Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, refuses to resign
High noon at high table: Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, refuses to resign in bitter dispute over claims he was a ‘little Hitler’ who complained about his £90,000 salary
- The charity watchdog is facing calls to help remove its dean, Martyn Percy
- The dean complained that his £90,900 salary was less than the position average
- The dean has also asked the Charity Commission to intervene in this dispute
All academic institutions like to think of themselves as a cut above. But there is probably no institution in Britain quite as grand as Christ Church, Oxford.
Founded by Henry VIII in 1546, it is one of the richest of Oxford University’s 39 colleges, with architecture designed by Sir Christopher Wren and an endowment approaching £600million.
Its 600 begowned students dash around its beautiful sandstone quadrangles, which exude an air of a quiet self-importance.
Among its alumni are 13 prime ministers, including William Gladstone and Anthony Eden, a Nobel prize-winner, six Olympic gold medallists, poet W.H. Auden and Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice In Wonderland.
Eighteen months ago, the Very Rev Prof Martyn Percy was suspended after being accused of ‘immoral, scandalous or disgraceful’ behaviour before being reinstated
Such is its rarefied atmosphere, the makers of the Harry Potter movies based Hogwarts’ dining hall on the college’s own.
Oh, and its patron (or ‘Visitor’) is the Queen. Its gilded serenity, however, has been rocked by scandal: a dispute that has threatened to tear the fabric of the college apart and with profound implications for the future of how the university — still ranked No1 in the world by the TES — is run.
Now the charity watchdog is facing calls to help remove its dean, who is embroiled in an extraordinary row with academics.
Eighteen months ago, the Very Rev Prof Martyn Percy was suspended after being accused of ‘immoral, scandalous or disgraceful’ behaviour before being reinstated.
The undignified dispute has included squabbles over Prof Percy’s request for a pay rise and attempts to change the college’s safeguarding rules.
This week, 41 of the 64 members of the governing body at Christ Church wrote to the Charity Commission urging it to insist that the dean should accept a settlement and leave — or be removed.
It all started in 2016, when Christ Church undergraduate Lavinia Woodward stabbed her then-boyfriend in an argument.
In response, Prof Percy changed the college’s safeguarding protocols — but his proposals met with resistance from academics.
In February this year, leaked emails revealed that Oxford dons had described Prof Percy (pictured) as a ‘little Hitler’ who was ‘nasty’ and had a ‘personality disorder’
The dean then complained that his £90,900 salary was less than the average earned by the heads of Oxford colleges.
He was suspended in November 2018, facing 27 charges of improper conduct — but these were rejected after an internal tribunal hearing by a High Court judge, Sir Andrew Smith, and he was reinstated last year.
In February this year, leaked emails revealed that Oxford dons had described Prof Percy as a ‘little Hitler’ who was ‘nasty’ and had a ‘personality disorder’.
One academic became so incensed that he joked: ‘[We] must get rid of him. Just think of the Inspector Morse episode we could make when his wrinkly, withered little body is found.’
The dean himself, having taken the college he still runs to an employment tribunal, has reportedly ‘nearly bankrupted himself’ with legal fees fighting his case.
Prof Percy’s biggest supporter is former Tory Cabinet minister, ex-jailbird and church minister Jonathan Aitken, a Christ Church graduate.
But the strength of opposition to him is shown by the letter from the members of the governing body to the Charity Commission’s chairman, Baroness Stowell.
They write: ‘It is our honest opinion that, since his reinstatement, Martyn Percy has breached his legal and fiduciary obligations and shown both unsound judgment and a consistent lack of moral compass.’
Many now wonder whether our finest institutions of higher education should be governed by brilliant academics or by professional administrators.
The dean’s detractors insist that the dispute originated in his attempts to secure a pay rise. But Percy’s supporters say the row is about far more than just his salary.
They point to what they say is a furious, often vitriolic, battle between the modernisers and the old guard, fuelled in this case by a large dollop of snobbery.
Like most students who pass through Christ Church’s gates nowadays, the dean hails from a perfectly normal background.
Percy, who started his job in 2014, is seen by some as a trendy vicar who has ruffled traditionalists’ feathers within the church by calling for female bishops (he is married to a female vicar), wading into the transgender debate (he’s a big advocate of trans rights) and holding liberal views on the sanctity of marriage — he has said some people have affairs ‘to keep their marriages together’.
Many Left-leaning academics would doubtless applaud his views. One senior don keen to see the back of him said: ‘It suits Percy to cast this row as one between liberal modernisers and the stuffy old guard, but that just isn’t the case.
‘Most dons are terribly Leftie and sympathetic to his views on Christianity.
‘They don’t like him because he has done a terrible job running the college. He has made being dean all about his own position and status and he has placed that well above the institution he is meant to be leading.’
Prof Percy’s supporters say it was his attempts to modernise the governance of the college which enraged the so-called ‘censors’, academics who run key aspects of the college. In a series of leaked emails, it emerged that many of the censors took a personal dislike to Prof Percy.
For their part, the censors felt that job descriptions were unnecessary and that adequate safeguarding protections and policies were already in place.
In one vitriolic email, Emeritus Professor David Hine claimed the dean was ‘nasty and stupid…he’s got to go’. In another ill-judged missive to colleagues from late 2017, Hine wrote: ‘I’m always ready to think the worst of him… we need a reset.
Does anyone know any good poisoners?’ College fellow Karl Sternberg wrote to Hine, saying Percy was ‘a manipulative little t**d’ and ‘the little Hitler’ adding: ‘We are all doomed with this wretched man in place . . .he’s incorrigible, and thick and a narcissist.’
He later joked about drowning the now 57-year-old cleric. However, under the college statutes, to sack the dean, ‘conduct of an immoral, scandalous or disgraceful nature’ or ‘failure or persistent refusal or neglect or inability to perform’ his duties need to be proved.
Seven members of Christ Church’s governing body issued a formal complaint in September 2018 and the governing body voted to suspend Percy ahead of a formal internal tribunal.
It was at that point that the frosty atmosphere in the college turned into a true nuclear winter, say insiders.
Different academics refused to sit next to each other at ‘High Table’ or look each other in the eye if they saw each other crossing Tom Quad, the largest in Oxford.
Many old boys and girls were so appalled by the navel-gazing scandal that donations — a lifeblood for any charitable institution — dropped by as much as £2 million, according to one source.
The internal tribunal ruled that Prof Percy could stay. But he isn’t going to keep quiet. He now calls for a new inquiry to examine the events that led to the tribunal.
Meanwhile, he wants his legal fees of £400,000 paid by the college — and if that means pursuing a tribunal against his employer, so be it. A tribunal is scheduled for 2021, guaranteeing this rancorous dispute will continue for a long time.
Prof Percy declined to comment, but a trustee who did not want to be named said on his behalf: ‘There will be an employment tribunal in 2021, which will address the misconduct of others towards the dean, and many are confident that the court will find in the dean’s favour.
‘The dean has also asked the Charity Commission to intervene in this dispute.’
In a statement, the college said: ‘Christ Church is fully committed to achieving a solution through independent mediation, to avoid the considerable cost that will otherwise be incurred through responding to the dean’s employment tribunal claim.’
Clearly Prof Percy’s detractors have said some unpleasant and even imbecilic things about him.
But many neutral observers might question how long he can expect to persist in the role given their weight of opposition against him.
The dean’s enemies once imagined they were in an Inspector Morse novel as they joked about killing their boss.
But even Oxford’s great detective could never have dreamt up a tale of such intrigue and poison.
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