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The legacy of Kingston’s Ex-Vice Chancellor Julius Weinberg

By Luela Hassan Oct 18, 2016
Julius Weinberg resigned as KU VC on the first day of teaching of the academic year

It was ultimately the numbers that led to Julius Weinberg’s downfall.

The University’s catastrophic position in national league tables, the falling numbers of students being recruited and weak National Student Survey scores all point in one direction.

It meant that when his decision to ‘step down’ as Vice-Chancellor was announced on September 26, the very first day of teaching in the new academic year, came as little surprise to those in the know. Only the timing raised an eyebrow.

It was all different when Weinberg was announced as the new VC in April 2011, following Sir Peter Scott’s resignation.

He came with strong recommendations from City University, London, where he had been a Deputy Vice-Chancellor since 2007. He impressed at the interview with his plans for dynamic change and development. Former colleagues at City were said to be gutted to lose him, with one commenting at the time: “He’s a good man – he will be missed here.”

When he joined Kingston University, the institution ranked 80th in the country according to research done by the Complete University Guide.

And the new VC – then earning £190,000-a-year – came with plans to make the University more outward facing and more efficient in the challenging world of higher education and the reality of £9,000-per-year tuition fees.

Weinberg constantly spoke of change and was eager to bring to KU.

His move to alter the module system so all students studied just four long modules per year instead of the previous eight was arguably one of his successes. The changes involved the repositioning of courses, but three years down the line, most staff and students are relatively content with the change.

He was also a strong defender of the University. When in 2015 then Prime Minister David Cameron named and shamed four British universities including Kingston for providing platforms to alleged extremist speakers, Weinberg was outspoken in stating the case for a diverse institution.

He defended his decision to allow contentious speakers, criticised the Government’s controversial Prevent student anti-radicalisation policy and vowed to keep inviting people such as “hate speaker” Moazzam Begg in the name of free speech, saying they should be challenged rather than banished.

He also contested the facts of the extremist claim, saying Cameron had been given wrong information.

His willingness and determination to fight for what he believed in and speak out won him respect.

Other internal changes however were far less successful.

A new timetabling system with state-of-the-art technology was introduced but failed to produce a workable timetable in its first year. Since then timetabling problems have remained a bane for students and staff.

Changes and restructuring caused problems for staff. Weinberg got management consultants to investigate the running of the University. The resultant restructuring of the the University by centralising IT, finance, marketing and some administrative staff roles in separate faculties angered employees.

Weinberg spoke on this issue in one of his monthly staff newsletters at the time saying: “We understand this is an unsettling time for the staff involved and we are committed to ensuring anyone affected by the proposals is fully informed and supported throughout the process.”

But many employees were left scared of losing their jobs or having to take lower paid roles after reapplying for positions. Some were offered and accepted voluntary redundancy. Many also felt that the changed departments were often less efficient than before.

Controversially the surveying and planning department was closed at short notice.

Kingston’s UCU union chair Dr Andy Higginbottom complained that Weinberg offered little support for colleagues. “Julius did not carry staff with him,” he says. “He was too top down, even when some of the initiatives were in and of themselves, quite progressive in their intent, he just really didn’t get the point and that’s a great shame.”

Weinberg was also accused of having a short temper both with staff and on occasions students. He was happy to hold meetings with staff and students although on one occasion he was jeered by students after he noticeably irritated at their behaviour.

The extent of the bad blood between him and staff was illustrated by the setting up of the Kingston Dissenter blog – a website run anonymously by staff with cutting parodies of the Vice Chancellor and other senior members of the University.

It celebrated the announcement of his stepping down under a post called “Hang out the flags” which put the resignation on a par with the fall of Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

It started: “Quite a few of us may have experienced a 1990 Thatcher moment last Monday when we read the VC’s resignation email. He’s gone: wave the flags, open the champagne, but most of all, breathe a mighty sigh of relief.”

The UCU’s latest newsletter – which dubs the departure as JExit – said the “badly timed and apparently sudden” decision had been met with a “mixture of celebration (mostly) and apprehension by staff at KU”.

That sense of apprehension reflects a University which is struggling in the league tables and now to an extent is leaderless.

Earlier this summer, Weinberg had been more optimistic.

He visited the University’s Penrhyn Road campus in a high-vis jacket and helmet to watch the demolition of the Town House.

During his visit, the Vice-Chancellor looked over plans for the new landmark £55m Town House. Professor Weinberg said: “The new Town House will mark the start of the next exciting chapter in Kingston University’s development.”

Millions more have been spent or are earmarked on updating the business school at Kingston Hill, a recreational space at Roehampton Vale, updates at Penrhyn Road and Knights Park.

Not only did Julius seem intrigued and excited for the plans but his attitude did not resemble someone who would give it all up a mere 60 days later.

As it turns out, it maybe that the new building and renovations and the lasting legacy of Weinberg.

In the end the VC could not escape the numbers.

The River understands that the final straw for the Board of Governors was the disappointing National Student Survey results in August. Although many departments showed improvements in their overall student satisfaction, the university overall dropped from 82 per cent in 2015 to 80 this year.

It seems that since then the Board and Weinberg had been negotiating how he would step down.

In a note to staff, Weinberg explained his decision to leave, saying: “It has become evident to me that the Board of Governors and I hold differing views on the strategic approach to addressing some of the challenges the institution faces. I have therefore concluded it is the right time for me to confirm my intentions for 2017 and beyond.”

Exactly what those differences of opinions were remains to be seen.

Now he has now taken on the role as president until he formally leaves in December 2017. Whilst in this post he will raise KU’s external body and lead other development activity. What that means is another mystery yet to be revealed.

Also unknown is whether Weinberg will continue to draw a salary of around £220,000. Yesterday the University’s press office said it did not discuss personal salaries.

The day before the announcement, the Times league table said Kingston had dropped to 122nd overall, its lowest ever position. Those numbers again.

Dr Higginbottom says: “He has been promising improvement ever since he came here and it hasn’t happened.”

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