Tensions high at Liverpool Hope over hiring of dean

Vice-chancellor's quality drive brings accusations of 'done deals'. Melanie Newman reports.

February 14, 2008

Dedicated teaching staff have been turned into "instant failures" as the result of a drive to boost research at the traditionally teaching-led Liverpool Hope University, some staff have claimed.

Tensions over the university's direction came to a head this month with the appointment of Jon Nixon as dean of education. There are complaints that the appointment not only lacked transparency but unfairly penalised long-standing teaching-focused staff in an institution that was founded as a teacher-education college for women.

Professor Nixon, who has been at the university for two months, was appointed without any advertising of the vacancy. His appointment was widely predicted as a "done deal" before it was officially confirmed.

The university's vice-chancellor, Gerald Pillay, has said that he is seeking to "raise the bar" by appointing more professors and increasing research opportunities. Liverpool Hope's education deanery - primarily the teacher-training department - is said by the university to be developing a "growing research culture".

Before Professor Nixon's appointment, staff there were told that the new dean would be selected from among professors only.

Some of the department's lecturers, most of whom are women and include former schoolteachers, considered this decision unreasonable. The previous dean, Elizabeth Gayton, was not a professor.

Announcing the appointment, Professor Pillay said: "With an excellent academic track record over a long period, Professor Nixon demonstrated, through his own work at three other universities and numerous publications, the importance and interdependence of research and professional practice. Both are important pillars of the education deanery's strategic vision."

One staff member said: "Many of the people here were brought in because they were excellent practitioners. Using research as the criteria for promoting excellence is turning them into instant failures. To make a change like this takes a lot of understanding of the context, but that understanding doesn't seem to be there."

All new lecturers are required to hold PhDs, and existing staff are being advised to obtain them if they wish to progress.

The lecturers maintain that in teacher training, staff with a wealth of practical experience are more useful to students than tutors with research backgrounds who have spent little time in schools.

The source added: "People here have a love for this place, and for the students that is palpable. It's the kind of thing that takes 25 years to build up and could so easily be destroyed."

Professor Pillay has faced previous complaints about selection processes. Shortly after his arrival at the university in 2003, he appointed three men as assistant vice-chancellors amid suggestions that there was no proper application process.

"They were all white, middle-aged, middle-class men," a university insider said. "Apparently it had been decided that no one else was suitable, so there was no point in advertising."

At the time, staff asked for the university to produce a formal policy document on senior appointment processes, but so far none has been forthcoming. Appointments to principal lecturer and associate professor posts require a lengthy application and five referees. Staff want a similar process to apply to senior appointments.

A Liverpool Hope spokesman said the university had followed normal practice in appointing members of its senior executive team. While all professors in the education deanery had been invited to express an interest in the dean's position, only two did so, he said.

"Candidates who expressed an interest were considered carefully. The successful candidate was by far the more experienced of the two," he said.

The Liverpool Hope spokesman added: "In appointing to senior academic positions, the university seeks in the first instance to give opportunity to those most senior and experienced among its own staff. If this does not provide the most appropriate candidate the university advertises internationally, as it has done for the past two professorial appointments."

melanie.newman@tsleducation.com.

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