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Friday, 21 September 2012

Strawberry Hill - shaken or stirred?

Dr Philip Esler (Principal) and Bishop Richard Moth (Chair of Governors)

News has emerged that Professor Eamon Duffy has resigned as an honorary fellow of St Mary's University College, Twickenham, as has Dr Robin Gibbons, a long-serving theology lecturer. Professor Gavin D'Costa has withdrawn as a keynote speaker at a theological conference planned by SMUC. All three cited the proposed merger of the School of Theology, Philosophy and History, and the School of Communication, Culture and Creative Arts, into a school of Arts and Humanities, as the reason for their action.

Professor Duffy spoke of the recent incident in which Dr Towey was escorted from the building by security as showing that things had gone badly amiss with the Christian and Catholic ethos of St Mary’s. At an academic board meeting recently, a motion of no confidence in the Principal was proposed - but ruled out of order by the Principal.

Last night, the Governors of the College met for four hours, and today a statement has been issued by Bishop Richard Moth who is the Chair of Governors. It is published on the College website but I include it in full here in the interests of fairness:
At a meeting of St Mary's University College Governors last evening it was decided to go ahead with the establishment of a Centre for the Study of Catholic Theology and to implement the merger of the Schools of Communication, Culture and Creative Arts and Theology, Philosophy and History into a new School of Arts and Humanities.

The Governors expressed regret over the actions of certain individuals, both those associated with this institution and those whose identity remains unknown, who have been maintaining a campaign of misinformation leading to a distorted picture of recent events.

St Mary’s continues to be committed to providing research-based high quality teaching in theology and religious studies. This is reflected in buoyant student recruitment in this area and across St Mary's. Our relationships with collaborative partners are very important to the life of St Mary’s and our long tradition of service to the Church will continue to be at the heart of all we do.

Our new Centre for the Study of Catholic Theology, which will be led by a Research Professor, will prove an exciting context for deep understanding of Catholic thought and its application in our world and will provide a focus for our treasured Catholic ethos across St Mary's.

St Mary’s is blessed to have a committed and highly effective staff. Our academic record speaks for itself and we are all proud of the unique environment we are able to offer to all our students in a truly stunning location.

The Governors have total confidence in the Senior Management Team who have worked diligently and in accordance with our constitution, due process and our Catholic ethos in what has been a difficult time as we continue to strive to gain our university title.

This is a time of great opportunity for St Mary’s and I am confident that the University College will continue to develop and move forward as a centre of excellence.

+Bishop Richard Moth
Chair of Governors
Yesterday, ICN published the email sent by Dr Anthony Towey on 31 August, which allegedly resulted in his suspension for what was described in the statement issued on Tuesday as "a very serious disciplinary matter and a grave breach of his professional duties at the University College", in his being escorted from the College premises by security personnel across the Campus Piazza in front of students, and then being escorted home so that his Blackberry could be confiscated. Again, in the interest of fairness, I publish the text of the email here:
Dear TPH Student,

As some of you will have heard either through announcements on the SMUC portal, rumours or in the latest edition of the Tablet (out today), a sudden decision by the Principal in July, ratified in a private meeting by a sub-set of Governors, has authorized the closure of the School of Theology, Philosophy and History. The future proposed structure is for TPH programmes to run from within an amalgamated Arts and Humanities School with over 1700 students on roll.

Despite overwhelming and reasoned opposition to the proposal across some 60 academic and administrative staff (see documents attached) the Principal has decided to press ahead with his idea. Although the process by which this decision has both been taken and progressed runs clean contrary to normal St. Mary’s procedures, the direct result is that one of the Heads of Schools will no longer be in post from September 4th, (Tuesday of next week).

Indeed though clarification has also been sought from the Human Resources department as to what repercussions this might have for the many and varied obligations that Professor Pettitt and myself have over the forthcoming months (such as lecturing, programme direction, doctoral supervision etc.) no advice has been given. We are completely in the dark. And while the most direct impact is likely to be on Theology programmes, there remains residual uncertainty in relation to staffing in Philosophy.

As a result, and without wanting to raise needless alarm, I would ask your forbearance over the coming weeks should there be delays and confusion in regard to your dealings with St. Mary’s in general, and any obligations related to myself in particular. All TPH staff are keenly aware that students have not been consulted in this process – a matter that you might appropriately raise with your Student Union (supresident@smuc.ac.uk) or your Programme leader. Indeed since the Principal specifically invites comment in his graduation letter (see attached), it may be appropriate to raise any concerns with him or with Bishop Richard Moth, the Chair of Governors. As an inter-disciplinary team, no School has worked harder to create a sense of learning camaraderie where staff and students ‘know each other by name.’ It is a tremendous sadness that this sense of community is being dismantled.
Last night, students of the College held a four hour silent vigil in the corridor outside the room in which the Governors were meeting. (See: report from Independent Catholic News) They also have an online petition for students to sign, opposing the merger of the School of Theology, Philosophy and History, and the School of Communication, Culture and Creative Arts, into a school of Arts and Humanities.

Dr Towey was one of the most vocally Catholic members of staff at SMUC; many staff and students are in shock at what has happened, especially considering the manner of his removal (though I am told that he is not the first to be escorted off the premises by security.) The official statement speaks of misinformation and a distorted picture given by unnamed individuals but there is enough solid information from named individuals and strong concern expressed by such highly-respected individuals as Professor Duffy to indicate that simply trying to brazen it out is not sufficient.
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