Imperial bullying report: independent lawyer finds culture of ‘exclusion’

The report found a culture “which involves and tolerates favouritism, exclusion, the making of disparaging comments about others and at times a lack of respect for others”.

The partial publication of an independent review of bullying allegations at Imperial College has revealed that two of the university’s senior leaders permitted favouritism, exclusion and a lack of respect in the university. 

Imperial president Prof Alice Gast apologised last year after the independent investigation but remains in post and sought to stop the report’s publication, claiming it covered “relatively minor” incidents.

Prof Gast, reportedly the highest-paid university chief in the UK, was found to have bullied a staff member by an independent lawyer brought in to investigate the allegations .  

Imperial’s chief financial officer, Muir Sanderson, was also found to have bullied a member of staff and “created or contributed to a culture where aggression and… inappropriate and offensive comments is tolerated”. 

The review found both Gast and Sanderson “have created or contributed to a culture which involves and tolerates favouritism, exclusion, the making of disparaging comments about others and at times a lack of respect for others”.  

Jane McNeill QC, a distinguished employment lawyer of more than four decades, conducted the review, speaking to 51 people at the university. Some witnesses told McNeill they feared retaliation for talking to her. 

After the investigation, Gast and Sanderson issued public apologies, and the university published McNeill’s recommendations, promising to implement them. The chair of the college council, John Allan, emailed staff to inform them that: “Following this process, I am more confident than ever that Imperial has the right leadership.” 

But some, including the University and College Union (UCU) branch at Imperial, felt it was wrong for the university to withhold most of the report. Imperial refused a freedom of information, claiming it was more important to protect the privacy of those involved: the case was referred to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). 

ICO chief John Edwards deemed it necessary to redact most of the report to protect the privacy of those that made the allegations and those witnesses that came forward. 

But the ICO said Imperial must release sections of the report containing “less specific summaries of events” and “more general observations about management, leadership and organisational culture at the college”. 

Citing the strong public interest in the events at Imperial, the ICO ruled that “staff and students may wish to understand why, despite the proven allegations, the council still has such confidence [in Gast and Sanderson]“. 

Gast receives £554,000 a year in pay and benefits as Imperial’s president. Although Gast has announced that she will step down from the role shortly, she and Sanderson remain in their posts.

It was personally devastating for me to find that my behaviour fell short of both the College’s and my own expectations and that it had affected a colleague in this way. I repeat my sincere apologies
– Prof Alice Gast, Imperial president

McNeill found that Gast “undermined…both personally and professionally” a member of Imperial staff. She concluded that Gast acted “in a way which is belittling and undermining” in the case of the staff member, which led them to “suffer from lack of sleep and weight loss”. The report concluded that her treatment of some others did not amount to bullying.

Regarding Sanderson, McNeill found: “His behaviour towards [X] was aggressive, insulting, disparaging and excluding.” McNeill said Sanderson “uses language and exhibits behaviours from time to time which is, in relation to [Sanderson], abhorrent in a modern workplace” and which permitted a culture of exclusion. 

McNeill included in her report an allegation of this “abhorrent” language. “MS made a derisive comment… and used the expression ‘[leaving] the plantation’,” McNeill reported. 

The independent lawyer continued: “It is troubling in this day and age that one of the most senior employees at an institution like Imperial College should think that a comment made by a senior employee referring to a “one-armed black lesbian” should be treated as a joke and that comments relating to disability should have been approached in the manner that they were by MS [Muir Sanderson] during investigation of the matter.”

“At the most senior level of the College, there is a culture of making disparaging comments about others who are absent and tolerating the making of such comments by others,” McNeill observed. “In relation to both AG [Alice Gast] and MS [Muir Sanderson], several witnesses described a culture of favouritism: you are ‘in or out’; ‘the favourite child’; ‘a hero or zero’; or in the ‘in-gang or out gang’.”

Sanderson and his team were accused of “alpha male” behaviour at work by witnesses. Although evidence was “insufficient” to conclude there was “a sexist culture”, McNeill warned her report “should alert the chair of Council to a risk of a complaint of sex discrimination arising from similar comments or behaviours”. 

The report has renewed calls from local trade union representatives for Gast and Sanderson “to be held properly to account”. 

UCU London regional official Barry Jones said: “It is shameful that president Alice Gast and CFO Muir Sanderson still remain in post after being found to have bullied staff and treated them with such disrespect. UCU members report an endemic culture of bullying at Imperial, a culture which hits marginalised staff the hardest.

“This makes it all the more shameful that Prof Gast not only keeps her job, but continues to take home over £500,000 per year. Sadly, this systematic disregard of the dignity and wellbeing of staff by management is all too familiar across the university sector. 

The first step towards redressing this culture of discrimination and intimidation is for senior management to be held properly to account.”

The Office for Students is conducting an investigation into the allegations.

In an email to Imperial staff, Gast said on Thursday: “It was personally devastating for me to find that my behaviour fell short of both the College’s and my own expectations and that it had affected a colleague in this way.”

“I repeat my sincere apologies. I pledged to use the experience as a catalyst for positive change for both me and Imperial. In the two years since these events took place, I have worked hard to ensure that my colleagues feel fully supported as we all contribute to improvements in the College culture.”

Sanderson said: “The report makes as uncomfortable reading now as it did in 2020. I have apologised for my actions and I remain sorry. I cooperated fully with the investigation and accepted the disciplinary sanctions applied.”

Read more: Imperial must publish further extracts of bullying report – ICO

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