In December 2017 Martyn Percy emailed one of the people who set his salary. As dean of the Oxford college of Christ Church, Percy was already among the best paid clerics in the Church of England — earning more than the Archbishop of Canterbury.

But he was unhappy. A priest since his late twenties, the 55-year-old was not rich by the standards of college heads. At Christ Church, with its huge quadrangles and £500m endowment, he was surrounded by wealth. He felt overworked. Perhaps, he told the college’s salaries board, he should “adjust [his] availability” — and skip a fundraising tour of the US?

From such exchanges has arisen one of the most embarrassing and expensive debacles in the university’s recent history. Oxford’s grandest college — which has survived nearly five centuries — is being torn apart by an extraordinary HR dispute. Oxford, like Cambridge, prides itself on being a federation of self-governing colleges, where academics, not bureaucrats, are in charge. The model seems to be thriving: for the past four years, Oxford has been judged the best university in the world by Times Higher Education, particularly on the basis of its research and international links.

Yet the Christ Church saga has exposed how parts of Oxford remain trapped by their medieval origins. It has also thrown into relief the uneasy role of the Church in modern Britain. In an increasingly secular and multifaith society, the Church provides a dwindling talent pool for leadership roles. Some Christ Church fellows saw Percy as epitomising this dynamic — a low-key figure compared to the distinguished academics and civil servants who headed many other colleges.

In August a formal tribunal, convoked by the college to oust the dean, ruled in Percy’s favour, arguing that he could stay because relations with the governing body were reparable. Even so, Christ Church — the alma mater of 13 prime ministers and today home to more than 600 undergraduate and graduate students — has become “virtually ungovernable”, in the view of one member of its governing body.

In two years, the college and its dean have between them accumulated about £2m in legal fees, according to people familiar with events. Alumni have also suspended donations to the college worth an even larger amount, two people within the college said.

Ever since the affair became public last year, its details have been kept a closely guarded secret. A Financial Times investigation, involving interviews with a dozen Oxford insiders, has gained new insight.

When the salaries board declined to immediately review his pay, the dean lost patience. Christ Church had a “culture of mean-spiritedness”, he wrote in an email. The academics had an “upstairs-downstairs” attitude to administrators like him. He complained that, in dozens of pages of emails discussing salaries, “I have not received the smallest hint — not even a single sentence — of gratitude for my work”.

The conflict broadened. The dean pitched himself as a reformer, raising concerns about the gender pay gap and whether old-fashioned college structures could provide modern student welfare. Both sides accused each other of bullying, conflicts of interest and breaking college rules.

The affair is Thomas Becket meets Tom Sharpe, on the site that gave rise to Alice in Wonderland. The fundamental question is whether the academics on Christ Church’s governing body were so exasperated by Percy’s complaints that they escalated a pay squabble into all-out internal warfare.

Founded in 1525 by Cardinal Wolsey, Christ Church is the only Oxford college that is also a religious institution; its head is the dean of a cathedral that adjoins the main quad. Over the centuries, power has shifted from the cathedral to the scholars. As late as the 19th century, when Christ Church was educating future prime ministers such as Robert Peel and William Gladstone, the governing body consisted of just the dean and eight canons, who paid themselves much better than the academics. The academics rebelled, and won a greater share of the money and power.

Today the governing body is made up of 65 people: seven members of the cathedral chapter, 53 academics, three administrators and two outsiders. The dispute has divided the college on a familiar line: the Church — the dean and most of the canons — against most of the academics.

Percy arrived as dean in 2014, after a successful period running Ripon College, a theological college near Oxford. He had a record of overseas fundraising. He also cut a tolerant, liberal, modern figure: he championed women priests and LGBT inclusion; he had even written understandingly about extramarital affairs, saying many people did it “to keep their marriages together”.

Yet Percy was different to previous deans. He was younger than his predecessors, for whom the job was a stepping stone to retirement. Crucially, he saw himself as an outsider. “I don’t think Martyn ever feels comfortable being an insider,” says one person who worked with him at Ripon.

At Christ Church, Percy would have less power: key decisions were taken by the governing body, and “censors”, elected from within the fellows, ran academic life. This touches on a complication to Oxford’s structure: in 2011, the colleges became regulated charities, subject to a new layer of laws. But unlike at most other charities, the trustees — the academics — have financial interests in the organisation.

Percy’s supporters trace his frustration to December 2016, when an undergraduate — under the influence of drugs and alcohol — stabbed her boyfriend in an argument. The dean was the only college official, other than the porters, available to help. He wanted new safeguarding processes; the job descriptions of college officials were, he felt, out of date. In response to a query from the FT, Christ Church said: “It is the Dean’s job to deal with onsite emergencies out of hours whenever he is in residence, because he is then the most senior officer on site.”

The pay dispute started in August 2017, when Percy complained that he and the treasurer were paid less than the college’s new development director. The college’s salaries board concluded that, although the development director was paid £95,000, a chunk of this was housing allowance. The dean received a salary of £90,900, plus free housing in college, which was “significantly higher”.

The dean countered that his pay was below the median for Oxford heads of colleges, and that Christ Church had committed to “periodic reviews” against his peers. The college argued that the dean was relatively new in his role, and was selected from an “entirely different” job market — the Church — to other officials.

At Ripon, Percy’s salary was less than £60,000 — the deanship therefore represented a salary uplift of about 50 per cent. When the FT asked his predecessor as dean, Christopher Lewis, whether he felt overworked in the role, Lewis replied: “No. You were busy.” One supporter of Percy insists the dean’s concern was not money: “It was, what are you saying about the office, the status of the dean?”

Percy persisted. Living at the deanery, he said, was not a “perk”; it was a “requirement” of his job, and the place where he was obliged to entertain guests. It was no more pay to him “than bowler hats are to our custodians”. When tutors pointed out that he received other benefits, including pension contributions, household staff, free meals and rent from flats, he replied that he had spent 25 years on the Church’s less generous pension scheme and that the rent was a recompense for his wife’s role in official hospitality.

The dean had also suggested, in January 2018, that the college could involve the mediation service Acas or the Charity Commission, which has regulated Oxford colleges since 2011, to assess the suitability of the salaries board’s structures. The board was keen to keep matters in-house. It carried out a salary review in May. But Percy claimed he wasn’t given enough time to respond, despite having first raised the issue nearly a year earlier. He also said the review had used inaccurate data. In response, the governing body set up a confidential mediation panel.

In August 2018, Percy wrote to the whole governing body, apologising for causing trustees “distress and upset” and offering to undergo management training. It seemed a magnanimous gesture. But it could also be interpreted as cutting across, and pre-empting, the college’s efforts at mediation. For some academics, this wasn’t the first time the dean had acted out of turn. They had found out he had taken legal advice at the college’s expense on how to change the composition of the salaries board, without disclosing that this was the purpose. After a year of draining dispute, they now saw relations with the dean as irreparable.

It is often said that academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small. Perhaps it’s also the sense of moral righteousness over what is best for the institution. In 2018 the provost of Oriel, Moira Wallace, who had faced pressure to resign over her handling of a high-profile campaign to remove a statue of the colonialist Cecil Rhodes, simply parted ways with the college when her initial five-year term ended. “At any one time, there will be two or three colleges where the head of house is not getting on well with their governing body,” says one head.

What is extraordinary about the Christ Church affair is that the college could not resolve its dispute quietly. Percy’s complaint could perhaps have been answered with a pay rise of £10,000. But various fellows took a stand against what they felt was an unwarranted demand.

They may have underestimated Percy’s willingness to stand his ground. He had been the author of a public letter accusing the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, of lacking “any persuasive public theology”. In February 2017 he wrote an online article criticising Philip North, the newly nominated Bishop of Sheffield, for his alleged opposition to women priests. Percy’s intervention was so forceful that North withdrew his acceptance of the role. North found Percy’s conduct “deeply hurtful”; Percy was conciliatory. The Archbishop of York later warned that the Church needed to learn how “to disagree Christianly”.

The college tried to convince Percy to leave voluntarily on various occasions — including once, in late 2018, by offering him two years’ salary and free housing. But he declined, telling supporters that he wanted a fair hearing. Some governing body members speculated that, having made so many enemies within the Church, Percy would struggle to find other employment. “His enemies misjudged him,” says one supporter. “They thought all it takes is for a small group to manipulate the governing body.”

Legally, Percy’s opponents had a problem. Like other cathedrals, Christ Church imposed no term limit on the deanship. The college merely set a retirement age of 70. Percy, now 57, could serve until 2032.

The college statutes offered limited legal routes for ousting the dean. Many other colleges had a relatively low bar for misconduct, such as “wilful disruption of the activities of the College”. At Christ Church, the bar was much higher: “conduct of an immoral, scandalous or disgraceful nature” or “failure or persistent refusal or neglect or inability to perform” duties. (Academics had once welcomed this high bar, because it also ensured their own tenure.)

Nonetheless, seven members of Christ Church’s governing body issued a formal complaint in September 2018, accusing the dean of, among other things, having been “economical with the truth”. The governing body voted to suspend Percy ahead of a formal tribunal. His critics felt immediate relief. “It’s not a poisonous place with people conspiring — it is a really nice college, and it’s been really nice without him here,” said one fellow at the time.

Percy’s supporters were furious. They thought the allegation of “immoral, scandalous or disgraceful” conduct would lead outsiders to conclude he was being accused of sexual offences or theft (which he was not). They raised more than £80,000 in online crowdfunding for the legal fight. Percy’s lawyers gained access to emails that, they claimed, showed a conspiracy of fellows against him. They filed an employment claim against Christ Church.

Christ Church received legal advice from specialist charity solicitors and a leading barrister. Proving the dean had committed “immoral, scandalous or disgraceful” behaviour — or a “persistent inability” to perform his duties — always seemed tough. Some fellows warned legal action would be high-risk, as well as expensive. Sure enough, in August 2019, a retired High Court judge ruled in the dean’s favour.

Although the judgment has not been made public, people familiar with its contents said the allegations against the dean “fell far short” of those required to remove him. The retired judge, Sir Andrew Smith, did find that the dean had breached fiduciary duty, by using the college’s money to take legal advice about changing the salaries board. Christ Church told the FT that the judge had not criticised the college for bringing the complaint.

The dean’s supporters interpreted the ruling as an exoneration. They want the full judgment, including about 50 pages of appendices with email correspondence, to be made available to the governing body. The former Tory MP Jonathan Aitken, an alumnus, has led a letter-writing campaign in support. The college has stalled, arguing that, if distributed, the appendices will create further havoc. One of Percy’s supporters concedes that publishing the appendices would embarrass the dean’s critics and would potentially mean some would leave Christ Church.

Having won legally, Percy appeared in no mood to make peace. On one occasion, he told the governing body that he had evidence of a “secret campaign” to remove him from office that dated back to late 2017, before the pay dispute escalated. He called for a new inquiry to examine the events that led to the tribunal, stating that otherwise it “will not be possible” to move on from this episode.

He also called for several insiders to face scrutiny: a group of ex-censors, the seven individuals who lodged the original complaint against the dean, and “certain other individuals”. He suggested the college could look to recoup its legal costs — which some observers interpret as a threat to make individual fellows repay tens of thousands of pounds. Percy himself has incurred hefty costs, having run up legal bills of up to £400,000, according to some supporters. “He has come back in a really vengeful way,” said one governing body member. “This ghastly situation is destroying the college.”

At least three academics are on long-term sick leave amid the continuing conflict, according to insiders. Percy himself has told college authorities that he was unwilling to attend meetings where certain governing body members are present. Other academics have broken down in tears when discussing the dispute and are examining job opportunities at other universities. Mealtimes in Christ Church have become a tense affair, with academic and clerical staff closely watching who sits with whom for clues on where their loyalties lie. “I go around hoping I won’t meet some people,” says one player in the dispute. “If I meet them, we stare straight ahead so we don’t look at one another.”

Meanwhile, the college has referred one of the dean’s emails to the Information Commissioner, the UK data regulator, because it allegedly contained confidential data about college staff.

There is one mechanism that could put an end to the feud — calling for the intervention of Christ Church’s ultimate authority: the Visitor. But, in another unfortunate piece of heritage, the Visitor is the Queen, whom nobody wants to involve. “The atom bomb is the Visitor,” said one Christ Church insider. “But that involves inviting an unknown force into your lair and asking them not to bite you.”

Things can always get worse. In September, a meeting of Christ Church’s governing body descended into fury, after the canons said that they had obtained independent legal advice, which called for the appendices to be published. After the meeting, college officials told the canons that their actions were putting the joint foundation — the unique combination of college and cathedral — at risk. The dean, because of his ongoing employment claim against the college, is also blocked from chairing the governing body.

Percy sees himself as a moderniser; the irony, says one of his opponents, is the modernisation will be “snuffing out the last gasps of ecclesiastical power”. Splitting the college from the cathedral would solve several headaches. But it would create one big one: who would get the endowment, now worth £550m?

On the issue of safeguarding raised by the 2016 student case, the Charity Commission says that it has given Christ Church advice, which the trustees were following. It has also asked the college to conduct a review of its governance, saying: “While the trustees in this case appear to have followed the charity’s rules, the large sums reportedly spent on the tribunal are of concern to us.”

Christ Church says it cannot comment in detail, including on “inaccurate and misleading” reports, while the governance review is ongoing. It does plan to use the review to update its statutes, which were based on Oxford university’s 2011 model statutes. (Modernity has always seemed to arrive late to the college: it was among the last three colleges to admit woman undergraduates, in 1980. In a less fragmented university, perhaps modernity would arrive sooner.)

Because of Oxford’s collegiate set-up — which its chancellor Chris Patten has likened to the “Austro-Hungarian empire” — there is little the central university can do to influence events. For many people, the autonomous college remains Oxford’s strength — allowing academics to feel ownership, and for different models to develop. “The university isn’t the best in the world by accident,” says Will Hutton, principal of Hertford College.

But others see the need for change. Much of Christ Church’s dealings with the dean were handled by the censors. Other colleges have handed power to professional managers. “The amateur approach — that you can always take one’s administrators from a small pool of academics — is just nonsense,” says one head of house.

To the outside world, heading an Oxbridge college has seemed a plum role. In reality, Percy is far from the first head of house to believe his governing body is unwelcoming and ungrateful, and expects the head to do more entertaining than decision-making. Perhaps one impact of the Christ Church debacle will be to convince some would-be applicants that the roles simply aren’t worth the hassle — whatever the salary.

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Letters in response to this article:

Chaucer could give dean a sense of perspective / From Brian Martin, Oxford, UK

A medieval maelstrom of mean-spiritedness / From Valerie Elson, Deputy Headteacher, St Edmund Arrowsmith Catholic High School, Ashton-in-Makerfield, Wigan, UK

How did £1.6m of college’s assets come to be wasted? / From Paul L Davies, Emeritus Professor of Corporate Law, University of Oxford, UK

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