The Mad Dog bites: An extraordinary memo from UCL communications
Whata week for UCL’s Director of Media Relations Charles Hymas, who has resigned half way through UCL’s biggest PR catastrophe since sliced bread. The memo takes the form of the regular weekly round-up of events, which is sent round the entire Media Relations office. Up until now, we assume these weekly round-ups have been quite tame, or at least not worth leaking. But a few events in the week covered made this read like an unedited Iannucci script.
Although this leaked memo is not a fireable offence in itself (despite having some pretty appalling quotes), the senior management team clearly chose to hang Hymas out to dry. Since the “resignation”, and the start of the UCU strike, both Charlie Hymas and Provost Michael Arthur have disappeared off the face of the earth. The Provost has now been found (though Charlie remains concealed), and students have mounted a search and rescue effort to bring him home. Hymas seems confident of his reinstatement, having retained his job title in his twitter bio. After reading this memo, we’re not so sure…
How do you clean out the contagion of the week? Go for a bracing 13k run at dawn on a Saturday morning round south London, followed by a swim. I feel better for that. It has cleared my mind after a week when we locked horns, again, with the Financial Times. It requires all your intellectual muscle to deal with an attack on the very essence of what UCL is trying to do. How do you mitigate it without appearing to shoot the nasty messenger who claims he is not on a vendetta mission to destroy the provost but which everyone knows he is? There was an initial reluctance to take the fight to the FT, and instead for us to take the moral high ground in the interests of not alienating the Visitor (aka the Master of the Rolls who will consider the complaint about governance submitted by Professor I’m Not Pursuing a Vendetta Man) which I thought wasn’t a great idea. It was agreed to compromise with a factual presentation of our case to the FT, which they used in part. So round 1 was definitely a victory for the FT and Professor I’m Not Pursuing a Vendetta Man, with a little pyrrhic defence from us.
Charlie’s job seems to consist of losing battle after battle against the Financial Times, as the newspaper has been on a mission to expose UCL’s financial incompetence for a while now. Only this week, when the reporter really stuck the knife in, (see below) did Charlie finally lose the war. His job is to worry about how UCL looks – UCL relies on its reputation to increase student numbers and maintain prestige, so Director of Media Relations is a very important role to senior management. Poor Charlie is under a lot of pressure, it seems.
The “nasty messenger” is Prof. Tony Segal, an academic in Medicine at UCL. He brought the motion of no confidence to the meeting of the academic board on 7th February. Master of the Rolls is Sir Terence Etherton, responsible for overseeing some parts of UCL’s administration. At the start of Feb, he hired a barrister to look into the (mis)conduct of the expansion, at the request of some academics. The FT exposee about this is what Charlie is referring to, and the battle against “us” senior management.
Round 2 was also not great for us. For a start, the FT man got into the town hall meeting organised by Professor I’m Not Pursuing a Vendetta Man. It was a classic as academic meetings go. First it was opened by Mr Know It All Man [former cabinet minister under Thatcher and ex-UCL Council Chair Lord Young, Baron of Graffham] who had that smug patrician air of a multi-millionaire Tory businessman who believes that he can’t ever be accused of having done anything wrong even if he had been trying to make peace with Hitler, Saddam Hussein or President Assad . Of course, when he was council chair, he declared, nothing like this town hall meeting would ever have happened. Academics loved him because he always consulted them and he never did anything that wasn’t supported by the academic board. Bollocks, I later discovered. He appointed one crap provost, followed by a temporary one who hatched a plan to merge UCL with Imperial. Guess what happened. There was a revolution by the academics who hadn’t been consulted. So much for Mr Know It All Man’s claims that he listened to the academics.
A damning indictment, Hymas blames Mr Know It All Man for a similar fuck-up during his time chairing UCL Council.
A merger with Kensington Poly? Apparently this actually happened? What a ride. Thank god UCL is safe.
Next up was I’m Not Pursuing a Vendetta Man, who told the meeting that he was not pursuing a vendetta. He then proceeded to stick the knife into the Provost and the chair of council Dame DeAnne Julius for their autocratic, bullying rule which had left the entire intellectual powerhouse that is the UCL academic community cowed in a blithering jelly of fear such that the only way they could get their voice heard was to have clandestine meetings like this one in the basement of something called the Cruciform. Professor I’m Not Pursuing a Vendetta Man was preaching to the converted, who hung on his every word and clapped every twist of the knife. Reckless expansionism. Academic standards in freefall. Business interests sullying the white sepulchre of academia. Brash shiny soulless new buildings miles from the cosy warmth of Bloomsbury. Undemocratic rule by people with experience of the outside world. Outrageous. Professor I’m a True Intellectual stood up to plead the case for the brow-beaten academic who had been hauled before his head of department because his boss wanted him to earn some money from his research. Money? It was as if he had uttered the F-word in polite society. A shiver went through the audience. Surely, said Professor I’m a True Intellectual, producing one brilliant paper a year was what true academia was all about. The shiver turned into a cheer and loud applause. He had struck the nail on the head. How could it be the case that academics should somehow pay their way rather than count the number of worms in a clod of tropical rainforest (he is a professor from earth sciences, by the way)?
Chair of Council since 2014, economist Dame DeAnne had previously worked for BP for 10 years. That explains her reluctance to take UCL money out of fossil fuel investments, including BP. The loss of £1.25m of UCL money in falling stocks apparently does not undermine her esteemed economic credentials.
Pure poetry, this section stands out and was likely taken from his original notes furiously scribbled during the meeting. There’s a lot to unpick, as Hymas plays with narrative tone and irony, switching effortlessly between the mocking the self-righteous tone of the ‘lefty academics’, and what seems like genuine excitement at the energy in the room. (Sepulchre means a small tomb, we looked it up so you don’t have to). The “outside world” means the inside of the Sunday Times offices in London Bridge, floor nine, between the Sun and the Wall Street Journal, where Charles Hymas (then known as “Mad Dog” and never seen to eat or sleep) worked for 26 years as Managing Editor before being forced out. A small aside, we realise, but imagine managing to collect a name like “Mad Dog” on Fleet Street in the 90s! Surely a competitive field.
Farce kettle black
He was supported by someone called Saladdin, the Iago to the Othello of I’m Not Pursuing a Vendetta Man. Saladdin proceeded to trash an opponent who had had the audacity to write a blog challenging the FT account and who had described the critics as a cabal. Rex Knight tried to challenge some of the points but by then the meeting had turned into something more akin to a Roman amphitheatre where any slave felt to be worshipping the God Mammon was going to be bayed down by the bloodthirsty crowd. Despite my best efforts to press as many No buttons as I could in order to swing the vote in favour of reason, we went crashing down to a 94% to 6% vote in favour of a motion expressing No Confidence in the governance of the university. As one wag noted, only in the most corrupt parliaments in deepest eastern Europe do you get 94% majorities (it would have been higher if I hadn’t managed to press six or seven buttons in a bid to reduce the size of the victory for the FT). The meeting was also somewhat Monty Pythonesque in that a) they didn’t declare what the motion was until the end when everyone present had been ramped up into such a frenzy of hatred against the evil management of UCL that they would have made a blind, three legged elephant provost of UCL they changed the motion at the last minute from leadership to governance. Why? I don’t think anyone was quite sure. I walked away, knowing that, despite the farce, I’m Not Pursuing a Vendetta Man and the FT had won another victory.
He’s actually called Dr Saladin Meckled-Garcia, Director of the UCL Institute for Human Rights. He is also the UCL-UCU branch president. There’s a lot to unpack here. In the play Othello, Iago is a manipulative schemer who plots against army general Othello, despite being his trusted adviser. Iago gets close to bringing down Othello and taking his place, but his plan backfires and he ends up sentenced to prison. Basically Hymas is saying that Saladin is the puppeteer behind Tony Segal, that Saladin is controlling events, and takes no prisoners (Iago killed his own ally in the play), so is not to be trusted. Just to be clear, this slur against a well-respected academic was circulated to Charlie’s colleagues in a formal capacity. And, just when you thought Charlie could not display any more contempt for the educational side of the institution, comparing the lecturing staff to slaves is beyond rude.
Presumably Mammon is a reference to Provost Michael Arthur, who had escaped insult until just now. The son of the Devil in the Bible, Mammon is a demon of extraordinary power. He represents money-lust, excessive greed and extreme injustice. “Worshipping the God Mammon” is a botched reference to the phrase, “you cannot worship God and Mammon at the same time”, which means you cannot be on the side of good and evil at once. We assume the “slaves worshipping both” means the 6% of academics who voted that they had confidence in the provost.
So, how did the voting happen? These meetings use electronic voting pads and in order to function, each keypad must be activated at the start of the meeting. Whether Hymas had the forethought to do that is unknown. Reader, please, picture the image of an ex-Sunday Times Managing Editor scrambling around a lecture theatre, pushing buttons on (probably lifeless) keypads – then choosing to share this embarrassing moment with his closest colleagues. And he dares to call the meeting Pythonesque…
Rook also found the attitude here profoundly depressing. For Charlie, the debate raging within the institution is nothing to do with education, and not even to do with money. It is to do with image, not just of UCL but his own. It was him being embarrassed in the FT, not UCL; that was the needle that pierced his pride, before the scalpel of forced resignation stabbed him in the back.
11.20pm and I got an email from Rex calling me to an emergency meeting with the Provost at 8am. This is the first. At The Sunday Times, it would have presaged a spanking. Why the f*** did this happen? Couldn’t you have taken them out in some way? Put poison in their porridge? At 8am the provost presented it rationally, at first. One option was to do nothing. In a way, there is an argument for that. For all that we think this is a major crisis, it is actually a storm in a teacup. Very few outside UCL really care about it. To do nothing, however, is to leave a sore that could develop into an infection, that could develop into an amputation. Another option (and this was the one the provost had favoured the night before after having a couple of drinks following Tottenham’s two nil victory) would be to go for the jugular with his sharpened medical scalpel and take out a sensitive part of Professor I’m Not Pursuing a Vendetta Man’s anatomy without an anaesthetic. At The Sunday Times, there were times when we played the man, rather than the ball. Here, now, I discouraged it. We needed to rise above the bear pit and try to get our message out.
Less Monty Python, more The Thick Of It. This is where things start to go from bad to worse for our Charlie, and he harks back nostalgically to his halcyon days at the Sunday Times. (Side-note: What is it with these aged establishmentarians and their obsession with nanny-spanking imagery? Our ruling classes are truly scarred.) And did he just threaten to poison dissenting academics via hired killer… If that’s not a corrupt regime I don’t know what is.
At this point, the visceral metaphors starting to make sense. Provost Mammon Arthur is a trained doctor and professor of Medical Sciences. Hymas is referring to Arthur’s cold-hearted ability to slice open institutions without remorse, like when he was Provost of Leeds and cut 700 jobs, (which, ironically, resulted in him losing his job). Perhaps it was Provost Mammon Arthur’s sharpened metal scalpel that amputated our dear Charlie from the dying body of UCL, in an attempt to save its skin? Smothered in local anaesthetic of a resignation pay packet, of course.
It was agreed that I should invite the FT Man in for an interview with the Provost. I duly did so, only to be hit by FT Man dredging up some financial dirt on Dame De Anne and Andrew Gould, another council member, to which he had been tipped off, we guess, by Professor I’m Not Pursuing a Vendetta Man or one of his cronies. It was regurgitated dirt as well because someone had also previously passed it to the Times and we had successfully blasted it into the long grass. It is evidence that it genuinely is war with Professor I’m Not Pursuing a Vendetta Man going for the woman and not the ball. Overnight I prepared the defence with the help of some particularly good man marking by Simon Griffiths in legal, and duly sent it to the FT Man. I then gave the provost enough briefing notes to win the World Cup, paid the referee a mint and went into battle with the FT Man in the mortal combat of an interview in the provost’s office. You’ll be glad to hear it went well. The provost put the case well, backed by good evidence, and rationally without taking out his scalpel to slash his enemies. We’ll have to wait and see what comes out in the end, and prepare for round 4, of which I am sure there will be one.
Gross comments like this and the tropical rainforest comment in paragraph 3 really show the attitude of management to the academics. Rather than being an educational establishment dedicated to the furthering of human knowledge in all spheres for the sake of knowledge itself, it has become a business, defined by what sells. Whether Charlie knows what sells or not is debatable too, as he oversaw a fall in circulation from 1.5million to 740,000 during his career at the Sunday Times.
One last push
Back in the real world, the team had a great week. Bex was in stonking form with a world exclusive in the face of Cheddar Man, revealed and reconstructed as dark skinned and blue eyed, alongside a clutch of other stories that got picked up. We had a good hit with dementia from Chris, with Jacinta set up a Daily Telegraph/BBC exclusive on Bentham’s trip to New York and saw the culmination of our work on Rachel Whiteread’s forthcoming art work in the ‘evening standard and art mags, had a successful meeting on our ‘China strategy with GEO and OVPD thanks to Rowan and saw Natasha hit the ground running and start to make inroads into social and historical sciences. At least one of our hands was not tied behind our back.
Rook has long felt that the incompetence of UCL management detracts from the very real brilliance of its academics. Cheddar Man, revolutionary virus treatments, nano-technology… UCL’s academic breakthroughs are constantly sidelined by the headline-grabbing failures and feuds of management. Charlie is so close to his own breakthrough here. One little push and maybe, just maybe, he’ll see that he and his battles are not the main event at UCL; our academic staff are. Sadly, that breakthrough has not yet come.
Round Four: The Reckoning
Well, that was quite a ride. Without the protection of his Director of Media Relations, Provost Mammon Arthur has gone into hiding, even failing to send out his weekly communiqué Provost’s View. The Sunday Times piece was published four days after this memo was written, so Charlie had not yet seen the fruits of his labours. Despite his gallant efforts to fix the game, it’s safe to say that it did not “go well”. The Provost Mammon barely scraped through the piece alive, so perhaps this was the final blow to Charlie’s costly career.
This memo reveals in no uncertain terms the way that UCL is run. It is a business built on disdain for the academics whose work they are selling, and the frustration endemic in senior management, that they cannot simply decree future policy without consultation or backlash, is apparent here. To Rook it appears that the marketisation and corporatisation of UCL has gone so far that despite this minor amputation of an expensive appendage, the infection really has spread to the whole of senior management. Perhaps now is the time for Provost Mammon to consider humane withdrawal of care.