Vice Chancellor set to end controversial time at Lancaster

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Following nine years in his position as Vice Chancellor of Lancaster University, Professor Paul Wellings has announced he will be resigning from his post in order to pursue the same role in Australia. The Vice Chancellor, who is also the head of the 1994 Group, a coalition of 19 research intensive universities including Lancaster, announced he will take up his position as Vice Chancellor at the University of Wollongong in New South Wales after December.

Throughout his time as Vice Chancellor, Wellings has overseen many improvements to the University. Lancaster has become a top ten institution, as well as having undergone the construction of a number of new facilities in keeping with Lancaster’s new-found status, including the LICA building, the new Sports Centre and the rejuvenation of Alexandra Square. On looking back over Wellings’ time at Lancaster the Pro Chancellor, Bryan Gray said: “Paul Wellings has been an exceptional leader over nine years at Lancaster. The University has been transformed and its academic reputation greatly enhanced.”

When asked about Wellings’ time at Lancaster, Robbie Pickles, LUSU President said: “Paul has been a controversial figure with students since the arrest of six protestors in his first year in office, the now infamous George Fox Six incident. However, his leadership has taken the standing of Lancaster University from strength to strength. With Lancaster now sitting firmly as a top ten institution with an international reputation, Paul can be rightly proud of his achievements. I wish him well in his new role in Australia.”

During Wellings’ time as Vice Chancellor of Lancaster University he attracted controversy when in 2005 he oversaw the decision by the University to prosecute six students who disrupted a corporate venturing meeting the previous year to protest about the number of arms companies invited to it. It was being held in the George Fox Building, a fact which had already been argued against by Quakers as George Fox is a key historical figure for them and pacifism is an important part of the Quaker way of life.

The conference disruption and consequent battle in the Lancaster Magistrates Cour, led to national media coverage of the University as Rachael Jackson, Anthony Ayre, Keith Richardson, Joanne Moody, Matthew Wilson and Rhiannon Westphal were all found guilty of Aggravated Trespass, which carries a fine of £300 and a sentence of two years with conditional discharge.

Wellings insisted on the charges being brought, accusing the students of “intimidation”. The term George Fox Six was coined in both the media and student circles to refer to the students.

Wellings’ decision to prosecute the six students pitted the University against several organisations who supported the students. At the time the NUS released a statement on the incident saying: “It is clear the Orwellian nightmare is alive in Lancaster, and we at NUS cannot express our anger at this decision strongly enough. Freedom of speech is under attack wherever you go, but nowhere more so than university campuses, which have always been hotbeds of political activity and radical thought. This attempt by Lancaster University to argue that students committed trespass on their own campus when voicing a legitimate protest was always absolutely absurd.”

The Green Party, the civil rights organization Liberty, the AUT, Lancaster Trades Council and Scientists for Global Responsibility were also among those who sided with the students rather than the University’s court case. At the time Green Party Councillor Dr Anne Chapman called it “a sad day for free speech and civil liberties. Students should clearly have the right to protest at what is being done at their university, and not be prosecuted for it”.

Welling also raised some controversy concerning an article he wrote for The Guardian in November, 2010. The article argued that the increase in fees following the Browne review was justified and that the rallies and concerns felt by students, parents and politicians alike “bears little relation to the reality of reforms being proposed”. Wellings went on to say that “we [the 1994 group] were pleased that the government has proposed raising the graduate contribution cap to £9,000”.

Wellings will continue as Vice Chancellor until December 2011. A new Vice Chancellor has not yet been announced, but Gray maintains that “Lancaster University has begun a global search”.

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