Mr Ward hit back after The TES exposed his close links with controversial staff agency Education Lecturing Services (ELS) and a consultancy agreement with a healthcare company. AOC chairman Howard Phelps opened the conference in Harrogate by announcing an independent inquiry into the allegations. Mr Ward said the inquiry "follows a relentless press campaign during which tired allegations about my leadership of the Colleges Employers Forum have been revived and repackaged clearly to coincide with the annual conference of the AOC and to embarrass me accordingly".
It is understood that most board members are backing Mr Ward, but there are concerns that an investigation is needed to "clear the air".
Board member Huw Evans, principal of Llandrillo College, said: "It's the right decision. It's important we are open and transparent. The board is very supportive of Roger Ward and we believe this is the only way forward to prove the situation. "We are all concerned that The TES is being treated like a tabloid paper. It's running all this gossip and rumour which is not what we expect from The TES. The TES should be more serious on policy issues.
"Personally I do not think there is anything to be concerned about but that is why we need this investigation."
Solihull College principal Colin Flint said: "It's in the interests of the sector that allegations that have appeared in the press, particularly The TES, are thoroughly investigated and dealt with appropriately. I think the announcement by Howard Phelps will be welcomed by most people."
Ruth Silver, principal of Lewisham College, said: "The investigation is an appropriate way to handle this. I am looking forward to the findings of this independent report."
But another leading principal, who asked not to be named, said: "A substantial minority are appalled if this proves to be true. Roger Ward should resign but the board has not got the guts to make him go."
A further unnamed principal said: "If my chairman was presented with allegations like this he would suspend me during the inquiry. If they were proved false then I would return vindicated."