(Featured image: Of the six sabbatical officers elected last year, only two – Bee Morgan and Lewis Marriott – remain in post.)
Friday 1st May saw an extraordinary episode in Lancaster University history. George Nuttall, twice-elected LUSU President, was summarily dismissed just two months before he was due to start his second term of office. This followed an independent investigation and hearing panel into multiple complaints against him.
The dismissal has divided the small but vocal portion of the Lancaster student community who care at all about LUSU affairs. Since the announcement, there have been constant clashes on Facebook between those who have defended Mr Nuttall against what they see as an unfair dismissal, and those who hail the decision as a just outcome for the anonymous complainants.
LUSU did not announce why Mr Nuttall was sacked, however there have been suggestions that it relates, at least in part, to the resignation of his fellow sabbatical officer Hannah Prydderch in March 2020. Ms Prydderch's resignation statement cited an 'inhospitable and unwelcoming environment and with serious detrimental impacts on my mental health.' It followed the resignation of another sabbatical officer, Ben Evans, in November 2019. In his statement, Mr Evans wrote: 'the actions of individuals… have been full of intimidation and bullying and has left me feeling as if there is not other choice but to resign.'
Mr Nuttall was dismissed with immediate effect from his role on Friday, which is also known as a summary dismissal. If someone is summarily dismissed, they forfeit a notice period or pay in lieu of notice, and it is typically only reserved for cases of employee gross misconduct. According to the gov.uk website, gross misconduct can include things like theft, physical violence, gross negligence, or serious insubordination.
In the hours following Mr Nuttall's dismissal, another sabbatical officer, and two volunteer student officers resigned. Their statements have been published in full by SCAN. In her resignation statement, Grishma Bijukumar, who was Vice President (Welfare and Community), said: 'The SU has a toxic culture which isn’t just down to the FTO’s or even senior management, there are some serious issues which flow through the entire organisation which I really don’t see being resolved in the near future.' She also said she had been a victim of racism within LUSU, and that the sabbatical officers had been scapegoated throughout the year for raising issues. A former student was more sceptical on Facebook, writing that she believed Ms Bijukumar 'jumped before she was pushed' and said she was 'one of her many victims' herself.
In their statements, the two voluntary student officers, Lydia Moodycliffe and Mitch Boocock, both protested the dismissal of Mr Nuttall. Ms Moodycliffe said that she thought the decision was: 'undemocratic, bias[ed] and without any regard to how it impacts the students.' Mr Boocock argued that the dismissal was: 'undemocratic and corrupt and has been made without any consideration for the student voice.' Ms Moodycliffe has also said on Facebook that 'there is no evidence to these claims, and as a fellow officer I have not seen George bully anyone and considering how amazing he is towards me I cannot imagine that.' It is unclear whether Ms Moodycliffe has seen the contents of the independent investigation or has based her assertion on personal experience alone.
In February 2020, Spineless reported on high-profile bullying cases in Lancaster University, including a collective grievance against the Head of the Politics, Philosophy and Religion (PPR) department, and an allegation against the Dean of the Management School. This reportage, which was later picked up by The Times, made clear that a significant weight of evidence is required for bullying cases to successfully be prosecuted within disciplinary procedures.
His supporters argue that Mr Nuttall is being unfairly targeted for standing up to management, claiming that he 'saved the Sugarhouse' and was responsible for securing rent reductions for some campus residents. While due credit must be paid to Mr Nuttall for his opposition to the sale of the Sugarhouse, it is a bit of a leap to claim he did either of these things by himself, without the involvement of the other sabbatical officers, JCR officers, student activists and journalists, University societies, organisations like ACORN, and so on. This reductive line of argument also leaves out uncomfortable facts, such as that Mr Nuttall failed to release minutes and papers relating to the Sugarhouse sale, as he was mandated to by the LUSU membership, and chose not to campaign in the referendum to save the Sugarhouse. More recently, the sabbatical officers openly admitted a reluctance to support the ongoing rent strike that actually achieved the rent reductions.
Mr Nuttall's year in office has not been without controversy. In January, he pushed through reforms to the officer team, bypassing the Constitutional Convention students had voted for. In February, LUSU had to report a 'serious incident' to the Charity Commission after he left an important meeting early. And in March, he (along with three other sabbs) broke LUSU's financial transparency policy by failing to publish their expenses. Following Ms Prydderch's resignation, a student petition to trigger a Vote of No Confidence in Mr Nuttall was deleted by LUSU from their website as it was allegedly 'defamatory'. The petitioner had accused him of being 'grossly incompetent.'
In response to his dismissal, a number of Mr Nuttall's allies had begun circulating January's petition calling for a Vote of No Confidence in the Trustee Board vice-chair, Graeme Osborn. Mr Nuttall spoke out against the petition at the time of its publication, saying that Mr Osborn had his 'full backing'. The petition author, Andrew Williams, who is an editor for Spineless, said he was 'uncomfortable' with the petition being used 'as a proxy campaign by people who are upset about an organisation following employment law. There is no evidence that Graeme Osborn has acted inappropriately in this case, and being Trustee Board vice-chair does not confer on him executive power.' The petition, which had around 80 signatures until Friday, shot up to 250 over the weekend, before being taken down at the request of the petitioner.
There have been significant criticisms levelled at the Trustee Board, too, which has been a source of much ire throughout the last year since the proposed Sugarhouse sale became public knowledge. There are many valid criticisms to be made of the Board, not least the failure by LUSU to implement in any way shape or form the Democratisation motion passed at the LUSU AGM in October 2019, or the Trustee Board referendum in December, both of which mandated LUSU to implement substantial changes. However, it is dubious exactly how much blame lies with them for creating a toxic workplace, as they are ultimately volunteers (besides the sabbatical officers) who give up their spare time every few months to help run the organisation, and are not a regular feature in the organisation's workplace.
The current debacle in LUSU is not dissimilar to issues that were faced by Goldsmiths Students' Union in 2015. Their President resigned just months into their term due to alleged bullying and harassment by two other sabbatical officers, leading the Students' Union to launch an independent investigation into workplace bullying. Both of the accused sabbs resigned themselves in the same week.
Mr Nuttall now has the option to appeal the decision within the LUSU procedures. He may also wish to take an 'unfair dismissal' case to an Employment Tribunal, however he does not automatically qualify as he has not been a LUSU employee for over two years. There may be certain circumstances where he could qualify for a Tribunal hearing, however, for instance if he was subject to trade union victimisation or if he has been dismissed for whistleblowing.
An Acting President will be 'appointed in due course' (LUSU has given no indication as to how this individual will be selected, but the three remaining sabbs are likely contenders), and a by-election for next academic year's President will be held within the next two months. As Spineless has previously reported, the Returning Officer appointed by the Trustee Board (including Mr Nuttall) has been accused of election rigging at another students' union. He will oversee the by-election (and also oversaw Mr Nuttall's re-election). His appointment came shortly after LUSU admitted it had been breaking its own election rules.
Since the current LUSU sabbatical officer team assumed their posts on 1st July 2019, three sabbatical officers have resigned, one has been dismissed, one CEO has resigned, one interim CEO has left, two lay trustees have resigned, and two volunteer student officers have resigned. The sabbatical officers-elect, who have noticeably stayed clear of the Facebook affray this weekend, will probably be looking to their future roles uneasily.
This will all, no doubt, be part of an unwelcome Monday briefing for Lancaster University's new vice-chancellor, Professor Andy Schofield, who assumed the role on the same day Mr Nuttall was sacked. He now faces the unenviable task of getting his head around Lancaster's student politics as its Students' Union continues to spiral out of control with no end in sight.