A recent investigation at Imperial College has revealed an endemic culture of bullying against staff and students, fomented by university bosses. To end this toxic environment, we must fight against marketisation and for democratic control.
A damning report into allegations of bullying at Imperial College London (ICL) has exposed the vicious attacks on staff and students by university president Alice Gast and former-chief financial officer (CFO) Muir Sanderson.
In the midst of the UCU strikes, workers at ICL – organised in UCU, Unite, and Unison – are going on the offensive against the university bosses.
Last month, on 11 February, over 800 staff members attended an online open meeting called jointly by the Imperial College branches of the three unions.
93% voted in favour of a motion calling for the resignation of Gast and Sanderson. This vote reiterates a vote of no confidence passed in January 2021, alongside calling for a “new governance structure”, with increased staff participation and transparency in decision-making.
The meeting was called after the publication of a redacted report into allegations of bullying at ICL. Gast and Sanderson were found responsible for bullying staff and contributing towards a wider culture of intimidation and harassment at the college.
The report found that Gast – the UK’s highest paid university chief, on £554,000 a year – and Sanderson have fomented a toxic atmosphere of favouritism and exclusion.
Evidence of racism and misogyny has also been brought to light by the report. No wonder, then, that Gast had attempted to block its publication after a freedom of information request, dismissing the findings as “relatively minor”, when they are clearly far from it.
Sanderson’s behaviour towards one victim is described as “aggressive and intimidating”, including sexist comments such as “watch your tone, young lady”.
He has also used the shockingly racist expression “leaving the plantation”, and has dismissed complaints against the use of the phrase “one-armed black lesbian” by another senior member of management as a “joke”.
Sanderson was also described as effectively having unchecked powers within the college, playing the role of de facto chief operating officer, in addition to his role as CFO.
And not before time. This wouldn’t have happened without the work of the Joint Trade Unions at Imperial @ImperialUnison @unitetheunion, plus @icunion along with the combined contributions of staff and students.
— Imperial College UCU (@ImperialUCU) February 23, 2022
Product of profit
Bullying is pernicious at Imperial. And it is not uncommon to hear anecdotes attesting to this from both students and staff.
Speaking to UCU members and students on recent picket lines, it is clear that this report merely reveals the tip of the iceberg when it comes to bullying at the university.
The most harrowing incident of all dates back to 2014. Stefan Grimm, a professor of toxicology in the Department of Medicine, was bullied to the point of suicide by his head of department, because he was struggling to bring in £200,000 a year in research funding.
This pernicious and poisonous environment is a consequence of how Imperial College is run: as a business for profit.
In order to generate profits, university bosses and management must bully and harass lecturers and other university staff into working longer hours, taking cuts to pay and pensions, and accepting attacks on their working conditions.
Workers at ICL are taking a militant stance against these attacks. Imperial College UCU members have voted to extend the existing mandate for industrial action.
Speaking to those on strike, however, there is clear frustration with the strategy of the union leadership.
Like in Sheffield and elsewhere, there exists the mood for escalating the struggle to indefinite strike action.
UCU Marxists – supporters of Socialist Appeal inside the union – believe that this is the correct and necessary strategy. Workers need a rapid and effective escalation to indefinite action to win this dispute.
The joint meeting between the UCU, Unite, and Unison at ICL is a significant step forward, showing the huge potential for coordinated strike action on campus.
This would allow staff to go on the offensive against a university management that is in retreat, providing a powerful opportunity to win workers’ demands.
At a local level, militancy is paying off. On the final day of the last round of UCU strikes at Imperial, we were greeted with the welcome news that Sanderson had resigned from his role as CFO.
We say: good riddance! Now Gast, the whole rotten ‘governance structure’, and the marketisation that is killing education must be booted out too! But how?
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Imperial College management have known of the findings in the bullying report since late 2020. Yet they have consistently chosen not to remove Gast and Sanderson, and have instead allowed these well-paid sexist and racist bullies to remain in place.
Clearly, management cannot be trusted to act in the interests of staff and students.
A new ‘governance structure’ cannot, therefore, merely mean a reshuffling of the existing management, the appointment of yet another set of bureaucrats, and tokenistic opportunities for participation by workers.
Rather, it must be based on the democratic management and control of the college by workers and students – including the immediate right to recall elected officials.
Only then can the bullying culture be stamped out, and education be defended against university bosses and Tory attacks.
Above all, we need to fight for free education, funded by expropriation. This is the only way to transform universities into genuinely public institutions, free from the pressures of capitalist competition and private profit.
The marketisation of education and the attacks on workers and students reflect the wider crisis of capitalism. The democratic management and control of universities, therefore, must be part of a democratic plan for the whole economy, in the interests of the working class.
The fight to defend education is ultimately the fight for socialism. Join us in this task!
Socialist Appeal activists will be proposing the following motion at the next Imperial College union council meeting:
The union notes that Imperial College president Alice Gast and former-CFO Muir Sanderson have been identified in a report as directly contributing to an endemic bullying culture.
The union believes that this culture of discrimination and intimidation is the result of influence from big business in education, and its need to carry out cuts to increase productivity in pursuit of profits.
Instead of defending university staff, university management has spent more time attacking workers and students, with an endemic bullying culture, and attacking teaching and learning conditions.
For all these reasons, the union declares that it has no confidence in president Alice Gast. We call on her to stand down immediately, and for a new university management to be democratically-elected by workers and students, which will defend the university against pernicious marketisation.