As Murdoch University (Perth, Australia) seeks to appoint a new Vice Chancellor after the resignation of Richard Higgott in October 2014 on allegations of misconduct, the university finds itself unable to extricate itself from ongoing controversy.
The Western Australian branch of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) has announced an external investigation into bullying complaints against the University. Additionally, revelations emerged this week of a complaint against acting Vice Chancellor Andrew Taggart and senior staff members in the former School of Social Sciences and Humanities under Taggart’s supervision.
Taggart is named amongst a trio of senior staff members accused of colluding to undermine the promotion application of a junior academic staff member in 2011-2012. One conspirator, Helena Grehan (now Associate Dean Research in the School of Arts), is alleged to have made misleading claims about the applicant to members of the promotion committee and to Andrew Webster, the dean of the School of Social Sciences and Humanities. Webster then urged Taggart not to support the junior staff member’s promotion in 2011, which Taggart appears to have gone along with.
The trio are accused of thwarting a second attempt by the junior staff member to apply for promotion the following year. The Appeals Committee initially ruled that Taggart and Webster’s reports on the applicant were unsatisfactory and that the application should be reexamined. But questioning of the Committee’s recommendation by Brendan Cusack (Manager of Equal Opportunity and Industrial Relations) and Trudi McGlade (Director of Governance and University Secretary) resulted in the Appeals Committee controversially reversing the decision.
Evidence obtained through Freedom of Information (FOI) also uncovered promotion committee notes that indicated further misleading comments were made by Grehan about the applicant at the lecture promotion committee meeting held in November 2012. Provost Ann Capling, who was chair of that committee, rued the exposure of the notes and proposed that in the future they should be destroyed shortly after meetings, seemingly contravening legal requirements for the university to retain promotion notes for several years. Capling was also accused of selectively withholding documents requested under the FOI application, including the very documents in which she made the remarks, although Capling claims to have previously deleted them to save server space.
The matter ended up with the Corruption and Crime Commission (CCC) after Higgott refused to act on the complaint and suggested the complainant had the option of taking the matter to the Ombudsman. In late 2013 the complainant did just that, but due to the possibility that some of management’s actions might be forms of misconduct, the Ombudsman referred the complainant to the CCC (some aspects of the case not followed up by the CCC have since been referred back to the Ombudsman).
It is not clear if the case was related to the events that followed (as the CCC process is shrouded in secrecy), but it appears that the CCC became aware of a number allegations against senior management around this time. David Flanagan, Murdoch University Chancellor (and Managing Director of struggling iron ore company Atlas Iron), has reported that he was contacted by the CCC in January 2014 to look into allegations against senior management. Flanagan later told a Perth radio station: “We went in looking at matters that the CCC asked us to, which I was expecting to be completely resolved. They weren’t. So they were genuine matters which needed to be addressed.”
Unrelated to the case, Flanagan received a petition from a group dubbed the “Murdoch Meta Management Group”, an anonymous group of 35 university staff members disillusioned with the management style of the senior leadership, which led Flanagan to extend his investigation to broader allegations. Flanagan has said that the initial matters “ended up becoming a bit secondary, because while we were looking into those matters, we stumbled across a couple of others, which were new.”
Flanagan has revealed that his investigation, undertaken initially by Price Waterhouse & Cooper before taken over by KPMG, uncovered serious problems among senior management related to rigging appointments, mishandling university records, mismanagement of university expenses, bullying, excessive redundancy packages, and misleading the CCC. Critics of Flanagan have suggested that there was a clash of personalities between Higgott and himself, and that Flanagan was trying to find a way to remove Higgott. Flanagan stated that he felt he had a good working relationship with Higgott and supported his strategy for the university, but the CCC’s request to look into certain matters gave him little alternative other than to carry out an internal investigation.
By September 2014 the writing was on the wall for Higgott. He was suspended by the University Senate (chaired by Flanagan) pending the outcome of the investigation into his activities as well as three other senior staff members, thought to include Provost Ann Capling and Human Resources Director Karen Lamont (nee Cooper). Higgott resigned in October, followed by Lamont and Capling in the following months. Andrew Taggart was chosen to serve as interim Vice Chancellor.
Despite the departure of the core senior leadership group, it appears that the interim management under Taggart has done very little to address the culture of bullying and questionable conduct by senior officers at the university. The WA office of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) announced last week an investigation into alleged bullying and staff mismanagement within the Development and Communications directorate at Murdoch University. The external investigation follows senior management’s alleged inaction in dealing with several complaints. Murdoch NTEU branch president Anne Price said that “some quarters” within Murdoch University management have downplayed the significance of the complaints and hindered redressing the problems.
Meanwhile, the CCC’s investigation into the allegations against former management has not yet been concluded, but a report is believed to be due within the next few months. The appointment of a new Vice Chancellor, which is expected to be finalised in December, cannot come soon enough for the university.
Apart from a strategy to deal with the university’s deepening financial woes, the new Vice Chancellor will want to act decisively to clean up the university’s troubled management culture in order to avoid ongoing controversy. By the sound of it, the incoming Vice Chancellor will have their work cut out for them.