University College London, just confirmed as sponsor of a planned academy in Camden, was chosen as the venue for the launch of a prospectus aimed at encouraging other institutions to follow its lead.
But as guests arrived they were met by angry UCL staff who oppose the sponsorship of an "elitist" academy and believe it will damage existing links with schools.
Sean Wallace, UCL branch secretary of the University and College Union, warned of possible industrial action if his members were pressured to take part.
He said UCL had sold its sponsorship to Camden Council on the strength of the expertise of staff who had not been properly consulted.
"It is important that staff reach out to schools," he said. "But the way this is being done could poison the atmosphere between them."
Ministers want all secondary schools to have a partnership with a higher education institution as a means of widening participation in higher education. Pupils could have student mentors and teachers could benefit from university department training.
They believe sponsorship of academies is a way to build links with deprived communities and have dropped the requirement for universities to provide Pounds 2 million to get involved.
But Lord Adonis, schools minister, admitted that with more than 3,000 secondary schools and around 130 universities, progress towards the Government's target could be slow.
Malcolm Grant, UCL provost, said he was aware of concerns that by sponsoring the academy UCL would give it an unfair advantage.
"That should not be a reason to suppress the university's ambition," he said. "That should be a reason for ensuring that the excellence it has established in that school is spread throughout the borough."