Ben Pimlott: Professor under fire

Is Ben Pimlott, the boss of Goldsmiths College, being autocratic, as lecturers claim, or is he simply driving through necessary reform, asks Lucy Hodges

Thursday 04 July 2002 00:00
Comments

When Ben Pimlott was put in charge of Goldsmiths College there was amazement all round. Yes, he was a superb historian with a high profile, but he had never run anything in his life apart from being rotating head of department at his former college, Birkbeck. Would this sensitive and patrician intellectual hack it in the gritty streets of New Cross?

Four years on, the answer seems to be yes and no. Professor Pimlott, who is better known as the Queen's biographer, is warden of a college that is expanding and emerging from debt. So far, so good. Student numbers are fine, research ratings have improved and the money is flowing in. The downside is that he has lost the support of sizeable numbers of staff belonging to the Association of University Teachers (AUT). Last month, the union passed a motion of no-confidence in him at precisely the moment that the college's governors were deciding whether to renew his term of office. (They were meeting as we went to press.) The voting in the motion was 82 votes to 73. Professor Pimlott had failed to engage in meaningful consultation, ignored staff concerns and managed autocratically, the AUT motion said.

"Trust, judgement and ethical responsibility are aspects of leadership that inspire confidence," it went on. "When they are absent there is a prima-facie case for no confidence. Goldsmiths no longer has confid- ence in Professor Pimlott."

The college may have a more radical AUT branch than most, but such votes are relatively rare in university life. Asked to comment, Pimlott says he is sorry that so far he has not taken a section of the college with him. "We have bold intentions, and we shall be sticking to them," he adds. His supporter and old school friend, James Curran, professor of communications at the college, says he is perplexed by the criticism. "Ben is not at all autocratic," he says. "He is formal, polite and could be considered a person of substance rather than style. He's been vigorously pursuing a research-oriented agenda to build up postgraduate numbers – and he has succeeded. When you push ahead it ruffles feathers. It is impossible to make major progress without upsetting a few people. I think that's what's happened here."

Who is right? The experts say that Goldsmiths is a difficult place to manage. A former teacher-training college in a decaying corner of south-east London, it didn't become a full college of London University until 1988. Ever since it has been trying desperately to catch up with the other London colleges. In the last two decades it has undergone enormous change on tight budgets. Its buildings are a rabbit warren of the old and new with a sprinkling of temporary cabins. One of its problems is its subject mix. Like the London School of Economics, it has no science, technology or medicine, the subjects that bring in the big research money. And, unlike the LSE, it has relatively few postgraduates and overseas students. Professor Pimlott hopes to change that.

Its visual arts department gives it its greatest lustre because it spawned a number of prominent Brit Artists, notably Damien Hirst (he of the sheep in formaldehyde) and Sam Taylor Wood, whose work is showing at the Hayward Gallery. But artists are not the easiest colleagues. Its education department, once Goldsmiths College's raison d'être, feels neglected. Perhaps that explains why the discontent is said to be concentrated in visual arts and in education.

In addition, Goldsmiths has some solid social sciences and some indifferent humanities – English, modern languages and history. Professor Pimlott's plans for expansion include a new arts building for which he has already raised £2m and which is to be designed by Will Alsop. It will contain a trendy new centre for cognition, computation and culture, doing research into the new media and bringing together academics from various departments. Funding of £1.3m will come from the Higher Education Funding Council.

The AUT has expressed some anxiety about the new emphasis on research. But they have been particularly concerned about the warden's plans to centralise the administration which, they say, will concentrate power in his hands and those of two senior officers. The college denies this. Academics contacted by The Independent expressed some sympathy with the AUT's criticisms of the warden but Tim O'Shea, Birkbeck's principal, said the college was doing well under his leadership. "I think it's unfair that he's being given a hard time," he says.

Meanwhile, the AUT issued an olive branch. It looked forward to establishing a constructive dialogue with the college's management, it said. "To this end we are meeting with the warden and the senior management soon to resolve the issues that have so concerned our members." Perhaps the union feels it has got what it wants.

l.hodges@independent.co.uk

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in