public university events” and that Mr Makepeace “was selected by a panel headed by the vice-chancellor”. The university also said that the chairs cost £95,000.

THE understands that in March 2014, David Coslett, the deputy vice-chancellor who has led Plymouth in Professor Purcell’s absence, was warned by others in the university that commissioning the chairs risked harmful publicity for the institution if news of the spending became public.

However, Professor Coslett is understood to have voiced strong backing for the project in response, arguing that they would be seen as a symbol of the university’s success.

A Plymouth spokesman said: “While Professor Coslett, who was tasked by the vice-chancellor to bring the project to fruition, remains an advocate of its long-term legacy, it is disappointing that attempts appear to be being made to distance the vice-chancellor from her role and responsibilities in the project, particularly in not seeking support from the university executive or the university board.”

john.morgan@tesglobal.com

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