Stefan Grimm inquest: new policies may not have prevented suicide

A hearing into the ‘needless’ death of a professor at Imperial College London has ruled that he took his own life by asphyxiating himself

April 9, 2015

Source: Alamy

The “needless” suicide of an Imperial College London researcher still may not have been prevented if revised policies on performance management had been in place, his inquest has been told.

Stefan Grimm, who was professor of toxicology at Imperial’s Faculty of Medicine, was found dead in his home in Northwood, Middlesex, on 25 September last year, West London Coroner’s Court was told on 7 April.

The academic, who had been told that he was “struggling to fulfil the metrics” of his professorial post at the university, took his own life by asphyxiating himself, it was ruled.

“He had long-standing discussions about funding which were clearly a stressor for Professor Grimm,” said Chinyere Inyama, a senior coroner, who called his death “needless”.

The inquest heard how Professor Grimm had felt under pressure to obtain higher levels of funding and had talked at length to various colleagues about this situation.

But Louise Lindsay, Imperial’s director of human resources, told the court that “a number of colleagues were helping [him] with grant applications”.

In the wake of Professor Grimm’s death, Imperial ordered an internal review of its staff policies, which recommended several changes last month, including improved support for those facing performance management, the inquest heard.

However, when asked if changes being made would have helped Professor Grimm, Ms Lindsay said it was “not clear it would have resulted in a different outcome”.

Ms Lindsay also said that Professor Grimm was “not under formal management procedures”, but had faced an “informal process” regarding his performance. “He was aware formal procedures may follow,” she said.

The inquest heard that there were typed notes next to Professor Grimm’s body, but the hearing did not refer to an email containing details of his performance review sent from an account in his name to several of his associates almost a month after his death. The message had revealed how he had been told by managers that he was failing to obtain an “attributable share” of £200,000 a year in research funding and was set a target of winning at least one programme grant as principal investigator in the following 12 months.

The email also criticised Imperial, claiming it was “not a university anymore but a business”, in which “profiteering” senior managers treat academics as units to be “milked for money”.

In a statement, Imperial said that it was “deeply saddened” by the death of Professor Grimm and “offers its deepest condolences to Stefan’s family and all those affected by this tragedy”. It added it had a “duty of care” to all its staff and hoped to “create an environment in which everyone understands what is expected of him or her, how they are supported in meeting expectations and able to perform to their best”.

“In the months since Stefan’s death, Imperial has examined more broadly how it supports staff during performance review,” it added, saying that staff had been invited to respond to its recommendations.

jack.grove@tesglobal.com

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Reader's comments (13)

Alice Gast and Sir James Stirling have remained silent in this shameful affair: indeed the UK seems to have a breed of ViceChancellors who are incapable of apologizing, and who resolutely refuse to explain their policies, even though they are still largely (over)funded by public monies. It would be good if the Higher could chase these people behind the screen of 'reputation consultants' who whitewash them.
A view, which I endorse, from a critic of Imperial College, David Colquhoun, can be read here http://www.dcscience.net/2015/04/09/the-death-of-stefan-grimm-was-needless-and-imperial-has-done-nothing-to-prevent-it-happening-again/
So the death of Stefan Grimm may not have been prevented "if revised policies on performance management had been in place". Surely what this tells us is that Imperial does not need better 'performance management' policies, but rather an abolition of the performance targets that equate good performance with financial targets of grant income. I gave my opinions on such targets in a piece in the Times Higher Education on January 15th: The big grants, the big papers. Are we missing something? I am distressed to find that Imperial just doesn't get it, and seems to think they can avoid future tragedies by just 'managing' people to 'supporting' them to deal with the crazy targets they are confronted with. In particular, they seem to have no understanding of the fact that there is a good element of randomness in whose grants get funded. Placing so much emphasis on annual funding targets is bad for science, creating a dysfunctional incentive structure, and it is even worse for the individuals who try to do good science.
Dorothy Bishop - you are completely correct. I abandoned British academia as I found it had a deeply flawed "business plan" which demands that we endlessly grant write, chasing scraps of grant money not hoovered up by the large 'Armani' labs. These big labs don't necessarily generate any more than anyone else (papers/£), they are simply propagated by the system of patronage which invites certain 'luminaries' to the grant table whilst excluding others. Unfortunately grant winning is far from random - it's eerily predictable - as becomes our science. It's practically clonal. Also, lets not forget that some projects simply do not require the levels of cash being demanded by our universities and our insatiable administrators who appear to bring little or nothing to the table. Worst of all, those big lab bosses generally have no idea what it's like to fight for money and they have no understanding of how the random metrics that they sign off on can effect the health and wellbeing of their colleagues. Until we have a level playing field and can shake off the expansionist cadre of administrators, I'm afraid academics can look forward to the effects of chronic cortisol and adrenaline exposure; a few may just kill themselves. I preferred to leave them to it…..good riddance
Of course the deafening silence from the academic community plays into the hands of hostile university administrations. Perhaps there should be an annual day where academics remember what being in a university used to mean; a day of thinking, reflection, and perhaps even, dare I say it, collegially. It could be called Stefan's day. How about that everyone……
Hear hear Dorothy and Tina. The management of people highlighted by this case of Stefan Grimm is a sad microcosm of what happens across UK academia. Until they start managing people, respect and develop them, things will not change. It takes 5-10 years for a lot of research to come good. They also need to recognise that this holy grail 'grant' money is largely from taxation yet the VCs and colleagues behave like they are independent corporations, built all this wealth themselves, and still award themselves average pay packets of £260k & some pay rises of ~10% for themselves! How dare they use UK taxpayers hard earned money in this way whilst they harass and humiliate colleagues to the point of suicide. Until the senior management of universities show some humility and compassion for their people, the lifeblood of the university after all, things will not change. Before I left academia for a full time clinical post (willingly post REF return) I witnessed grown men and women in tears after such performance review meetings. Such shameful Machiavellian behaviour coupled with too many looking for their own gold and gongs means there will be more suicides before this changes. This suicide is the tragic tip of a very large iceberg that continues to undermine UK higher education.
The fact is that most people are too terrified about repercussions if they speak out (there are some honourable exceptions in the comments, above). It's also a question of time. It takes time and effort to dig out documents and testimonies in order to uncover what's going on. Places like Imperial (and several others) operate a reign of terror (under the euphemism of "performance management"). They are corrupting science and must bear part of the responsibility for the crisis of irreproducibility. No human can be expected to do thorough, conscientious science when the price for doing that is loss of your job, your house, and even your life.
It is rare for me to find myself not fully agreeing with Dorothy Bishop or David Colquhoun. I agree metrics to judge research inputs are stupid, however people should be judged on their output. The devil is in knowing whether something good will happen again, happen in the future or is never going to happen. Not easy we can agree. Where I do disagree (a little) is heaping on the blame on administrators. I have heard academics promise great things for investments. If this goes wrong and costs money, who has to pay for the failure? An annual surplus is how new things are paid for, eg PhD studentships, new labs or new library extensions. A University should and needs to run a small surplus or in the long term it will ossify. When money in does not equal money out plus surplus, something has to give. The trouble is what is to give? Academics are often keen on sacking administrators in my experience. Yet, government and the taxpayer quite likes administration (they do not see it that way) but who else produces the endless statistics for Unistats / HES or audit or Borders agency etc that all parties demand in the name of transparency. Government will not cut the demands for 'transparency" or "accountability" or hitting some new political target. The public priority is the NHS and possibly school education; not University quality. Can we look to students to care about quality? Not in general in my experience have watched senior elected students in my institution demand spending on things that 'improve' the experience but remove it from academic activity. For many (most?) University is increasingly an experience to be purchased along with a certificate, the idea that it is an education to be valued in and of itself is the view of the vocal majority (whether the silent majority do value is hard to know). Having seen both Scottish and rUK students over the years its hard to simply attribute this to a fees culture. In this culture do our administrators swim, its not an easy job, sometimes academics will need to be made redundant (unless the public develop an enthusiasm currently lacking to spend more money). How would anyone chose who? Its an awful business, for many academics because our identity as people is caught up with the job. This was not true for my parents who did manual jobs or my brother who works for a company. They have all been made redundant or resigned or taken on new lines of work. For them its a job that pays them money to live (although all of them found losing jobs traumatic and stressful; their worries were about money). For me and I suspect Prof Grimm and many others, the job is more than a job. I have never been in a senior admin job nor likely to be; but not all of them are monsters even those who have made academics redundant. (A former colleague of mine turned senior admin at other Uni made redundancies and I know he had no choice, he tried to be compassionate and it made him ill). If we tar all senior management as the same simply because they are making people redundant, decent compassionate people will opt out and only the real monsters will do these jobs. The record suggests this may be happening and such monsters are climbing high on the ladders.
@Jim_Sta I explicitly didn't blame administrators for the perverse incentives piled on academics. They are the fault of senior academics. and, ultimately, vice-chancellors. The administrators are simply obeying orders. HR don't understand science and should have nothing to do with "performance management". But again the fact that they're allowed to is the fault of senior academics. You say that redundancies are inevitable. I disagree. They happen because more people are employed than can be afforded (quite possibly to bolster REF scores). That's bad financial management, resulting from overblown ambitions.
It is true that universities over-hire, particularly for REF. It is also true that some institutions see no problem with being "high hire, high fire" employers (indeed senior academics may even say this with a degree of pride) and, as such, allegedly performance-related job losses are part of a deliberate and conscious strategy. "High hire, high fire" may trip off the tongue nicely, but it is a very wasteful way to use organisational resources and also betrays a complete lack of concern for employees - who are, almost by definition, disposable.
@DC "bad financial management" yes but the person who did it may have retired or been fired or sacked or maybe they just made a bad call. Someone else often has to pick up the pieces and make people redundant, How many staff should a department have? With no retirement age, its not quite as easy. For a young person, it is worth erring on the side of caution hoping for better times so hire them now or say no? Is that over hiring? I have never come across high hire high fire. Edinburgh and Manchester both took very large cuts in incomes as a result of REF for very different reasons. Edinburgh because of political decision by Scottish Government, Manchester because they did poorly (relatively) in REF. UCL famously stuffed their submission with exemplary game playing and did well financially, if the game playing was disallowed they would have done worse. Good management or bad? Stirling did great because of the change in SG funding formula not because their quality increased really. Good management or luck? Hire now and hope it continues? I work in a department that tries very hard to take on staff it knows that it can afford to keep. We do not offer spaces to three independent fellows and allow some sort of dog eat dog type thing. However, if our undergraduate funding or REF funding changes, we could become financially unstable. (The preference given to new investigators in REF rewards the take lots of fellows with no permanent jobs; hence the proliferation of 'Chancellors' fellowships everywhere). The huge shifts in funding (due to Government decisions) makes VC's and the other most senior academics job very hard (apart from VC's most senior academics are not paid much more than professors), some are genuine scholars trying to be humane who need colleagues support but often get only abuse. Others are indeed the monsters, who thrive on being tough, 'cracking' heads and dream of firing people. We should be more careful to identify them, London Institutions seem to have some.
Tanya Beckett interviewed the president of Imperial College, Alice Gast on the Today programme, on 17 April. She was asked directly about the suicide of Stefan Grimm. Astonishingly she avoided the question altogether -not a word of regret was expressed. You can hear the interview at http://www.dcscience.net/2015/04/09/the-death-of-stefan-grimm-was-needless-and-imperial-has-done-nothing-to-prevent-it-happening-again/comment-page-1/#170415
@David Colquhoun There is a single reason why this and other vice-chancellors receive scandalous pay (funded by the public purse): they have taken to terminate academic careers according to the wishes of external funders (public or private); you need missionaries to achieve such a state of unfairness. That their methods of termination can result in suicide was acknowledged and reinforced by the Imperial College response, so how could Alice Gast be expected to say she is sorry? Democratic governance would not allow such appalling behaviour. If Universities are accountable to Parliament there is a need for an external inquiry into the death of Professor Grimm and on whether the managers in question exercised their duty of care - as you called for early on. The sector is also quite clearly in a need to reform university governance, expelling those at the top and prohibiting their reappearance in any form. Higher education is incompatible with the present violence in the UK universities.

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