Oxford college rebels over loss of Sir Stephen Tumim

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UNTIL now, the students of St Edmund Hall, Oxford have been famous for two things: outstanding success on the rugby pitch and a prodigious capacity to consume large quantities of beer.

Tonight, militancy will be added to the repertoire. At a hastily convened meeting of the Junior Common Room, many of the 350 undergraduates are expected to back a motion of no-confidence in the dons who run their ancient college.

The reason for this unprecedented show of anger is the resignation on Friday of the principal of St Edmund, Sir Stephen Tumim, the genial former Chief Inspector of Prisons, whose reformist zeal exasperated a succession of Conservative home secretaries.

Sir Stephen, 67, did not wish to leave; he was placed in an untenable position, say friends, by a cabal of hostile tutors and fellows. His departure, two years into a five-year contract, has cost poverty stricken St Edmund Hall dear - three years' salary amounting to a six-figure sum, according to some sources.

Students, emeritus fellows and alumni - known as Hallarians - are dismayed. Sir Stephen was a highly popular principal who immersed himself in college life, organising drinks parties, attending sporting fixtures and espousing the cause of undergraduates. He also raised the profile of a small and little-known college that languishes low in the table of examination results.

"He is an extremely nice man and an excellent figurehead," said John Houghton, president of the JCR. "His resignation is an absolute disaster for the college."

Senior administrators at St Edmund, known as Teddy Hall, have refused to comment on the row. John Dunbabin, vice-principal, declined to return calls on Friday. Other members of the governing body simply put the phone down.

But the college's medieval quadrangle is believed to have been buzzing for months with whispers of a conspiracy to oust the principal. "A lot of nasty things have been going on. It has been quite poisonous," said one insider.

Behind closed doors, at meetings of the Senior Common Room, academics vented their displeasure. Finally, a vote was taken. A majority supported a motion to ask the principal to leave.

Sir Stephen, who probably thought his days of political intrigue were over when he retired as prisons inspector in 1995, had suspected that something was brewing. For some time, he and his wife, Winifred, had felt isolated. They had not been on speaking terms for nearly a year with the bursar, Geoffrey Bourne-Taylor, an eccentric former detective inspector.

The principal was told of various complaints against him, say friends. One was that he did not chair meetings properly, another was that he had poor man management skills - a reference to the resignation of Nancy Giles, the college fundraiser and a close friend of Mr Bourne-Taylor.

But Teddy Hall veterans say his large and colourful personality placed him on a collision course with traditionalist dons and fellows from the start. "What you have to understand is how insular and inward-looking a place this is," said one.

"Sir Stephen was an outsider, which meant there was instant suspicion of him," he added. "He came in with new ideas and a new approach [when] they wanted someone who would devote all his time to the daily grind of college business. He went out and marketed the college and drew people in because he dared to do things differently, he has been hounded out."

Another said: "A lot of the disagreements were very petty. The stakes here are so small. There are endless committee meetings about things like the colour of new curtains for the accommodation block. The dons run the place like a private fiefdom. Sir Stephen came in and challenged the system. People didn't like that."

Sir Stephen, usually to be found wearing tweed suits and bow ties, took up his post in 1996, replacing the philosopher Justin Gosling. The college - alma mater of Sir Robin Day, General Sir Michael Rose and John Wells, the late Private Eye satirist - must have seemed a highly agreeable place in which to spend his post-retirement years.

Perhaps the arts lover and Oxford graduate (Worcester College) should have paused to recall how Wells looked back on Teddy Hall in later life. The place, Wells said, was "famously Philistine", full of rugby players and oarsmen, "a kind of aristocracy of beef".

Hallarians yesterday voiced their regrets at Sir Stephen's departure. "I am very sad," said Dudley Wood, president of the St Edmund Association. "We were always on very friendly terms."

Undergraduates, who called Sir Stephen "the people's principal", are furious about the way that he has been treated.

Cathy Cooper, a third year student, said: "Everyone admired and respected him. He would always stop and talk to people in the quad. It gave us a real kudos, having such a distinguished figure at the helm."

Sir Stephen himself yesterday issued a brief and diplomatic statement in which he said he would stay on until 1 August, the end of the academic year. Explaining his decision to resign he said: "Differences in opinion have emerged over the interpretation of the role of principal, which have proved impossible to reconcile."