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Top historian criticises St Mary’s for ‘grotesque’ treatment of professor

By on Tuesday, 25 September 2012

A leading Catholic historian has denounced events at St Mary’s College Twickenham as “grotesque” and resigned as an honorary fellow.

Professor Eamon Duffy, in a resignation letter to Principal Philip Esler of St Mary’s University, expressed his dismay at the suspension of a member of staff and raised concerns about its Catholic and Christian ethos.

In a letter dated September 18, referring to the suspension of Dr Anthony Towey, head of the School of Theology, Philosophy and History, Professor Duffy wrote: “The grotesque incident yesterday, when a senior member of staff was interrupted in the course of a lecture and forcibly escorted from the premises, is for me a decisive sign that things have gone badly amiss with the Christian and Catholic ethos of St Mary’s.”

The letter continued: “When I was made an honorary fellow of the college in 2003 I was delighted to be associated with a distinguished Catholic institution which for over a century and a half had contributed so much to Christian education in this country, and which seemed to be adapting to changing circumstances with fidelity and imagination. In the face of recent events in the College I no longer feel that confidence, and I therefore ask you to take whatever steps are necessary to remove my name from the list of honorary fellows of St Mary’s.”

Professor Duffy was also critical of the plans to merge the School of Theology, Philosophy and History with the School of Communication, Culture and Creative Arts. He wrote: “I have been unable to see how the demotion of one of the most successful and prestigious of the college’s schools can be justified on any but the bleakest financial grounds, all the more so because the high profile of theology in the college has been a signal to the outside world of its continuing commitment to the historic mission of St Mary’s in promoting Christian education.

He continued: “That the merger has been pressed on at great speed in the face of so much strong opposition from staff, students and informed commentators has been for me a cause of growing disquiet.”

Dr Robin Gibbons, who lectures in theology at the college, has also resigned following the controversy. Dr Gibbons said that he was resigning from St Mary’s College “on the grounds of conscience.”

Dr Anthony Towey, meanwhile, issued a statement this afternoon through his lawyers. Steel and Shamash Solicitors said: “Our client, Dr Towey, is dismayed and disappointed at the action taken by St Mary’s University College in suspending him and the public statements issued by St Mary’s following his suspension as Head of the School of Theology, Philosophy and History.

“Our client believes that he has been suspended unfairly, that he has been victimised and that his academic reputation gained over 25 years has been publicly damaged. In addition, there appears to have been a failure of due process.

“Through us, Dr Towey is exploring all the legal avenues that are open to him in order to seek the appropriate redress. Dr Towey has the full support of his union.”

Following the suspension of Dr Anthony Towey, St Mary’s College released a statement which said: “We can confirm that Dr Anthony Towey, head of the School of Theology, Philosophy and History, was suspended yesterday pending investigations into a very serious disciplinary matter and a grave breach of his professional duties at the University College.

“This action was taken fully in accordance with our internal human resource procedures and with written, external legal advice. Arrangements are being put in place to ensure that all programmes and teaching will be fully covered.”

It has since emerged that the serious “disciplinary matter” was an email that Dr Towey sent to students in August but which senior management did not find out about until last week.

The email from Dr Towey expressed concern about plans to merge the School of Theology, Philosophy and History with the School of Communication, Culture and Creative Arts and stated: “Since the principal specifically invites comment…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.”

Following a board of governors meeting on Thursday evening, Bishop Moth released a statement endorsing the college’s plans to merge departments. He said: “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.

He continued: “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.”

A group of students has also mobilised to voice their opposition to the merger and has organised a petition which carries over 200 signatures.

About 50 students attempted to hold a peaceful protest outside the board of governors meeting on Thursday evening.

  • teigitur

    Not the case that they are socially selective around here. All kinds of people send their kids there because they get results. There are several Catholic Schools in my town, not all are superb but all are good and some are in fairly rough areas. So I m afraid your ideas are a little off the park.

  • Teigitur

    Quite the opposite is the truth of couse. A history lesson: The oldest universities on this island were formed by the Catholic Church. Again your very sad prejudice clouds the truth to you.

  • Guest1122

    Firstly the students were NOT silent in their protest and I saw a group of them talking with the governors. So things could have been done differently re Dr Towey but no modules are being dropped and the only students who seem to have issue are the Theology students. I think people need to get on with it now, Dr Towey has always caused unnecessary problems at St Mary’s the students have been played for mugs, they don’t know the full story…

  • Basil Loftus

    Dr Towey is one of the best Catholic teachers of this century. He has held positions in Rome Sheffield and London and been a great inspiration for students and the Catholic community in Great Britain.

  • Basil Loftus

    You can’t be more orthodox than Dr Towey; in fact I find his orthodoxy very irritating.

  • NewMeena

    Yes, I am aware of this. My own College was founded as a Catholic institution.
    In those days the Catholic Church WAS regarded as a basic source of knowledge.
    But as I commented: ‘ “The idea of a university” in the modern age is somewhat different from that in the past.’

    The former “The idea of a university” is well-expressed by Cardinal Newman in his work of that name.

    http://www.newmanreader.org/works/idea/ 

  • NewMeena

    My knowledge is bang up-to-date and accurate.

    Doubtless there are exceptions – and there are indeed many bog standard and many good Catholic schools which are not so selective. But the best are highly selective.

    Catholic (and many C of E) Bishops in Merseyside, Birmingham, Greater London and elsewhere are presently engaged in battles to reduce the degree of social selection – and are meeting great opposition.

    Mr Tony knew all about this!

  • JabbaPapa

    A place quite unsuited to Catholicism.

    Carry on with the indoctrinated platitudes there, dear….

  • JabbaPapa

    My knowledge is bang up-to-date and accurate.

    Knowledge ? What knowledge ?

    Oh, you mean your prejudices are “bang up-to-date” with the latest trends in Dawkinsism ?

  • Teigitur

    Your knowledge is clearly nothing of the sort. I wonder how many teachers in Catholic Schools you actually know?

  • Teigitur

    You do sweeping generalisations so well, but as always, thats all they are.

  • teigitur

    Oh I thought you found him irritating!?

  • Siobhan

    Why do you and others persist in answering this obvious troll

  • Ian smith

    Looks like the university world is waking up to this outrageous treatment of a man standing up for what he believes – http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?storycode=421270

  • JabbaPapa

    Yes, and like the end results of all sweeping, their final destination is the dustbin.

  • Tu Autem

    “In those institutions of higher studies which are not dependent upon
    ecclesiastical authority, he may not teach any discipline which is
    properly theological or closely connected with the same.”

  • Tu Autem

    “In those institutions of higher studies which are not dependent upon
    ecclesiastical authority, he may not teach any discipline which is
    properly theological or closely connected with the same.”

  • Basil Loftus

    Dr Towey is a gifted communicator who is a valuable asset to the Church. He is an orthodox Catholic teacher and his personal life reflects his commitment to the Faith; his dismissal is very detrimental to the Catholic Church in England and Wales.. 

  • Hermeneuticus

    The situation is far worse at St. Mary’s than this article suggests.

    Not only is the Principal viewed as a lying idiot, the deputy principal as a thug and the Director of Academic Affairs a joke (she does not even have a PhD but pontificates about how others should supervise doctoral students) but there are rumored to be many other problems. .

    To stop speculation and rumor the QAA should look at
    1) The amount of money spent subsidizing visiting Olympic athletes. This is rumored to be equivalent to £400 per student.
    2) The amount the Principal has spent on his idea of celebrating the 750th anniversary of the promulgation of Corpus Christi, including £30,000 on a commission of a piece of music and £20,000 on a reception in the City.
    3) The funding of Sports St Mary’s and the lack of accounts for this spin off company.
    4) The use of Mo Farrah in publicity when he only started winning medals when he stopped being based at St. Mary’s and moved to the US.
    5) The way that complaints of inappropriate conduct by the Principal and Deputy Principal with female students at a number of social gatherings have been covered up by HR ensuring that gossip about them is rife in the institution.
    6) The employment of female interns by the SMT, who have been used to replace other staff.
    7) The reasons why the registrar, chaplain and Director of finance have left.

    However, now the institution needs to move on and suggestions need to be made as to who can replace the Principal, Deputy Principal and Director of Academic Affairs and how the damage can be repaired and St. Mary’s do what it does best – teach.

  • theroadmaster

    Is this just another case of a Catholic Institution, preparing itself for promotion to university status by shedding any pretension that theology forms a prominent part of it’s curriculum, and that it will be just another secular educational establishment with a thin religious veneer?

  • Anon

    I was at the “consultation” between students and the principal that you speak of and it was not a consultation but a question and answer session. The students voiced their opinions and concerns about the lack on consultation and were told during that meeting that rather than being given a consultation about the merger the senior management were “listening”. Not a lot of good listening will do if it doesn’t have the opportunity to make a difference. There are also many details in the principals “summary” of that meeting that were not discussed at all. This has made up part of a complaint to the QAA. 

  • Anon

    Such a big restructuring should have gone to the whole governing board but it didn’t – it went to a small subset of governors as “reserved business” and did not go to a full governing board until after a final decision had already been made. The situation at academic board was to express a collective opinion through the process of voting, to be taken to the governors to express the view of the academic board on the merger. They were denied the chance to express this view. 

  • Nick

    Philip Esler is to announce his resignation with that of Janine Griffiths Baker and Lesley Haig later today. There is to be an announcement at 1000 as to the future of the HEI.

  • Nick

    Philip Esler, Janine Griffiths Baker and Lesley Haig are to resign today – no news about the future

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/PWZKI7JBARE4DDT3NQ22RWMOJE Benedict Carter

    If you mean a return to orthodoxy, then it’s not before time.