Townsend Presidency marred by “serious concerns”

OUSU President, David J. Townsend
OUSU President, David J. Townsend

A damning report published by OUSU’s Scrutiny Committee has highlighted “serious concerns” regarding David J Townsend’s  Presidency, which comes to an end this term.

According to the report Townsend’s conduct has “often been aggressive and rude” and notes that the Sabbatical team have raised concerns about “the way [Townsend] conducts himself with respect to them..”

It is also revealed that this has caused “a great deal of tension and stress for the team.”

These tensions are blamed for wasting the “valuable time of the Sabbatical Officers” as they have tried to “manage these tensions…as well as keeping these tensions from affecting the work of the Part Time Executive.”

A statement from the sabatical officers simply read: “We agree that we voiced the specific concerns in the scrutiny report.”

Responding to these allegations, Townsend, said: “‘[T]he President is always going to be in the tense position of trying to keep the Student Union genuinely student-led while it is partially staff-run.”

“I refute absolutely the suggestion of agression and rudeness, which is in my view unfair, unevidenced and inaccurate,” he added.

Some doubt was also expressed about whether the level of authority exerted by Townsend was appropriate in his role. It was reported that Sabbatical Officers complained that David “considers himself to have more authority than them, and therefore does not sufficiently respect their opinions or portfolios.

This is despite the Committee’s understanding that the appropriate remit of the President, as accepted by the student trustee board, is that of ‘‘first among equals” – legally and publicly the lead in OUSU, but in all other respects one of a team of equal Sabbatical Officers with different portfolios.” They suggested that it should not be the case that the President is “in some way ‘above’ the other sabbatical officers.”

Confusion was further expressed about what Townsend had achieved in his year as President, with fellow Sabbatical Officers “unsure what outcomes and achievements David has made in his projects over the course of the year”. They also noted “that a lot of his work appears to have been delegated.”

This is not the first time that the Scrutiny Committee has raised some of these issues, and in Michaelmas, the Committee raised in their termly report that “it seems that some clarification is needed on the relation of the role of President to that of other Sabbatical Officers.” They clarified that: “Historically, all Sabbatical Officers are considered to be equal, with equal say on matters affecting all of them.”

Recognising this issue, Townsend said: “[T]here has been, for several years, a lingering question over whether there is a hierarchical or flat authority structure between the President and the Vice-Presidents” and that recgonising this  “difficult issue” he has tried to follow the constitutional rules of OUSU.

“The only reading they admit is that there are certain exclusive powers conveyed on the President.  Whether I like it or not, this is just the way that the rules are…”said Townsend, although he added: ” I’ve tried to avoid exercising hierarchical authority in all but emergency situations….

“I’d never claim to be perfect at this, but I can claim to have approached a difficult question of several years’ standing with openness, honesty and willingness to learn.”

The Scrutiny reports are produced termly to “ensure [OUSU’s] accountability to the student at Oxford”,  and this term’s reports were presented publicly at OUSU Council yesterday evening.

Despite this criticism from the Sabbatical Officers however, the report conlcluded that the general impression of the Part Time Executive Officers “is that David Townsend has done a good job, provided a good public face to OUSU,” and that he has “helped amake OUSU appear more accessible and approachable.”

A former member of Scrutiny Committee commenting on the report’s findings, explained that the puporse of the scrutiny committee is to maintain transparency regarding OUSU.

However he also emphasised the importance of considering how the report was compiled, saying:”It is important to bear in mind that it can be very difficult to judge someone’s performance externally, and I think we have to bear in mind that this was probably gleaned from a few interviews. Not to say that it has no merit, but just keep it in perspective.”