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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