Origins of the present crisis: The strife of Bath

Over the summer, Professor Dame Glynis Breakwell, President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Bath has brought the university she leads to a hitherto unthinkable prominence. Her pay and perks, and the tin-eared response of the university to public concerns, have made Bath notorious for extravagance and gross inequity. Indeed, reporting on the story has made the Bath Chronicle the only local newspaper to be nominated for the Scoop of the Year Award. 

Like many such stories, however, this one goes back a long way, with a decade or more of mismanagement and poor governance to blame for the crisis in which the university now finds itself. Indeed, if the governing body had done its job properly, and not indulged the greed of the Vice-Chancellor, it might have been possible to save what she is pleased to call her soul. Can any of us say that we would behave any better if we spent our days surrounded by sycophants giving us hundreds of thousands of pounds a year, and telling us we’re worth every penny.

So, some highlights from the public record of the governance of the University of Bath. Today, how the University of Bath fired someone who had done nothing at all wrong on no grounds whatsoever and decided to back up the friend of the Vice-Chancellor who had done it, rather than the member of staff they had wronged.

“It contradicts almost every rule … about decision making in a quasi-judicial matter. “

In 2008, a gentleman called Robert McKie started work at the University of Bath, overseeing programmes in further education validated by the university. He had previously worked for eight years up to 2002 at Swindon College. Two weeks after he started work at Bath, he was fired in circumstances which led to harsh criticism of the university from a High Court judge in his judgement in the case which Rob McKie took against Swindon College, the origin of the lies about him which led to his dismissal. The judgement now forms part of case law, but what is relevant here is the response of the University of Bath.

Rob McKie was fired by a manager, Faith Butt, who was also a governor at Swindon College, after the Director of Human Resources at Swindon College made vague allegations of misconduct in Rob McKie’s time there, with mention of “safeguarding” concerns. The claim of such concerns and of disciplinary issues was a lie and was shown to be usch in the High Court. Rob McKie had done nothing wrong. The manager who fired him had a gross conflict of interest, as the judge noted:

33. Mr McKie made certain suggests as to how the problem might be dealt with in the short time. I should perhaps have added that at that meeting on 10 June, Mr McKie had clearly asked for further time to consider the position, get evidence to answer and deal with the various assertions that clearly were set out in the email. I now go to the paragraph at the bottom of page 8:

“MC [Michael Carley, the claimant’s union rep] stated he was surprised Swindon College had not substantiated their allegation and that they were
negligent in not dealing with the safeguarding issue referred to in the email RM [Mr McKie] asked if [Butt] and [Eales] wanted to know about the
nature of the issue…”

Mr Eales, no doubt cognisant of basic employment law, said the issue they were considering was Mr McKie’s inability to fulfil the duties of his post because Swindon College were refusing to allow him on the their site. But then this, which rather gives the lie to the assertion that it was the simple basic fact of his being banned from Swindon that was the sole motivator behind the dismissal:

“FB [Faith Butt] stated that as a Board Member of Swindon College she would not expect the College to make such serious statements … the College must be very serious about this matter for it to be put into writing.”

34. I pause there. The idea that she should have been part of a disciplinary process as it transpired on 10 June whilst being on the governing body of Swindon College, I find staggering. It contradicts almost every rule, as it seems to me, about decision making in a quasi-judicial matter. There is a conflict of interest. The informed observer could not but derive a feeling that here was bias in the most and obvious form to which a conflict of interest between, on the one hand acting fairly to the claimant in her capacity as an employee of Bath University, and on the other hand, her duties to Swindon College in the capacity of board member.

35. Be that as it may, he was summarily dismissed. I have indicated that, in my view,the proceedings were not fair. I am not going to repeat that. The decision was  not fair. The claimant was given no opportunity to consider his position. Again, an elementary rule of procedural fairness in connection with any sort of proceedings that, if an allegation is made against you, you should be given a reasonable period of time to deal with that allegation, which includes getting evidence.

So a High Court judge found the unfairness of the proceedings “staggering”.

The judgement was made in 2011. I raised the matter at the University of Bath’s Court, the stakeholder body which meets once a year. The response of management was to write in quite dishonest terms to members of Council, the governing body (not the body where the matter was raised),

It is unfortunate that a High Court Judge has decided to make statements in relation to the University’s employment practices in a case involving a Further Education College, particularly as the Judge did not have the benefit of all the evidence. The only general comment made by the Judge which may apply to a future case related to the letter inviting Mr McKie to the disciplinary meeting. A procedural change which is underway will ensure that there is no potential ambiguity in future letters.

As it happens, the judge did have a full set of paperwork for Bath’s treatment of Rob McKie (and if you want a look, just ask). The claim that the judge’s “only general comment” applicable to future cases “related to the letter” is an outright lie.

Since I was named in that letter, having raised the matter, I asked for a right of reply. The then Chair of the governing body refused it.

A manager at the University of Bath, with a gross conflict of interest, fired a member of staff who had done nothing wrong in circumstances leading to harsh criticism from a High Court judge, and the governing body did not care. No action has ever been taken against the people responsible, nor against those who misled the governing body about it. Both the current and previous Chairs of the governing body know about this case and took no action whatsoever.

Incidentally, the manager in question, Doctor Faith Butt, worked at the University of Surrey with Professor Breakwell, until Professor Breakwell took up the position of Vice-Chancellor at Bath. Doctor Butt moved to Bath to take up the post of Director of Lifelong Learning a few months later.

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