Imperial no-confidence vote over ‘endemic culture of bullying’

Staff at ICL are calling for a new governance structure after overwhelmingly passing a no confidence motion in the university’s president and CFO

Discontent at Imperial College London (ICL) shows no sign of abating, with staff restating a vote of no confidence in president, Alice Gast, and chief financial officer, Muir Sanderson.

Ninety-three per cent of the 822 staff attending an extraordinary open meeting on 11 February voted to back the motion, which also called for a review of ICL’s governance structure.

The online meeting followed the partial publication of an independent review of bullying allegations at the university, which found that 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”.

Gast apologised last year following the independent investigation, apparently unaware until reading its findings of just what had taken place: “It was personally devastating for me to find that my behaviour fell short of both the college’s and my own expectations.”

Nevertheless, she sought to halt the report’s publication, arguing that there were “few, relatively minor, findings against me”.

We need to see a root and branch review followed by a complete overhaul of ICL’s governance structure – Amanda Sackur, UCU

Last month, the Information Commissioner’s Office ruled that, while large parts of the report should be redacted to protect the privacy of those who had made the allegations and witnesses that came forward, Gast and Sanderson should not expect the same privilege.

Any right to privacy, concluded the commissioner, was outweighed by 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.”

Gast is Britain’s highest paid university chief, receiving £554,000 a year in pay and benefits.

As well as expressing no confidence in Gast and Sanderson, ICL staff’s motion also said: “This meeting does not have confidence in a governance structure that led to the stifling of this report rather than recognising the failures of leadership and acting to protect staff at Imperial from bullying.”

It went on to demand that Imperial should conduct a thorough review of governance in consultation with staff and students by August 2022.

It was personally devastating for me to find that my behaviour fell short of both the college’s and my own expectations – Alice Gast, ICL

That is the month Gast is currently due to step down as president, to be succeeded by Prof Hugh Brady.

As well as the issues detailed by the report, Gast has also faced criticism over her position on the board of Chevron, with many unhappy at an apparent dissonance between the fossil fuel policies of the company and ICL’s scientific mission.

“Staff at Imperial College London are calling for fundamental change, which needs to start at the top,” said University and College Union regional support official Amanda Sackur, after the meeting. “The endemic culture of bullying at Imperial has been an open secret for far too long. Yet Professor Gast and Mr Sanderson remain in post.

“We need to see a root and branch review followed by a complete overhaul of the governance structure. Only then will the college be able to redress its culture of discrimination and intimidation.”

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