Who exactly is the man that students love to hate?

Among left-wing and activist circles at UCL, no name inspires quite as much derision – and venom – as Rex Knight, College’s Vice Provost for Operations. A hangover from the trigger-happy ancien régime of ex-Provost Malcolm Grant, and said by critics to have an unsettling predilection for chewing his fingers, Knight has spent his seven years in post acting as a willing stooge for some of College’s most unpopular decisions.

Though already persona non grata among the hacks, wonks and marchers of UCL Union, the intransigence of the luxuriantly-coiffed brunette, 57, is now helping sustain an already lengthy period of terrible PR for his employers. Knight has grabbed headlines in the national press for his heavy-handed treatment of Pi Media president and upwardly mobile hack Becky Pinnington – who, unlike most members of UCL’s house journal for nothing in particular, had the temerity to want to do some actual reporting – but his scare tactics are nothing new.

Formerly the surprisingly cuddly, Fair-Trade-loving Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Oxford Brookes, Knight arrived at UCL in 2009 a born-again enforcer, and promptly oversaw the sacking of cleaner Juan Carlos Piedra, a tenacious trade unionist and Living Wage campaigner. Knight’s nebulously-defined remit – which includes managing College’s relationship (or lack thereof) with UCLU – amounts in reality to that of management’s bruiser-designate.

Despite College denying that Knight ever threatened to expel Pinnington and other Pi hacks, much of their man’s clout depends on his willingness to deploy, or be perceived as willing to deploy, the nuclear option. During the Union’s 2012 referendum on whether students had confidence in then-Provost Malcolm Grant, Knight told members of its trustee board that a no-confidence vote would “have a significant impact on the relationship, our approach to future investment and our view of the roles and responsibilities of the Union”.

Similarly, in 2014, Union insiders described Knight “going apeshit” and threatening legal action over a Women’s Network exhibition on sexual harassment which had included a student’s allegation of sexual assault against a member of staff (CG 46).

“He’s the guy who can take the hits,” says one management-botherer who has spent more time than most with the un-clubbable Vice Provost. “He takes one for the team and deflects reputational damage from the senior management team as a whole – by being the bad cop he shields Michael Arthur’s goody-two-shoes public image.”

Quite. When College, working in concert with Newham Borough Council, tried and failed to bulldoze a council estate in Stratford and replace it with a glitzy new campus at a cost of £1 billion in 2012 (CG 35), it was Knight, not Malcolm Grant, who gamely faced the indignity of being heckled by its residents at a public meeting. So too with UCL’s current housing imbroglio: it was Knight, not Michael Arthur, whose effigy was burnt at a Rent Strike protest on the Euston Road last week.

The man with the supervillain’s name and undertaker’s smile now looks nowhere near as effective a fixer as he once was – and if rumours of his unpopularity among members of academic staff and the Provost’s unwillingness to lose the war over halls of residence are true, Cut the Rent’s retirement party could prove very prescient indeed.

Featured image credit: Elaine Perks, 2014

This article appeared in CG Issue 53.