Imperial College has been accused of engaging in a cover-up over its refusal to publish the findings of a report on alleged bullying by its president.
Prof Alice Gast, whose role as head of one of Britain’s most prestigious universities earns her more than half a million pounds a year, has offered “wholehearted apologies” to those affected by allegations against her, which were investigated by a barrister commissioned to do so.
However, the trade union representing lecturers said the academic community at the London university was now beginning to ask if her position was tenable. The unease came as Imperial insisted it would not be releasing a report compiled after Jane McNeill QC investigated claims against Gast and at least one other high-ranking executive at Imperial.
Dozens of staff members gave evidence via Zoom over a number of days during the summer, when they are said to have complained of being belittled and accused of incompetence by Gast. Some are said to have been reduced to tears by the atmosphere that is alleged to have built up.
While the content of the report compiled by McNeill has not been made public, a disciplinary panel constituted by the university council has decided that her dismissal was not warranted.
Gast, a Texan with a background in engineering, earns £554,000 a year as Imperial’s president, a role that she has likened to being its “chief executive”. Its website says she has “ultimate responsibility for the college’s performance, reputation and success”.
Concern and anger among students and staff have been compounded, however, by an email sent last week by Imperial’s chair of council, John Allan, in which he referred to the report and concluded that the institution had “come out of that process stronger and better equipped to meet its mission”.
The email was described as patronising by the branch president of the UCU union at Imperial College, Dr Michael McGarvey, who told the Guardian that the atmosphere at the university had now been contaminated.
“We are supposedly one of the top universities in the country and the staff are more or less being told: ‘You are the little people and we can’t tell you what really happened.’ Then it ends on an almost celebratory note,” he added.
Referring to the fact that the allegations have also been raised in the House of Commons by a Labour MP, Alex Sobel, Dr McGarvey said they were obviously extremely serious and the report should be released to members of the college in a redacted form at least.
Sobel said: “I was surprised that in response to my question, that considering the seniority of the staff in the report, the council at Imperial didn’t put the report in the public domain. Imperial plays a crucial role in public life. Wouldn’t sunshine would be the best disinfectant?”
In his email last week, Allan said allegations had been made about senior colleagues’ conduct, including the president, in early summer and he had immediately commissioned an independent inquiry and report to be undertaken by a leading QC.
“She interviewed a number of staff, all of whom were given assurance – by me, on behalf of Imperial’s council – that they would experience no detriment as a result, and that their contributions would remain private. I am grateful to all those who contributed, which enabled a rigorous, thorough and independent investigation into these allegations,” he added.
Allan said that the report remained confidential to protect the identities of those who gave evidence and it had made several recommendations.
“Those recommendations have been accepted by the college and its senior leadership team and are being implemented in full,” he added.
A spokesperson for Imperial said: “The president has offered wholehearted apologies to those affected.”