When the registrar of Durham University left the institution at the end of June, there was much speculation about her departure. Some believed that it was connected to a blog post written about three months earlier in which she had appeared to jokingly compare the vice-chancellor, Christopher Higgins, to Muppet Show diva Miss Piggy.
Durham has still not confirmed why Carolyn Fowler left her position. Although the mystery continues, Times Higher Education has since found that she was at the heart of a much bigger controversy among the top echelons of the university, relating to Durham’s acceptance in 2010 of a gift of £125,000 from British American Tobacco.
THE can reveal that in accepting the gift, the university overruled its own ethics committee and communications office, and tried and failed to keep the gift under wraps, thereby setting in motion a major tussle over ethics and conflicts of interest at the very top of the institution.
BAT has always defended the gift, which was to fund scholarships for five Afghan women to undertake postgraduate study at Durham, as an end in itself, rather than a form of self-promotion. But leaked documents show that the communications office feared - correctly, as it turned out, and as THE reported in June 2011 - that acceptance of the donation would be condemned by groups such as Cancer Research UK and would draw unfavourable attention to the university’s investment in “non-ethical…vehicles”.
Publicity would draw attention to the university’s lack of “a clear and robust gift and donation policy from certain types of donors i.e. [a policy on] which sectors we do and do not accepts [sic] gifts/donations from”, the office noted in a risk assessment on 12 May 2010.
It concluded that the gift should be “politely rejected”, and if not, it should be kept quiet.
The donation was also rejected by the chair of the university’s ethics committee. The Very Reverend Michael Sadgrove, Dean of Durham, concluded in his response just over a week later that the university should consider “not only reputational risk but the principled pursuit of a genuinely wise outcome”.
The decision then went up to Durham’s university executive committee, a streamlined body that makes recommendations to the institution’s council. It is composed of the vice-chancellor, seven pro vice-chancellors, the registrar and secretary, the treasurer and the director of human resources.
Like the communications office, the committee feared that other donors to the university might withdraw their support in protest if the gift was accepted.
But, it also noted, publicity about the gift could be avoided.
But no decision could be reached as “the views of its members on the relative risks/benefits were divided”. In May 2010, the views of the author Bill Bryson (who was then chancellor of Durham, and in whose name the appeal for donors was being made) and the vice-chancellor of the University of Kabul were sought.
Neither had any objections, and the chair of Durham’s council, Anne Galbraith, was “fully supportive”. The gift was accepted on 8 June 2010, although two members of the executive committee - it is not clear who - had their reservations noted.
In the agreement was a clause that neither the donor nor the university should publicise the donation, with the exception of BAT being mentioned on a list of donors online. However, this online list was removed from Durham’s website some time around October 2010 once a new fundraising campaign was launched.
Personal conflicts of interest cited
The controversy was only just beginning. The gift’s acceptance triggered concern in Durham’s highest decision-making body, the governing council. In its meeting on 6 July 2010, the first after the university had accepted the BAT money, Ms Galbraith, in “light of concerns expressed to her by members”, assured them that “due process had been followed”.
She said the issues at stake would be hammered out at a council awayday in September, when Durham’s values statement would be discussed. One member objected to her proposed “way forward”.
A Durham spokesman told THE that the acceptance had been made “in compliance with the university council’s policies and processes”.
The council discussed the ethics of gift acceptance in two further meetings before the student newspaper Palatinate revealed the existence of the BAT gift in May 2011.
The council then focused on a new area of concern: conflicts of interest. This was the first item on its agenda in its meeting on 5 July 2011, a part of the minute that was closed for reasons of “personal confidentiality”.
At the same meeting, Ms Fowler - who was the council’s secretary, in addition to being registrar - is for the first time listed as having a conflict of interest “for business relating to DARO [the Development and Alumni Relations Office]” because of a “personal relationship”.
She was in a relationship with the director of DARO, Tim McInnis, a supporter of, and the final signatory on, the BAT gift.
According to Mr McInnis’ Facebook profile, he and Ms Fowler had come out as an item online just over a week after the council first discussed the BAT gift on 6 July 2010. (They would go on to marry in the spring of 2012.)
Ms Fowler did not respond to a direct approach from THE for a comment.
New job for BAT gift supporter
In the autumn of 2011, Mr McInnis moved to a new job. He was made director of the newly established Office of Principal Gifts, where he was to work “with the vice-chancellor and other university champions to secure individual gifts of at least £1 million”.
The struggle at the top of Durham claimed its most senior scalp that autumn when John Cuthbert, vice-chairman of the council and former managing director of Northumbrian Water, resigned.
Having discussed the “issues and concerns” his resignation letter contained, the council decided in November to investigate further several issues at the heart of the dispute over the BAT donation: the management of conflicts of interest, the relationship between the roles of registrar and secretary to the council, and the relationship between the council and the executive committee.
Then, in May this year, Ms Fowler went on “special leave”, and departed from her position at the end of June. Durham still refuses to say why Ms Fowler left, but insiders at the university say they do not believe that the “Miss Piggy” blog post was the real cause of her departure, although it is still not clear what was.
It is understood that the council now feels it is more capable of dealing with the ethical dilemmas and conflicts of interest that have come out of the BAT Pandora’s box.
A new gifts policy was approved by the council in January. It stipulates that development staff must flag up any donations from firms involved in “caution topics” such as “arms manufacture, tobacco, alcohol, gambling, [or] pornography” to the treasurer.
In July, the council agreed updated guidance on “conflict of interest and personal relationships at work”.
However, members of faculty at Durham do not appear satisfied that the university’s management is listening. A leaked staff survey for 2011-12, conducted by Capita, the business-process outsourcer, found that employees felt less able to “voice opinions” or “raise points of concern” than in 2007.
“As an organisation we do not…appear…to be engaging our staff and to be embracing change,” it says.
‘Saddened’ by speculation
The university faced further criticism in late September by accepting £2.5 million from Sheikh Nasser Al-Mohammed Al-Sabah, the prime minister of Kuwait, who resigned from government last year following unproven allegations of corruption.
In response to THE’s inquiries, the spokesman for Durham acknowledged that the BAT donation was “extensively debated within the university prior to its acceptance and there was not unanimous support for doing so”.
The university was “extremely grateful for the financial and other support for its students, education, intercultural activities and research from hundreds of benefactors from around the world”, the spokesman said, adding that it was “saddened” that gifts had been subject to “inaccurate speculation and innuendo”.