Wendy Purcell returns to Plymouth University but not as chief executive

David Coslett to run university as vice-chancellor takes on ‘strategic portfolio’

November 10, 2014

Source: British Council

Wendy Purcell has returned to Plymouth University as vice-chancellor, but will not be running the institution.

The university said in a statement that Professor Purcell would return today, in what appears to be a compromise solution that avoids dismissing her but stops short of a return to her former role.

Plymouth said that “her strategic portfolio will focus on external and sector relations, and the university’s wider enterprise agenda”.

Meanwhile, David Coslett, the deputy vice-chancellor who has led the university in her absence, “is confirmed as the university’s interim chief executive and accountable officer and will have overall responsibility for the running of the university”.

Professor Purcell, who had a pay and pensions package of £330,000 in 2012-13, was suspended in July, although her status was later changed to paid leave. She was subsequently investigated by a special committee of the university’s governors.

The university has never disclosed the charges against her. But Times Higher Education understands that the case included a complaint by a senior member of staff about her management style and claims about allegedly excessive spending.

Professor Purcell was suspended by William Taylor, then chair of governors. Subsequent to her suspension, claims emerged in the media that Mr Taylor had sexually harassed female staff and students.

Mr Taylor, who denies the claims, stepped down from his role in September. He was replaced as chair by James Brent, an existing member of the governors.

If the university had dismissed Professor Purcell, it may have risked facing a tribunal claim from her on the grounds of sexual discrimination – which carries unlimited damages.

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

Her return may not be welcomed by all staff at Plymouth. As talks between her and the university reached a conclusion, Plymouth’s University and College Union branch announced that its members had backed a vote of no confidence against the vice-chancellor.

Mr Brent said: “The investigation has been brought to a close and the board is pleased that agreement has been reached on her return to work. Professor Purcell’s national profile and international standing as a scholar of high repute bring considerable benefits to the university’s mission to transform lives through education and research.

“We will be working together closely to support the delivery of the university’s ambitious strategy, which has enterprise at its heart, with the board and I availing ourselves of the full benefits of Professor Purcell’s sector knowledge and expertise – something for which she is recognised nationally, for example as expert advisor to the Witty Review of universities and business.”

Professor Coslett said: “This is the best outcome to allow us to conclude recent matters and I would like to thank everyone – staff, students and our partners – for their ongoing support and commitment over the past few months. Their focus and concentration on the core business of the university has never wavered.”

Professor Purcell said: “I am a proud alumnus of Plymouth University and proud to be the vice-chancellor who has taken us to be one among the top 50 most dynamic universities in the world.

“I am enthusiastic to be returning to the university that I love, working to support James in taking forward this remarkable institution. I have a lot of ideas for accelerating our progress and raising the university’s profile nationally and internationally.

“The past few months have been very difficult personally and professionally. But we’ve learned a lot about ourselves and that will make us stronger in the long-term. I am hugely grateful for the support shown to me. I now want to see Plymouth University emerge stronger as we look firmly to the future.”

john.morgan@tesglobal.com

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