Sir Chris Llewellyn Smith has quit as provost of University College London after council members received a letter from senior staff expressing no confidence in him. The council had earlier delayed his proposed budget.
An emergency meeting of council was held last week after its chairman, Lord Young of Graffham, received the letter from 30 heads of department and other senior staff, many of them eminent scientists. During that meeting, Sir Chris, 59, resigned as provost.
His decision was received "with regret" by the council. His predecessor, Sir Derek Roberts, is returning from retirement to be caretaker while a new provost is found.
Sir Chris's departure is being blamed by insiders on the college's financial problems and changes he made to senior management.
Staff cuts are being considered after Sir Chris asked all departments to make cuts of 10 per cent to deal with UCL's forecast deficit of £8 million this year. In 1998 it had a £12 million surplus.
The college also failed to do as well as it had hoped in last year's research assessment exercise. Despite improved results, its funding council grant will rise only 1.2 per cent in real terms.
Earlier this year, UCL embarked on a recovery plan that involved overhauling faculties and management and that caused widespread staff unease. Transferring computer science, medical physics and bioengineering to the faculty of engineering sciences did not go down well. Neither did the promotion of Richard Frackowiak to vice-provost.
Professor Frackowiak has radical plans for reshaping medicine and the life sciences, which staff contend involve concentrating on research.
Tamsin Piper, union assistant secretary of UCL Amicus, said: "We are not entirely surprised by the 'resignation' of the provost. There has been a general feeling of disappointment among staff regarding his performance, and a growing lack of confidence in his ability to lead UCL through the difficult times ahead.
"However, we view the appointment of Sir Derek Roberts with caution, as many of the problems which beset Sir Chris were the result of policies and programmes instituted by Sir Derek."
Tom Silverlock, branch secretary for UCL Unison, said: "This in no way affects the current financial situation. Whether the provost was in post or not we would still have to deal with the current deficit."
Sir Chris, who joined UCL in April 1999, had made no secret of his desire to move on. He will return to the physics department at the University of Oxford. Before his resignation, Sir Chris had been tipped to become Oxford's next vice-chancellor .
Sir Derek will work three days a week. He said: "I am not planning to implement other people's plans. We have had problems like this before but we didn't have any redundancies. That's not to say that there won't be any but that we are looking at the alternatives."