Aitchison College's Principal Resigns Citing 'Political Interference'

Federal minister at the centre of controversy denies accusations of seeking preferential treatment, pressuring prestigious school into waiving fees for his children who had moved to another city

Aitchison College's Principal Resigns Citing 'Political Interference'

Michael A. Thomson, the principal of the prestigious Aitchison College in Lahore, resigned on Monday, citing interference and "blatant policy manufacturing to accommodate certain individuals" who sought "preferential treatment" to grant long leave to the children of a federal minister and to waive their fees for this period. 

The federal minister at the centre of the controversy has come out to deny the allegations, noting that the principal refused to implement the lawful policy decisions of the college's board on the matter.

Thomson wrote a letter to the Aitchison College staff on Monday using the official stationery of the educational institution, announcing his intent to depart not only from the college but also from Pakistan.

Thomson began his letter by saying, "This is not how I planned to leave Aitchison, but I will share with you that a continuation of very poor governance has left me no other choice."

He said that during his eight years leading the college, he had done his best to protect the school's reputation while extending compassion to those in need.

"However, there is a crucial difference between this pursuit and blatant policy manufacturing to accommodate certain individuals because such people simply insist on preferential treatment," he said, adding, "Politics and nepotism have no place in schools."

Thomson explained that over the past year, the "Governor House's prejudiced actions" had contributed to a breakdown of governance and management at the college, "under which I had to finally draw a line."

"It seems incredulous to me, and quite possibly to most other people, that a school so successful can be subjected to such unwarranted interference and brazen directives," he said, before adding that "A well-intentioned foreigner does not venture to another country with less than pure intent, and nor should that person act in any way to encourage or facilitate what he considers to be wrong."

Thomson announced that he would leave the college on April 1 and will not play any role in the management of upcoming admissions sessions nor attend the G30 summit in the UK.

The conflict
In his resignation letter to the college's management committee, Thomson said that the main contention was granting long leave to two children of Federal Minister Ahad Cheema. The two children were studying in Aitchison College but were then relocated temporarily after Cheema's assignments were moved to the federal capital. Cheema urged the principal to waive the requirement to deposit the full fees of the two students for the period for which their seats need to be reserved.

The principal denied Cheema's initial requests. Cheema's wife then raised the matter with the college's Board, headed by the Punjab Governor Balighur Rehman, who ruled in her favour. Thomson, though, allegedly refused to implement the Board's decision.

In his letter dated March 23, 2024, Thomson writes that he received a letter from the 'Government House' (Balighur Rehman) late on March 22, which "effectively exonerates Mr and Mrs Cheema from paying a tuition fee under college policy for a guaranteed place after a long leave, and all future parents' requests to a maximum of three years' leave."

Thomson argued that this was a "terrible decision," claiming that Cheema was a bad debtor and that it was "a wrong perpetrated on a larger scale to suit a smaller outcome."

Thomson said that the move will be detrimental to the college. They will have to reserve seats for students in two classes without being able to recover the cost of those seats for an extended period.

He warned, "The damage to the school will be considerable as this decision plays out and the new rule is taken advantage of by parents."

"As I refuse to accept this decision, and in consequence of writing previously at length to Syed Babar Ai concerning the breakdown in Governance and Management over the past year, and particularly as per the last recorded Minutes based on a pre-meditated manipulation of my letter to Governor House, I shall leave on Saturday April 1st," he stated, adding, "I have also informed the Management Committee via Mian Khalid Rehman that I will not be attending the G30 Conference in the UK late April."

Escalation and controversy 

In a letter dated March 12 to Syed Babar Ali, the chairman of the college's management committee, Thomson claimed that the matter has been ongoing for over a year after Cheema was asked to work with the first Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) government (an order from the governor's office stated that the matter was initiated in June 2022), then with the caretaker government, before being retained as a federal minister in the newly formed coalition government. 

Thomson claimed that Cheema had manipulated a letter he sent to refer the matter to the college's barrister and the Board's management committee. 

"My letter to Mohamad Afzal (Cheema matter) was not a refusal to the Governor, but a clear referral of the entire Cheema issue to both the College Barrister and the Board Management Committee," he said, adding that Afzal allegedly "lifted" one sentence from a crucial paragraph and manipulated its intent."

He expressed shock when neither the college barrister nor the management committee dealt with the matter "properly".

Having been accused of acting unlawfully by Mrs Cheema, Thomson said he decided to step aside and "allow objective third parties to handle what was a legal matter."

He reiterated his innocence, noting that he acted in accordance with the college's policy on the matter. "The college barrister agreed with my decision. He agreed to take the matter up with the Government House."

Thomson remarked that Ahad Cheema is a bad debtor and that this issue had been raised before the management committee. 

However, the Aitchison Principal expressed his dismay when the Board condemned his letter, accused him of acting inappropriately towards the Governor, and suggested that he offer an explanation to a review committee. 

Thomson said the government suddenly demanded to audit his leaves for the past eight years. "Presumably, this was designed to undermine my credibility further after two times in eight years not 'requesting leave' in the proper manner," Thomson claimed, adding that the audit was "akin to a vote on my tenure."

"It is since clear to me that the board failed in its duty to read my appended letter and thus observe the redacted paragraph manipulated by Mr Afzal," he said, adding that the review committee set up realised the Board's error within five minutes. 

Thomson, however, said that the "entire issue arose from the reprehensible, biased, and defamatory actions of one Government official."

"My Board acted against me on baseless grounds, and, resultantly, elemental trust has been lost. Poor communication lies at the heart of these destructive matters," he wrote.

Thomson also accused the selection committee of proving to be unqualified to manage an appropriate executive search for Aitchison by hiring a "second-rate consultancy" whose chief consultant has never taught while the material produced for the college was "woeful, misleading, poorly expressed, and unlikely to attract top international candidates", and that at the very least the committee could have asked him to write the required summary or proof it.

Further, Thomson said his post was advertised without his knowledge. He went on to claim he was "disrespectfully treated" by the Board when it failed to recognise his contribution and resignation.

Thomson claimed that the consultant directly contacted an internal applicant for the job. He argued that this was an "appalling practice. The proper process is to refer internal applicants directly to the committee and review them with the principal's input."

"How would an external consultant know who to contact? This is morale-breaking for staff and creates crabs in a basket," he had said.

Thomson also asked whether the government wanted him to complete the admissions process or let the incoming principal handle it and whether he should attend the G30 moot in the UK to retain Aitchison's membership.


Inn a rebuttal to the principal's accusations, Cheema stated that he had been transferred to Islamabad in June 2022 and applied for a break for his two children from Aitchison College for the duration of his deputation. He argued that being a civil servant dependent on his salary, it was not possible to simultaneously pay the tuition fees for his children at two educational institutions, and hence, they should be waived at the institution where his children will not be spending their time for the stated period.

However, Cheema claimed that the principal conditioned the long leave with payment of the full fee for both students. 

"I applied to the principal and then the governor to make a policy decision regarding students asking for long leave, as payment of fees at two schools was burdensome," he said.

The Governor referred the matter to the Board of governors, who approved the policy of long leave without fee and asked management to finalise modalities.

"The Principal refused to comply with the Board of Governor's direction and did not finalise policy. Behind the scene, principal the  approached us and offered individual relief if she doesn't press the policy matter," Cheema said, adding that the principal struck off the name of one child and gave notice for the other on account of non-payment of dues.

"I again applied to the Governor for implementation of the board's decision. The governor restrained the principal from taking any adverse action," Cheema said, adding, "The Principal defied the Governor's order and terminated the admission of the second child as well."

Cheema said he filed another application with the Governor, citing the principal's complete disobedience of the Board's and the Governor's instructions. 

Governor sought the data of the case under the law, but the principal openly refused, Cheema claimed. 

"When he saw that this would lead to action against him, he provided the record after about two and a half months."

Cheema said that when the management committee and the Board couldn't finalise the matter in two years, the Governor decided to provide interim relief and create a policy of waiving fees for all students for the duration of their long leave.

Cheema further noted that the principal's tenure had come to an end and that he had already indicated his intention to leave. Hence, his post was advertised, and a selection committee was set up to search for a replacement.