$1 million spending spree by former Murdoch senior managers

The Australian newspaper has gained access to the Ernst & Young report into the credit card use by former Murdoch University Vice Chancellor Richard Higgott, revealing that Professor Higgott and his three deputies claimed almost AU$1 million over a two-year period. This amount included an average of $1,800 spent by Higgott per month on private chauffeured vehicles.

The expenditure is somewhat ironic given Professor Higgott’s remarks to The Australian newspaper in July last year. Higgott criticised the University Senate for conducting an internal investigation into his activities “with obvious attendant massive financial cost”.

In a separate report released last year, the Corruption and Crime Commission (CCC), which assisted the internal investigation carried out by the Murdoch University Senate, did not form an opinion on whether Professor Higgott’s credit card expenditure constituted misconduct. It did pointedly remark, however, that Murdoch Universities’ policies on corporate credit card use were “lax”.  The investigation into credit card use by senior Murdoch University management was part of a broader investigation into allegations of misconduct against senior officers. Professor Higgott “retired” in October 2014 following the investigation.

The latest report is amongst documents held by Murdoch University’s Senate that were not made public. The Australian reports that Murdoch University had initially refused to release the report in a Freedom of Information application, but the newspaper was successful in appealing the decision to the Western Australian Information Commission. The newspaper successfully argued that the information was in the public interest, given that Murdoch University receives funding with taxpayer’s money.

Meanwhile, the National Tertiary Education Union is trying to get access to information about current legal expenditure by Murdoch University. Murdoch University has hired attorneys from Seyfarth Shaw, based in the eastern states, to assist in prosecuting its case to the Fair Work Commission to have the Enterprise Agreement terminated. It is also prosecuting the NTEU and two senior officers of the WA State office in the Federal Court for allegedly misrepresenting the University in communications with members, which the NTEU denies.

Senior management has claimed that its application to terminate the Enterprise Agreement is due to the need to renegotiate a new agreement that will enable the University to reduce costs and achieve financial sustainability. The NTEU has criticised the measures proposed by the University in the new Enterprise Agreement as removing important rights and protections for workers.

 

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Taiwan government to set up Office of Research Integrity in wake of NTU scandal

Taiwan’s Ministry of Science and Technology will clamp down on research fraud following a scandal at National Taiwan University (NTU). NTU biology professor Kuo Ming-liang was found to have breached research standards in 11 of 18 published papers that he co-authored. He has since been dismissed by NTU.

The scandal began after participants on PubPeer raised concerns about fabricated data in articles published in Nature Cell Biology and the Journal of Biological Chemistry in 2016, which led to an internal NTU inquiry. The President of NTU, Yang Pan-chyr, was also investigated as part of the case, as he was co-author on some of Ming-liang’s papers. Pan-chyr was cleared of wrongdoing.

The Science Ministry is seeking to recoup NT$1.54 million given to NTU in awards for Ming-liang’s publications. It has also announced it will establish an Office of Research Integrity to enforce research standards for Taiwanese researchers and institutions.

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Japan senior public servants improperly given university positions

An investigation by Japan’s Education Ministry has uncovered over 40 improper appointments given to retired senior public servants from its department at several Japanese universities. In a practice known as amakudari, retired government officials are given plush appointments at businesses and organisations affiliated with government departments.

The practice of amakudari was outlawed in 2007. It is seen to encourage corruption, because it opens government officials to being courted by businesses and organisations in return for the promise of plush post-service appointments.

The investigation was launched after it emerged that senior officers in the education ministry had helped secure a teaching job for a senior retiring bureaucrat at the prestigious Waseda University in Tokyo.

The scandal led to the resignation last month of Kihei Maekawa, the ministry’s administrative vice minister. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has now ordered a government-wide investigation to determine if the practice is widespread in other departments.

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President Park Geun-Hye’s impeachment hearing set to shed light on Ewha Women’s University’s role in the scandal

Ongoing investigations of South Korean President, Park Geun-Hye, promise to shed further light on the role played by prestigious Seoul institution, Ewha Women’s University, in granting favours to the daughter of the President’s confidant, Choi Soon-Sil.

The scandal over Park Geun-Hye, who is now suspended and faces impeachment hearings, was sparked after it emerged in October 2016 that Chung Yoo-Ra, the 20-year-old daughter of Choi Soon-Sil (a close friend of Park Geun-Hye), had been admitted into the university despite not being qualified.

The University cancelled Chung Yoo-Ra’s admission. University President Choi Kyung-hee resigned in October following a student outcry. It led to further allegations that her mother, Choi Soon-Sil, was unofficially advising South Korean President Geun-Hye and receiving payments in exchange for political influence.

Ms Chung, who has been training in Denmark as an equestrian rider (she won a gold medal in group dressage at the 2014 Asian Games), has been arrested for overstaying her visa. South Korean prosecutors are seeking her extradition so that she can answer questions about her enrolment at the University and other special treatment received. Meanwhile a professor at Ewha Women’s University, Ryu Chul-kyun, has been arrested for allegedly arranging someone to take tests for Ms Chung and fixing her grades while she was away in Denmark.

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University of Zululand fake degree scandal

On Monday the Senate at South Africa’s University of Zululand announced that it will launch an internal investigation into the alleged awarding of fake degrees to postgraduate students in return for cash payments at the University’s  expanded campuses in Kwa- Dlangezwa and Richards Bay. The degrees are alleged to have been awarded in law, business management, public administration and education. As many as 4,000 degrees may have been sold in the past 20 years involving an internal investigating officer, an examination official, and possibly other university officials.

Qualification scandals at the University are not new. Five staff members were suspended in 1997 for allegedly accepting bribes of R260,000 for doctoring student records and selling 15 fake degrees. In 2007 80 students were de-registered after allegedly bribing university officials to pass their entrance exams.

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Louisville President James Ramsey finally falls on his sword

After a string of controversies , on Wednesday trustees of University of Louisville accepted the resignation of long-serving President James Ramsey. For 14 years Ramsey oversaw the evolution of the University into a distinguished research institution and top education facility, but his tenure became increasingly marked by complacency around a raft of scandals.

In 2015 the writing was on the wall for Ramsey after several university officials sentences to prison for fraud and embezzlement of more than $7 million in university funds. Further, an investigation was announced by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) into former university basketball coach Andre McGee allegedly paying for strippers and sex for players and recruits. Ramsey personally courted controversy when he was accused of racial insensitivity after posing for a photograph at a university Halloween party wearing stereotypical Mexican garb (he has since issued a public apology). It was enough to convince critics that Ramsey was out of touch with contemporary standards of probity.

Earlier this year, Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin announced that a new board of trustees would be convened and Ramsey would be leaving the University in the near future. Ramsey, who was on a $2.5 million salary, will receive a $690,000 payout. University Provost Neville Pinto will be acting President while the board seeks a new President.

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Former VC hits back at CCC report as Murdoch ship sinks even deeper

Murdoch University appears lost at sea in the face of a tidal wave of controversy. Disgraced former Murdoch University Vice Chancellor Richard Higgott has described the University Senate-based Corruption and Crime Commission (CCC) report as naive and misleading. Meanwhile, Murdoch University continues to attract criticism for its handling of a damning report into the leadership of one of its senior Directors and for its interference in the promotion of a junior staff member, as new details emerge of current senior management not following due process and mishandling investigations, suggesting that little has improved at the troubled university.

In an opinion piece published in today’s Higher Education section of The Australian newspaper, Professor Higgott rejected the CCC’s findings of serious misconduct for the improper appointment of Professor Ann Capling, stating that he was not involved in Professor Capling’s appointment by the selection panel, a fact that he says was omitted in the report (in fact, it flatly contradicts what is said in the report).

Higgott also takes issue with the finding that he had a “close personal relationship” with Professor Capling,  arguing how such a relationship might be defined, why his prior declaration of knowing the candidate was not sufficient, and why the nature of his relationship with a person applying for such a senior appointment should be a factor anyway? He felt the same rationale applies to his appointment of Jon Baldwin.

On the matter of Jon Baldwin’s excessive severance payment, Professor Higgott passes the blame onto Karen Lamont, former Director of Human Resources, who had approved the deal as a way of ensuring a smooth exit for Baldwin and avoiding controversy around the matter. Higgott claims that if he knew he was breaching Senate regulations, he would have handled the matter differently. Ms Lamont resigned from the University in the wake of the fiasco, but her own actions are not fully documented in the CCC report, which is mostly focused on Higgott.

Finally, Professor Higgott sought to clarify that his viewing of adult content on his work laptop occurred after hours, away from the workplace (again, flatly contradicting the CCC report), and, in any event, was a matter that could have been dealt with internally. In fact, Higgott pondered why the matter required an external investigation at all, including referral to the CCC. He remarks, “The affairs of Murdoch raise an issue of why would a university senate choose to investigate its senior officer(s) via external and clandestine, forensic and legal means (with obvious attendant massive financial cost) and little consideration for the inevitable negative consequences for the university.”

Clearly, Higgott feels that he was set up by the Senate, although he restrains himself from squarely pointing the finger at Senate Chair and University Chancellor, David Flanagan, who spearheaded the investigation and whose troubled relationship with Higgott features prominently in the CCC report. (Incidentally Flanagan, who has been busy saving his iron ore company Atlas Iron from receivership, was this week appointed University Chancellor for another three-year term).

While attempting to exonerate himself from blame, Higgott displays an ambivalence, even contempt, towards University regulations, which is what landed him in trouble to start with. Western Australia’s state division secretary of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), Gabe Gooding, has commented on the hypocrisy of Higgott’s behaviour and attitude, stating that Higgott and his deputy, Ann Capling, pursued certain senior staff at Murdoch University ruthlessly on the pretext of only minor breaches of the University’s code of conduct.

In what is likely to cause further turmoil at Murdoch University, Higgott casually remarked, after arguing that prior interaction with senior applicants  is “standard practice”, that the same process surrounding Ann Capling’s appointment also occurred “with all other senior appointments including the other deputy vice-chancellors, the deans and some professors.” The CCC report had noticeably omitted this matter from its report. The Deans, whose contracts will soon expire, may well be feeling nervous as a result of Higgott’s admission.

One wonders how much input the new Murdoch University Vice Chancellor, Eeva Leinonen, had in what got included in the final report and what got omitted (most likely, the evidence submitted to the CCC by the University Senate was already cherry-picked to begin with). An article in The Australian published on Monday noted that the release of the report, which was being held back by the CCC until it had conferred with Professor Leinonen, was “timed for it to garner as little media attention as possible — late on a Friday afternoon the day before a federal election.”

Meanwhile, criticism of Murdoch current senior management’s handling of the Paula Barrow matter continues. Senior management courted controversy by refusing to release the external report after an investigation into Ms Barrow’s leadership of the Marketing, Communications and Advancement Directorate, citing potentially defamatory material within the report as the main reason for not releasing it. Ms Barrow was an appointee under Higgott. It now turns out that the report also contains paraphrased excerpts from the informants who complained about Ms Barrow to the investigator.

Although aggrieved staff members are referred to anonymously in the report (as “Interviewee #1,” “Interviewee #2,” etc), they are in many cases identifiable by context and (it has been claimed) misquoted in some cases.  Given that Ms Barrow was given full access to the report, the question is why did senior management not take steps to redact the staff members’ comments from the report prior to providing her access?

Staff members involved are highly distressed about the matter. They feel they are working under a Director who is aware of who made the complaints directed against her, thanks to the failure of senior management to ensure confidentiality.

In further controversy, the Ombudsman has decided after almost eighteen months on the case not to take action in the matter of senior management’s alleged interference in the promotion application of a junior staff member. Apparently they were advised by Murdoch University Secretary Trudi McGlade that due process was followed in permitting a re-hearing of the application. However, this is disputed by the applicant who asserts that Professor David Morrison (another of Higgott’s appointees) was not provided with the full documentation by then HR Director Karen Lamont and, consequently, dismissed the application due to the missing information.

During the case, the Ombudsman appears to have been reluctant to get involved in the particulars of Murdoch’s promotion policy and procedure, and instead simply took University management at their word that the re-review was conducted above board. This is despite deliberate efforts by University management to avoid making records of the proceedings or permitting an independent observer to be present, despite protests from the NTEU. It is noteworthy that Ms McGlade was one of those accused of being party to the improper interference with the application to begin with, raising questions about a conflict of interest and whether the Ombudsman has been misled.

The suggestion that the Western Australian CCC and the Ombudsman are deferring to the advice of Murdoch University senior management and are being led – even misled – on various matters is concerning but not all that surprising, given those agencies’ ill-informed understanding of university affairs and their lack of resources (and/or interest) to investigate such matters themselves. Hopes that Murdoch University’s own Senate might continue to perform the role of watchdog, as it did in the case of Higgott, might also be under threat due to current initiatives by the Western Australian government to reduce the number of freely elected representatives to the Senate board, who the NTEU warns may in the future be fully appointed by senior management if the government gets its way.

As events at Murdoch University clearly show, more oversight rather than less is needed to ensure transparency and due process are followed. While new VC Eeva Leinonen has promised commitment to “integrity, respect and professional conduct” in the wake of the release of the CCC report, it will take more than aspirational statements to right the Murdoch ship.

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CCC report on former Murdoch University VC released

After almost two years since a Corruption and Crime Commission (CCC)-backed investigation commenced into allegations of misconduct against former Murdoch University Vice Chancellor Richard Higgott, the CCC report has been released. Professor Higgott was found to have engaged in one instance of serious misconduct and two instances of lesser misconduct.

The released details read like a Mills and Boon novel, referring to endearing email letters between Higgott (aka, “My Dearest Higgy”) and Provost Ann Capling (aka, “Capling my luv”), betrayal between  Higgott and Murdoch University Chancellor David Flanagan, and climaxing with a dose of steamy sexual smut in the form of Higgott’s downloading habits of adult material.

The CCC found that Professor Higgott engaged in serious misconduct by effectively rigging the appointment process surrounding the Deputy Vice Chancellor (DVC) position awarded to Ann Capling, and in less serious misconduct in misleading Flanagan and the CCC over the appointment and dismissal of DVC Jon Baldwin and for downloading adult material (and subsequently trying to scrub it) in breach of University internet use policy. Matters noted by the CCC but not addressed in its findings were allegations around credit card misuse by Professor Higgott and the destruction of documents.

The CCC states early in the report that “although this report details the conduct of one person, there are wider lessons of governance for universities in Western Australia.” However, while the CCC report emphasises the need for more diligence concerning credit card use, recruitment and communication between University Senate and Management, much of the wider implications of the findings are lost in the melodrama surrounding the juicy details of Higgott’s deceit.

His deceit not only involved misleading Chancellor Flanagan on various matters, in particular the dismissal of Deputy Vice Chancellor Jon Baldwin, but also misleading Sir Nigel Thrift, former Vice Chancellor of the University of Warwick, surrounding the poaching of Jon Baldwin initially. Higgott, who remains Emeritus Professor of International Political Economy at the University of Warwick and has reportedly been based there since his controversial departure from Murdoch University, may well encounter some raised eyebrows around its campus following release of the CCC’s report.

What the CCC report fails to do is reveal details about other matters that occurred during Higgott’s tenure, including the conduct of Ann Capling and Karen Lamont (since resigned) who feature prominently in the report, but more as background characters implicated in the web of deceit spun by Higgott. Questions about the appointment of other senior officers at Murdoch University during Higgott’s tenure, including the Deans that administer the Schools within the University, were not dealt with in the report. There is also no indication of what further action (if any) would be taken, with the CCC seemingly satisfied with Higgott’s dismissal from Murdoch University (which occurred in September 2014) and assurances by current management that its policies have been reviewed and revised in the interim.

Suspicion that the CCC investigation would seek to be little more than a scapegoating exercise designed to dismiss what is but one of many failings in Murdoch University’s chequered  management history might only harden with the release of the report. Clearly, the CCC report has chosen to focus on only a few matters and only one individual among those initially referred to it by Chancellor Flanagan. Unfortunately the more extant matters covered in the Price Waterhouse & Cooper and KPMG reports submitted to Chancellor Flanagan and which formed the basis for the CCC’s findings are unlikely to see the light of day.

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University scandals take center-stage in U.S. election politics

With Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton having seen off their respective challengers in the US primaries and now set to go head-to-head for the run to the Oval Office, both are involved in scandals involving for-profit universities (or in the case of Trump, an institution posing as a university).

Donald Trump’s troubles center on a suite of lawsuits currently being made against defunct Trump University, which is accused of operating without a business license in New York State (where Trump University was not registered as a university institution) and of defrauding students. The fraud charges are class actions alleging that Trump University promised one-to-one mentoring and instruction in investment techniques that were not adequately delivered. A judge who permitted one of the class actions to proceed, U.S. District Judge Gonzalo P. Curiel, was criticised by Trump during campaign speeches as a “hater” and referred to as “Mexican” and “Spanish” (although Curiel is in actuality US-born).

Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton has run into her own problems, as it has emerged that $55 million was sent by her State Department to groups overseen by Douglas Becker — a major donor to Clinton campaigns and the Clinton Foundation, and also founder of Laureate International Universities, which paid Bill Clinton $16.5 million to serve as honorary chancellor between 2010-2014.

Given the questions being asked about both candidates’ association with for-profit educational institutions, it will be interesting to see whether the candidates use the controversies as political ammunition against one another, or decide that burying the issues is in both their interests.

 

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Murdoch University’s Sergeant Schultz strategy of ‘I see nothing’ response to damning report

Murdoch University has a new vice chancellor, but its lack of transparency over investigations into management continues an old trend, and the troubled University does not seem to have yet found a recipe for avoiding controversy. An investigation into the management of the Marketing, Communications and Advancement Directorate (formerly known as the Development and Communications Directorate), conducted by INVision Investigations and Consulting, was apparently too defamatory to be published by senior management, who opted instead to release a summary of the key findings and a cursory outline of management’s response to its recommendations in an email to staff.

The investigation followed the lodging of a grievance by the Western Australian division of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) in 2015 against the Directorate’s manager, Paula Barrow. It was signed by 22 staff working within the Directorate. The Directorate includes the Media Crisis Management Team, which had the rather unenviable task of handling the public relations disaster that resulted from the resignations of former vice chancellor, Richard Higgott, and the Provost, Ann Capling, under allegations of bullying and the mishandling of appointments, expenses and university records.

Andrew Taggart, acting Vice Chancellor when the grievance was lodged and now Provost, has sought to water down the investigation’s findings. He remarked about Ms Barrow’s conduct: “engagement with staff was not her first priority in the early months of her tenure,” but that she has since begun communicating with staff more positively, including accepting guidance from an “external mentor”. He applauded her “commitment to Murdoch”.

As for criticisms of senior management’s handling of the matter, Andrew Taggart admitted to a “failure to provide new leadership” and that its “collective response was inadequate”, but stopped short of carrying out any disciplinary action. Instead, Andrew Taggart viewed the matter as an opportunity to “learn from this process and to create a more positive working environment for all parties”.

One staff member involved in lodging the grievance wrote to Campus Watch to express their profound disappointment with management’s response to the investigation, and was particularly critical of Andrew Taggart’s refusal to release the report. They commented:

“The university is refusing to release the report despite assurances at the outset that full disclosure would be allowed.  It was under this assurance that many people chose to participate in the investigation in thinking it would result in an open and honest process.”

They also expressed criticism of the new Vice Chancellor, Eeva Leinonen, for accepting that “a senior manager is required to undertake training and mentoring in order to perform a job she has now been in for more than 15 months and at an exceptionally high pay rate”, and for overlooking the conduct of other senior members of the university. The perception that senior management is fundamentally interested in protecting its own ranks rather than the welfare of staff was the overriding sentiment.

Meanwhile, questions still surround Andrew Taggart’s own involvement in the promotion fiasco reported earlier by Campus Watch, although it can be confirmed that the affected staff member did receive a fresh hearing of their promotion application, which was undertaken in 2004 by former Higgott appointee, Professor David Morrison, DVC of Research. Unfortunately it appears the Committee was not provided with the full documentation by Karen Lamont (who soon after resigned under controversial circumstances), and it was summarily dismissed by the Committee for failing to accord with new guidelines that, as it turns out, were not in place when the application was submitted in 2012 and which, at any rate, were addressed by the applicant in supplementary documentation that was withheld from the Committee.

The NTEU had earlier protested David Morrison’s involvement in the re-examination committee as constituting a potential bias, as he was privy to the dispute that had engulfed senior management in the lead-up to the re-examination, and he was also at the time a direct subordinate of Ann Capling, whose handling of the original application had been heavily criticised and University management was keen to defend.

The NTEU had also requested that an independent observer be present at the re-examination in light of management’s decision to prohibit any note-taking (former Provost Ann Capling had directed staff to avoid keeping records of proceedings after embarassing notes from the earlier examination that she chaired were leaked). Senior management rejected the NTEU’s protests, and permitted Professor Morrison to carry out the re-examination behind closed-doors to the frustration of the NTEU.

University management has denied any improper handling of the re-examination, but its defense of the way the re-examination was handled is under serious question, and so too are the events that led to the re-examination to be necessary, where so far the key perpetrators – allegedly including Andrew Taggart – have avoided disciplinary action. The matter appears to be far from over.

As for the Corruption and Crime Commission’s (CCC) investigation into the conduct of former management, not a peep has been heard. Nearly two years after the joint internal/CCC investigation was launched, no signs of the report are forthcoming, and the CCC has its lips firmly sealed on the matter, as does the University. There is a possibility that the final report will only be made available to senior University management, who are also sitting on the investigation report authored by KPMG that was submitted to the CCC in 2014. If so, the investigation might end up the same way as other investigations involving Murdoch University have turned out – the report being withheld for the purpose of protecting senior management from further embarrassment.

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