Imperial South Kensington campus in the snow

College is at a crossroads

Friday 11 December 2020 13:41
In light of multiple recent news stories about the bullying scandal, Imperial has an opportunity to decide what sort of institution it wants to be.

It’s been a tricky week for the Imperial name. The recently appointed leader of the Imperial College Healthcare trust has had to quit due to her role in an ongoing scandal at her previous place of employment, while the College itself has been wracked by news of bullying allegations being upheld against the College’s senior leaders.

To say that this affair has not been handled well would be an understatement. The correspondence we all received on Friday 4th begged many more questions than it answered. While the College did address some elements of our request for clarity, the student body remains in the dark about the findings and recommendations of this summer’s investigation. Apologies have been mentioned in the press, but as I write this, we’ve yet to hear from either the President or the CFO directly. Meanwhile, it has emerged that the victims of this affair seem to have suffered worse outcomes than the perpetrators.

Two issues are now key. The first is transparency.  The College is extremely reluctant to share either a redacted form of the investigation report, or a thorough list of the findings and recommendations therein. The risk of legal challenge and acting in accordance with regular process have been raised as reasons to withhold such information, but from our perspective much more sensitive information is regularly released in a redacted form, including documents which pertain to national security. At this stage even Robert Halfon, the Conservative MP who chairs the parliamentary committee overseeing education, is calling for such information to be disclosed. This form of transparency is a necessary condition for us to move past this as a community. Thus far, even I haven’t been given the information as a member of the university council.

The second key issue is the interpretation of the term ‘zero-tolerance’. The College says that “zero-tolerance means any complaints must not be ignored and will be thoroughly investigated.” However, as we stated in our response to the College’s reply to our email, we believe most students and staff would interpret ‘zero-tolerance’ as something more. To us, zero-tolerance implies severe consequences. At the most senior level, it is hard to imagine what this could entail other than removal from the organisation, and the College’s reluctance to share more detail makes imagining alternatives even more difficult.

I’ve heard students and staff describe this saga variously as disappointing, challenging, and outrage-inducing; few have seemed surprised. To me, one of the most striking things about this affair is that its exactly what most students and staff have come to expect of Imperial. This is incredibly disheartening. For all its strengths, Imperial’s current culture is a barrier to its ability to achieve its potential, rather than something which enables this. We study and work at an institution where senior leadership mistreating staff is so conceivable that most of us barely blinked this week. It’s taken for granted that the leaders of the College will do things which infuriate students and staff alike, but which they have no recourse to challenge or even discuss in advance. Leadership can sometimes necessitate difficult and unpopular decision-making, but the degree of antipathy most in the College seem to accord its senior-most leadership goes well beyond petty grumbling at tough decisions. This is unfortunate, not only because it means talented individuals in the College are left unable or unwilling to work to improve it, but also because it means when the College does get something right, it doesn’t get the credit it deserves.

Against this backdrop, Imperial’s response to these recent revelations represents a defining moment. The College has a chance to prove that it takes its own reputation more seriously than that of any individual, and that the culture of the institution matters even more than that. It can choose to share more with students and staff, to give us the confidence matters are being addressed properly and fairly, or it can remain guarded about this affair. It can take steps which would prove that the rules are the same for senior leaders and ordinary staff and students, or steps which would prove the opposite. It can demonstrate the practical changes it might take to restore trust, or leave these aspirations in writing only and allow Imperial’s culture to deteriorate further.

Those leaders in the College who are not tainted by this scandal have an incredibly difficult task ahead of them; I do not envy them. However, they also have a chance to improve this institution and demonstrate that they take these matters seriously. As someone who wants Imperial to be a better place, I sincerely hope they take it.