Principal of St Mary's University College steps down

Dr Philip Esler

Dr Philip Esler

The resignation of Dr Philip Esler, Principal of St Mary's University College, Twickenham, was announced yesterday. Dr Esler concludes his post officially on 31 March but will be taking his remaining leave days from today, 23 January. Dr Arthur Naylor, the previous principal of St Mary's is assuming the role of Interim Principal until a successor is appointed.

Last year, Dr Esler faced criticism from the academic community over his decision to merge the School of Theology, Philosophy and History with the School of Communications, Culture and Creative Arts. After Theology Professor Antony Towey sent an e-mail to students voicing concerns over the merger, he was removed from the college premises by security guards. This incident, and the merger, prompted historian Dr Eamon Duffy to resign from his honorary fellowship at St Mary's. Several other members of staff also left in protest.

There was disappointment when St Mary's did not gain the hoped-for full university status after a critical report by the Quality Assurance Agency on a new clinical hypnosis course.

From September students expressed their discontent with peaceful protests at St Mary's, at the Bishops Conference meeting in Leeds and at their headquarters in Eccleston Square. There were also votes of no confidence from academic staff and the governors.

Professor Towey has now been reinstated.

The full statement from St Mary's follows:

Bishop Richard Moth, the Chair of Governors of St Mary’s University College, Twickenham and its Principal, Professor Philip Esler FRSE DD (Oxon), today announced Professor Esler’s intention to step down as Principal on 31st March 2013.

Since his arrival on 1st October 2010, at the dawn of the challenging new era of higher student fees, Professor Esler’s achievements at St Mary’s have been numerous. He steered the institution through a necessary Strategic Review in 2011. He led on the process of our setting higher student fees in a way that attracted favourable media coverage and resulted in a full cohort of well-qualified, higher-fee students enrolling in September 2012. He has instituted an overhaul of our modular teaching system and an enhancement of research (including systematic preparation for REF 2014 and the introduction of Research Professors). He has also promoted student experience via new investments in Library resources and Careers advice, a major upgrading of our IT systems, extensive refurbishing and networking of student residences and the Student Union, the creation of a cinema and the introduction of rowing. He commissioned a campus landscape plan that now extends to initial work on a new Library project, introduced a new Applied Physics degree in partnership with the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington and has introduced a course in Spanish. During his time in post St Mary’s has continued to generate solid financial surpluses (11.4% in 2011/2012), its 2012 NSS result attained a level last seen in 2007, the percentage of graduates with First and Upper Second degrees has increased and the number of research grant applications has grown dramatically.

Professor Esler has worked tirelessly throughout his time at St Mary’s for the development of the University College. We understand the reasons that have prompted him to step down and wish him well for the future. In recognition of his academic achievements that have continued while he has been in post, the Governors have recommended that he be awarded the title of Emeritus Professor of Biblical Interpretation at St Mary’s from 1st April 2013.’

Professor Esler said: "During the last six months issues concerning the decision to merge the School of Theology, Philosophy and History and the School of Communication, Culture and Creative Arts into a new School of Arts and Humanities have become a point of friction in St Mary’s and have continued to attract negative attention in the Catholic press. In implementing the decision, I myself have become the focus of such interest from the Catholic media that there is a potential for St Mary’s, a vital part of the Catholic world in the UK, to suffer in consequence.

"Accordingly, having accomplished most of what I set out to achieve on my appointment, I consider it best if I now step down so that St Mary’s can continue its exciting development under a new Principal. This will also allow me to pursue other Higher Education opportunities in senior administration and research. I wish St Mary’s every success for the future."

For previous reports on this story go to the ICN Education pages. See also: St Mary's: High Court 'sets aside' order against ICN - 23 November 2013

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