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Dropped from a ‘plane

In some ways I was the obvious person to be the University of Exeter’s Provost for the young campus at Tremough just outside Penryn in Cornwall. The Centre for Ecology and Conservation that I had led since its inception had been successful and I had become increasingly active in the running of the campus. However, maybe at 41 I could not claim to have sufficient breadth of experience to fill this role. However, Keith Atkinson had been brought out of retirement to be the first Provost and he wanted to resume his retirement. And so in the summer of 2007 Steve Smith – the Vice Chancellor of Exeter – asked me to take over the Provost role a bit more than a year after I had been promoted to Professor.

This was rather a tumultuous time for me personally, I had separated from my first wife in the spring of 2007 and the divorce proceedings had been deeply unpleasant, drawn out, and acrimonious (Brazilian women do not take easily to being spurned). The legal action came to a head in the first few months of 2009. Adeline and I had also started a relationship before the divorce was concluded, and we were finding our way to a life together while trying to minimise the problems for my two children.

The role of Provost of Exeter’s Tremough Campus was complicated because the campus was shared between the University of Exeter and (what was then) University College Falmouth – an art college. It will be fairly obvious that the aspirations of an art college and a research intensive comprehensive university were very different. It was also complex because the funding for the campus development came from the EU via a body called Combined Universities in Cornwall, which was a very uneasy alliance of the universities and colleges that had interests in Cornwall. These ranged from county-based FE colleges and University College Falmouth, to the Open University, and the Universities of Exeter and Plymouth. Through all these competing interests the Provost had to tiptoe. For maybe a year and a half I managed it. But then I supset the Vice Chancellor of University College Falmouth. At a meeting of all the members of CUC I voiced the opinion that the running of the Tremough Campus would be made more efficient if there was just a single institution on the campus. In itself this opinion is hardly controversial – it is self evident that it would be easier to run the campus with one not two competing organisations based upon it. What Alan Livingston was annoyed about was the inference that he made that to achieve this Exeter and Falmouth should merge (which would amount to Falmouth disappearing).

The Tremough Campus in about 2004. The main building in the centre is the Daphne du Maurier Building and housed most of Exeter’s departments at the time. The Peter Lanyon Building was to be built on the flat tarmac covered area at the top.

This one comment got me fired, but that was to take a little while. What I only found out later was that Alan had publicly laid into Steve Smith about my comment, and forced Steve to deny that Exeter had designs on swallowing up UCF. That Steve was cross with me after this altercation seems undeniable. But for me at least for a few days life continued as normal. My main duty at this time was to plan and raise the funds for the third phase of expansion of the Tremough Campus. This required detailed discussions with the Regional Development Agency which held the pause strings for the funds from the EU. These discussions had taken a long time but were bearing fruit. I had successfully brought in the funding for a big new lecture theatre, for a Moot Court in the Law Department and a tranche of PhD studentships for all partners in the Combined Universities in Cornwall. The last stage of this was to get the major funding that would deliver the Environment and Sustainability Institute. As ever with a big decision like this, there is never a single moment when you can say the decision was made but we overcame obstacle after obstacle and gradually it became clear that the money was going to be forthcoming and we would be able to form the institute. Things were looking up for the young campus.

While all of this was happening, the legal issues around my divorce were coming to a head. On 11th March there was a dreadful court hearing at Penzance Magistrates’ Court. The room my solicitor and I had been given was basically a cell with soot streaks up the walls where for some reason candles had been burnt. During the long hearing my wife’s solicitor produced a document that no-one had seen before from a child psychiatrist to whom she had take our young son. In this report (which had not been written for the court) it was claimed that the childcare arrangements that had been in place since the separation upset our son. This document was put in front of the court and then they pretty much had to reduce my access to the children. I was devastated about this change, I felt that I was losing my children and that the legal system was biased against the father in this disputes. It felt so very unfair.

On the 13th March Adeline was going to leave for Australia to meet up with the rest of her family for her mother’s 60th birthday celebrations. The evening of the 12th then we decided to go out to the Norway Inn for a meal and a great deal of commiseration. Meals out were very rare occasions in those days, but this seemed like an occasion that warranted it. The very bottom had fallen out of my life with the court judgement. Adeline left as planned on the 13th. That weekend I was scheduled to have the children with me, it was quite a difficult time as they felt responsible for the reduction in the time they were to spend with me.

David Allen was the University of Exeter’s Registrar and broadly speaking a decent enough guy, he pushed those around him very hard but he was always fair. On 16th March he came down to Cornwall and held a surprise meeting with senior figures on the campus, at which he announced that the governance arrangements for the Tremough Campus would be changing and that I had to go to Exeter the next day for a meeting at nine o’clock with Mark Overton. Mark was the person to whom I reported in my role as campus Provost, he was a historian and a fundamentally lazy, but ambitious, man. I had never fallen out with him but also did not get on well with him. To get to Exeter by nine meant that I needed to leave Penryn at six thirty, even on my motorbike the 100 mile journey could easily take more than two hours.

Mark was waiting for me in his office when I arrived. He opened by telling me how well I had done, how the campus was growing, that the phase two departments had been very happy with how they had been brought onto campus and finally that the phase three funding was extremely welcome and I had done a good job in winning it. He even said that he thought that I had good insight into the workings of higher education, sometimes with foresight that was possibly too good. This lasted about fifty minutes and I was beginning to wonder what all the fuss was about. But then he said that my comment to Alan Livingston had been out of line and that Steve had been embarrassed, and so the decision had been made to remove the role of campus Provost and from now on he would be running the Tremough Campus himself. He asked if I understood what he just said, I said that obviously I had understood. He went on to say that this would take effect immediately and that as soon as I stepped though his office door I would have nothing more to do with the Tremough Campus. I would go immediately on sabbatical and not set foot on campus. Anything that belonged to me on campus would be brought to my flat. I would be expected to send a letter of resignation by the end of the week.

I was devastated, I had basically been sacked from my job and everything that I had worked for over the last two years had been lost. The fact that I had been given an eighteen month sabbatical made no difference as I had lost so much rebuilding would be nearly impossible. I could do nothing but accept it. The fact that this came less than a week after the court’s decision to reduce my contact with my children made things much worse. I rang Adeline and told her what had happened. Only after speaking to her for while did I realise she was in a restaurant with her family at her mother’s birthday dinner when she was talking to me. After hearing what had happened she said she would come back immediately. I rode back to Cornwall I think that I was crying my eyes out most of the way back.

I was extremely upset and did not really know what to do. I talked to a few people, some trusted friends, and after a few days Adeline returned. That provided valuable company and someone to talk through what had happened. I talked to various colleagues but the message was consistently that I was on my own, they would not be helping me no matter how much sympathy they may be willing to express privately. This was the nature of the University of Exeter, under Steve Smith it had become not far short of a totalitarian regime. Steve was extremely thin-skinned and hated any criticism or even imagined criticism. He simultaneously wanted the university to change and improve. Early on he had some notable successes, but as time went on he became increasingly paranoid and developed means to keep tabs on everything that happened across the university. There were several examples of people who were well thought of who just vanished from their roles and were literally never heard of again. There was even a spectacular example of someone being driven to a nervous breakdown, from which it took her a decade to recover. These could be both academic and non-academic members of staff. I realised that this was happening to me. I received a few messages of support, one said ‘I do not know where you have gone, it is like you have been dropped out of a plane.’

The only way to move on from this was to take advantage of my sabbatical and try to rebuild a research career. This meant picking up the threads of research projects that I had dropped as I became head of the Centre for Ecology and Conservation on the new campus in 2003. The project that I wanted to pick up was on house sparrows in the Isles of Scilly, I had managed to set up some nest boxes there and I thought it might be interesting to take a look over there and see what was going on. Adeline and I decided to take a weekend break and go over to the Isles of Scilly, you had to take a second person for safety reasons – these nest boxes were up high in barns and a fall off a ladder could easily be fatal. It was also rather nice to take a trip away from the stresses at work with the new love of my life.

Tresco gardens in May 2009

This trip was quite successful, we found that the nest boxes had been occupied by a number of sparrows and there might be scope for a small project on this isolated population. I got back, and submitted an expenses form for the trip. I was worried about doing this, partly because it was early on in Adeline and my relationship, and my divorce was still underway. But mainly because I also had been told by Roger Kain (at that time a senior deputy vice-chancellor) that that on at least one previous occasion Steve’s executive group had discussed Adeline and my relationship, and whether they needed to do anything about it. I really did not want to be the subject of prurient gossip by senior management. For these reasons I was wary of including Adeline’s name on the expenses claim, and so made the claim for myself and an assistant. But I could not afford to bear the costs of the trip myself and so I put in a claim for the flight and accommodation into the electronic claims system.

A while later I received a summons to come up to the Tremough campus for a meeting with Mark and the head of HR Stephen Cooper. Any meeting that includes the head of HR is a worry of course, but I was already pretty bruised psychologically and I was very concerned. They were both waiting for me, in what used to be my office. Stephen said nothing, Mark simply pushed a piece of paper over towards me and said ‘did you submit this?’ It was a copy of my expenses claim form. I glanced at it and it looked like mine. ‘You went on a nice little holiday to the Isles of Scilly’ he said. I replied that it was not a holiday, but a trip to check out a possible research project. He said ‘we have checked and you took Adeline Johns-Putra with you, we rang the airline and the hotel and both of them said that she was with you.’ I tried to explain that I had taken her and that it was necessary to have two people for safety reasons. ‘Why did you not say so on the form?’ Mark asked. I said that that I did not think that it was necessary to do so, and that I wanted to keep the relationship private at least partly because I knew it had already been discussed by the senior management team in a prurient manner. I had nothing to look at but the form and I suddenly realised something, and I blurted out ‘but this is not the form I submitted, it has been changed.’ It had indeed been altered to look as if I was claiming for just one person not two. Mark blustered ‘how can it possibly have been changed?’ ‘I do not know I replied, but it has.’ Very luckily for me, Exeter had moved to an electronic expenses submission system that used email, and I knew that there would be a copy of the form as I had submitted it in the sent items folder of my email which was on my laptop, which was in my bag, right next to me. I opened it up, and there (thank my lucky stars) it was, and it showed that the form I submitted was different from the one that Mark had given me. Stephen then asked me to leave. I did with some relief.

I heard later that there had then been an argument between Mark and Stephen in which Mark had wanted to try and fire me. Stephen had told him that he could not as there was no evidence against me. Mark had apparently become very angry.

About a week later I took a phone call from Stephen Cooper in which he told me that the situation had been explained to Steve Smith and that all accusations had been withdrawn. He had the great decency to say that he was very pleased to hear it, he also said that he had carried down that day a resignation letter that had he expected to get me to sign after the conversation with him and Mark. He at least said that he was pleased that he did not have to get me to do so.

So I got paid the expenses and I tried to come to terms with the fact that one person had sacked me from my administrative role after telling me how great a job I had been doing in it, and then had accused me of expenses fraud using a document that had been altered from the one that I had submitted. I do not know how many people had sight of that document, rather few it seems to me.

Stephen Cooper stayed at Exeter for a while, and left in about 2012 or 2013.

Mark Overton sat on the senior management group of the University of Exeter as a Deputy Vice Chancellor for external affairs with responsibility for the Tremough Campus until July 2013, when he was moved into a lower role as Dean of the Faculty of Taught Programmes. He retired rather suddenly in 2016, simultaneously giving some other public roles. I have been told that this was not a choice, and that he had to go rather quickly in the end.