The Information Commissioner’s Office has made a ruling in a freedom of information (FOI) dispute over Imperial College’s refusal to publish a report on allegations of bullying by two senior leaders.
The ruling means the university must now make public some parts of the report that have, hitherto, remained undisclosed.
In 2020, Imperial’s governing council asked independent barrister Jane McNeill QC to investigate allegations of bullying levelled at the university president, Prof Alice Gast, and its chief financial officer, Muir Sanderson.
Once McNeill finished the investigation, Gast and Sanderson issued public apologies, and Imperial published and promised to implement the report’s recommendations. The chair of the college council 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 branch at the university, felt it was wrong for Imperial to withhold much of the report’s details. After Imperial rebuffed an FOI request for the report’s publication, the case was referred to the ICO.
After investigating the case brought by an anonymous complainant, the ICO has ruled Imperial must now publish some parts of the report.
The information commissioner, John Edwards, deemed it necessary for “large parts of the report (particularly those sections that set out the events that took place)” to remain redacted to protect the privacy of those that made the allegations and those witnesses that came forward. After redaction, these sections of the report would “be rendered either unintelligible or, worse, misleading,” he concluded, and therefore should not be disclosed at all.
“However, other sections of the report contain less specific summaries of events, require only minimal redactions to remove the identifiable data of witnesses and would therefore remain intelligible,” the commissioner said. It is these sections that Imperial has been told to release.
Imperial College has 35 days from the day of the ICO FOI decision notice, dated 19 January, to comply. It has 28 days in which to appeal the decision.
‘Strong public interest’ outweighs personal privacy concerns, says report
The parts of the report ordered for release include “more general observations about management, leadership and organisational culture at the college”. In publishing sections of the report identified by the ICO for disclosure, the FOI request “would add significantly to the public’s understanding of events”, the commissioner said.
The commissioner concluded that Gast and Sanderson could not expect their right to privacy in the case to outweigh the “strong public interest in understanding a situation where these individuals not just fell short of the expected standards but fell considerably short”.
“Whilst the report may not deal with their public-facing duties, providing leadership and managing colleagues is a key aspect of their influential and well-remunerated roles,” the commissioner added. 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.
The commissioner considers that there is a stronger than usual public interest in disclosing more of the report so that staff and students at the college can decide for themselves
– Information Commissioner’s Office report
The ICO report said: “The college has made strong statements in support of its senior leaders. That is a judgement call for the college to make, but given the published findings of the report and the college’s published policies, the commissioner considers that there is a stronger than usual public interest in disclosing more of the report so that staff and students at the college can decide for themselves.”
The ICO added: “Given the strong statement by the council chair, the commissioner also considers that staff and students may wish to understand why, despite the proven allegations, the council still has such confidence. The commissioner is thus not satisfied that this legitimate interest can be met by less intrusive means and therefore disclosure is necessary.”
Gast had appealed to the ICO in a recent private letter, which the commissioner referred to in his ruling.
Regarding Gast’s letter, the commissioner said: “Prof Gast noted that the report’s recommendations had been published and that she had made a public apology. Further disclosure would ‘not add any insights’ to the situation. She noted that female leaders accused of bullying were treated less generously than male leaders and drew parallels between her own case and that of Professor Kathleen Stock.”
The summary of her letter continued: “Prof Gast argued that there were ‘few, relatively minor, findings against me’ and that she had ‘serious concerns’ about the accuracy of some of the report. She had felt that, as the report was not to be published, it was better to accept the findings and move on. She emphasised the assurances that she had been provided with – as well as the general expectation that such processes were confidential.”
But the commissioner was not swayed by this private plea, explaining that he “does not accept Prof Gast’s characterisation of the proven allegation as ‘relatively minor’.”
Gast’s comparison to the case of Prof Stock, who was forced to resign from the University of Sussex last year following a campaign against her views on gender and sex “was not an apposite one”, the commissioner concluded. “That case involves balancing the right of academics to speak freely with the harm that offensive speech might cause,” he said, adding that the seniority of Gast and Sanderson “means that they should expect to be subject to a much greater degree of scrutiny, accountability and transparency”.
Acknowledging the FOI decision notice on its website, Imperial said: “Our responsibilities may lead the college to appeal part of this decision, but the issues surrounding this are complex and may take some time to resolve.”
“We recognise our community’s interest and concern regarding these issues and we will update further as soon as we can,” the statement from Imperial added.