Wendy Purcell hires discrimination lawyers as Plymouth University prepares final report

V-c hires law firm amid suggestions the case against her includes a complaint about her management style

October 16, 2014

Source: British Council

Wendy Purcell, Plymouth University’s vice-chancellor, has stepped up her legal battle to win her job back, with the case against her understood to include a complaint about her management style.

Professor Purcell is now being represented by a law firm, McAllister Olivarius, that specialises in discrimination claims and in representing senior executive women who believe they have faced unfair treatment at work.

If she is dismissed, it is thought that she may seek to bring a claim for sexual discrimination against the university. Discrimination claims, if proven at an employment tribunal, carry unlimited damages.

Professor Purcell – who was initially suspended three months ago but has since had her status changed to paid leave – made a six-hour appearance at the start of the month before the special committee of the board of governors that is investigating her.

Neither the university nor Professor Purcell has ever disclosed the charges against her. But Times Higher Education understands that the university’s case includes a complaint about her management style from a senior figure at the institution.

The university’s case is believed to also include claims about allegedly excessive spending. Professor Purcell denies the claims and issued a 150-page rebuttal of the university’s case at the special committee hearing.

The special committee, which has already made an interim report on the case, will now draw up a final report. That document will go to the university’s board of governors, which will make a final decision on what action to take on Professor Purcell – with options covering reinstatement, a negotiated financial settlement leading to her departure, or dismissal.

Retired judge William Taylor, the chair of governors who suspended Professor Purcell, stepped down from his role last month. He exited after claims emerged in the media that he sexually harassed female students and staff. The university has appointed Simon Cheetham, a barrister, to lead an inquiry into the claims against Mr Taylor, which he denies.

The sexual harassment claims, which emerged in the media subsequent to Professor Purcell’s suspension, would be likely to play a key role in any attempt by her legal team to argue that a discriminatory environment existed at the university.

Jef McAllister, managing partner at McAllister Olivarius, told THE that Professor Purcell had issued a “thorough rebuttal to the special committee’s charges”.

He described her as a “successful vice-chancellor” who is respected “amongst staff, students and the wider community”, who “loves Plymouth and wants to go back to work”.

Mr McAllister refused to discuss the nature of the charges laid against Professor Purcell by the university.

James Brent, who has served on Plymouth’s board of governors since July 2013, will take over as chair on 3 November. The university’s decision not to go for an external appointment and instead choose Mr Brent – a former investment banker who also chairs the Akkeron Group of hotel and retail companies, Plymouth Argyle Football Club and the Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Foundation Trust – is seen by some as lessening the chances of a return for Professor Purcell.

A spokesman for the university said its position remained that issues around the investigation into Professor Purcell were strictly confidential.

“We can, however, confirm that the board is working to resolve matters at the earliest opportunity,” he said.

john.morgan@tesglobal.com

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