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A leading British university has been accused of turning a blind eye to bullying after a college principal was allowed to remain in post despite complaints of intimidating behaviour towards colleagues.
Prof Adekunle Adeyeye, who was responsible for helping to reform Durham University’s much-criticised approach to bullying, is alleged to have frequently reduced colleagues to tears and made sexist remarks.
The Guardian has spoken to five former members of staff who say they experienced intimidating behaviour or misogynistic comments by Adeyeye, who joined the university as head of Trevelyan College in January 2020.
In only 16 months, two people had filed formal grievances against him and three have left the college amid concerns about his manner.
Adeyeye has not responded to requests to comment but stepped down from his role on the university’s bullying policy committee on Wednesday after being approached by the Guardian.
Durham University, one of the UK’s leading academic institutions, has been under scrutiny over its approach to bullying after a damning report last year found that nearly one in five of its employees, and 30% of students, had suffered some form of bullying or harassment.
The commission said there had been a failure to tackle the issue at different levels of the university and that it was “often poorly addressed” and “sometimes even tolerated and accepted”.
It emerged last week that nearly 100 Durham students and staff had reported bullying complaints between October 2019 and June 2021. Of the 76 that mentioned the gender of the complainant, three-quarters were women.
Durham University Womxn’s Association said the university was failing to tackle a “certain culture” that “inspires and encourages condescension, belittlement, and mockery of women”.
A Durham University spokeswoman said everyone has the right to work and study in a safe and respectful environment, and that all staff and students are expected to follow the university’s regulations on conduct and values on behaviour.
She said Adeyeye had now stepped down from the university’s “respect oversight group”, which is responsible for reforming its bullying policies, and added: “Where behaviour falls below expected standards, we take robust and decisive action. These matters are being fully and fairly addressed in line with our published policies and procedures and have yet to be concluded. We do not comment on individual cases.”
A disciplinary investigation last month upheld several complaints against Adeyeye, including some of possible misconduct or gross misconduct.
Durham University’s disciplinary regulations recommend that where an allegation of a serious offence has been made against a member of staff, for example an offence that may amount to gross misconduct, it may be appropriate to suspend the member of staff from duty on full pay.
One former colleague said they were “close to a breakdown” and would drive home in tears due to Adeyeye’s “venom and nastiness”. Another said he “engendered fear” within colleagues and that Durham was failing to tackle its “bullying problem”: “I think it’s endemic within the university. It happens in all departments, in all colleges.”
It is understood that the university’s review of its handling of a complaint against Adeyeye was highly critical of its approach. One former staff member said her colleague was told by HR to enrol on a women in leadership course to improve her assertiveness after first raising concerns about Adeyeye last year.
Questions have also been raised about the role of Jeremy Cook, the university’s pro-vice chancellor, who sits on a separate management group charged with improving its bullying protocols.
Several people suggested concerns were raised with Cook last year and that he spoke informally to Adeyeye but no further action was taken. His behaviour towards some colleagues is said to have worsened after this.
Two former colleagues said they were frequently reduced to tears by Adeyeye. On one occasion, he was heard shouting at his vice-principal for nearly two hours until she left the meeting in tears. She had to take time off work due to stress and left the college last year.
One former employee said Adeyeye’s “aggressive shouting” had created an “awful atmosphere” for staff at the college.
Another said it was “disheartening” that the university appeared not to have learned from previous findings about the “significant problems it has identified within its culture”. They said the university’s “reluctance to address problematic behaviour” from a senior manage “contradicts the progressive claims made in its anti-bullying policies and public statements”.
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