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The death of a Principal

The University of Stirling gave me my first permanent job, it was where I did some of my best work (I can say that now looking back on it), and it was where my two children were born. I started as a lecturer and finished as a Reader. So there are many things for which I should thank that small university in Central Scotland. But not the end, the way it ended was not good.

I started at Stirling in August 1994, as it happens the same day as a new Principal – Andrew Miller. The Department of Biological and Molecular Sciences was small with fewer than twenty academic staff, this was the early nineties and higher education in the UK was coming out of a long period of austerity – prior to my arrival there had been just one appointment to the department in the last 17 years. Small departments always struggle and DBMS was no exception. The Research Assessment Exercises dictated a lot of behaviour in universities even then and directed a lot of funding, just as it does now. The submission of 1992 had been a bit of a disaster for DBMS, but incremental improvement was made in both 1996 and 2001. Despite the struggles of the department I personally did rather well through the 1990s, I had won a series of large grants and at the end of the decade was one of the top research grant winners of the university. In fact three members of DBMS were among the top five grant winners of the University of Stirling (the others being Peter Hudson and David Bryant). In 2001 Andrew Millar stepped down and was replaced by Colin Bell who had been at Bradford before the move north.

The department had worked hard on the 2001 RAE and actually we were all rather pleased to have finally broken out of the 3 category (which means that research was rated as being of predominantly national quality possibly with some international quality work) and had won a grading of 4 (research quality is almost entirely national quality with evidence of international quality) with our now 27 members of staff. This seemed like real progress and when the results were announced towards the end of 2001 we celebrated. What we should perhaps have considered is that despite this improvement we remained the lowest ranked biology department in Scotland.

Colin Bell was apparently not celebrating, he and his senior deputy, Christine Hallett, were set on a major restructuring focussed on the science departments, they planned a voluntary severance scheme and wanted to force rationalisation. Part of which was to be the merger of DBMS and the neighbouring department of environmental science. In our view this department was much weaker than ours, it was smaller and had done even less well in the RAE. But the restructuring put much of the power of the merger with the environmental scientists. This all kicked off at the start of the academic year 2002/3, there was a very generous voluntary severance scheme announced in which DBMS lost several of its older members of staff. One consequence of a long hiring freeze is inevitably going to be that a department has disproportionately large proportion of older staff. These people received huge financial rewards for retiring early and they were not to be replaced. The number of academic staff would just fall while the number of students to be taught stayed the same.

Peter Hudson and I decided that we would try to intervene in the process, which we both felt would simply consign the department to oblivion. The entire university was housed in one long building, the Cottrell Building, and we walked down the long corridor from one end where DBMS was located to the Principal’s office at the other end. This meeting did not go well, Colin Bell did not really seem to want to listen. At one point he said that if there was a problem with teaching loads then we could just hire some secondary school teachers to fill the gap. Chances were, he said, that their teaching skills would be better than ours anyway. Bell was not going to compromise, it seemed to us that he was going to get his way whatever the costs to everyone around him. We felt that this was the wrong way of going about things and that reinvestment was needed to allow the department to grow again, sure shed some people if you must but do not force everyone who remained behind to work so hard to teach the students that their productivity in research would plummet. We reminded him that three of us were in the top five research grant earners of the university, and that the department had just been told by the Natural Environment Research Council that it was in the top 20 grant holders for that particular agency. He was not interested in listening. We left and walked back down the building. Peter told me that he decided during that walk that he would leave, like all top scientists he was regularly contacted by headhunters and he could leave quite easily. He soon received an offer from the USA and went to Pennsylvania State University to join and later lead the Huck Institutes for Life Science. Peter was the most bankable of us all, but this set a pattern that many of us followed over the next few months.

The next move in this story was that unbeknown to the rest of us David Bryant had been interviewed and offered a position at the University of Exeter – to lead the development of the biology department on their new campus in Cornwall. This came to light only when just after Hogmanay I got a call one evening from David’s wife Vicki. She said that David would be ringing me from Heathrow the next day. This was a surprise because David was supposed to be teaching on a field course in Kenya at the time. But apparently he had gone to Kenya, returned to the UK after a few days, had the interview in Exeter and was heading back to Kenya. In the call he explained all of this and asked me to make a trip down to Cornwall to check out this new campus. There were four other ecologists at Stirling in those days – Tim, Steve, Mike and Ken, in addition to Peter, David and myself. Tim, Steve, Mike and I hired a car and drove all the way down from Stirling to Falmouth to check out this new campus. We arrived in the pouring rain and briefly looked at the building site, some security guards looked at us rather dubiously from behind the doors of one of the old buildings. We managed to get rather more information when we met the head of the biology department in Exeter the next day. Only I was to end up on this campus, which ended up dominating the next eight years of my life – but that is another story.

After David got back from Kenya we all met up and discussed our options. Broadly speaking we thought that Exeter’s Cornwall campus was a good opportunity and encouraged David to accept the position there. A few months later I was interviewed for, and was offered a Readership on the campus and so that is how three of the top five grant earners of the University of Stirling left during 2002/3. Later Tim went to Aberdeen, Steve to Liverpool, Mike to Sheffield (and later to Cornwall) and Ken, a year later, went to Lancaster. Little would remain of the successful ecology group that had grown up in Stirling during the 1990s.

But this is racing ahead somewhat. As we were all considering these various options the university pushed ahead with its plans to restructure the science departments. Relationships between the staff and Colin Bell continued to deteriorate someone even placed a blow-up punch bag with Colin Bell’s face stuck to it in the coffee room. This came to a head one day in late April 2003. This was supposed to be the final phase of the restructuring plan and the new merged department was going to be announced. Unfortunately the meeting descended into chaos. I sat at the front just in front of the lectern at which Bell spoke. Bell was not a tall man, and he appeared from my perspective to struggle even to see over the top of the lectern. He quickly lost control of the meeting, various members of staff persisted in asking him how standards could be maintained with reduced staff numbers and the same student numbers. This made him very angry and I could see how he gripped the sides of the lectern so hard that his fingers had gone white. He shouted and his face went a dark red colour, with the veins standing out in his neck.

No leader should ever get so angry that s/he is not thinking straight. Once you have lost your temper you have inevitably lost the argument. He got back onto how he would simply employ secondary school teachers to teach biology and get rid of everyone. At this point I ripped a page out of my notebook and wrote ‘I resign’ on it, signed underneath and passed the page up to him. He read it, looked at me and stormed out of the room followed by David Hopkins the proposed new head of department. We could hear them walk down the corridor towards the executive corridor. There was a a loud thump and the sound of people panicking.

The meeting dispersed, we all went back to our offices and labs. The news the next morning was that Bell had suffered a massive heart attack as he walked back down the corridor. According to the reports in the local newspaper the heart attack had caused so much damage that he was probably dead before hitting the floor. Although David Hopkins tried CPR this had been pointless, but worthy.

This completely unexpected turn of events certainly meant that everyone was subdued. In June I received an offer to go to the University of Exeter’s Cornwall Campus as David Bryant’s deputy and in August I left Stirling for good. The restructuring of the science departments was continued by (in truth its main architect) Christine Hallett. Hallett took over as Principal and remained in that post until 2010. It might be worth noticing that Stirling made no submission to Biology in the RAE of 2008 the remaining biology staff were submitted with the environmental scientists under Environmental Science which scored 2.35 out of 5, with 20 staff submitted. And so the net result of the exercise was that it had diminished in both quality and size. I am sure that this was not the intended outcome, but a failure to listen to advice doomed it to this endpoint.

Colin Bell’s obituary in the Guardian