Tag Archives: David Flanagan

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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Murdoch University Chancellor reveals allegations against senior staff

David Flanagan, Chancellor of Murdoch University, has provided a broad outline of the allegations against up to four senior officers of the University during a radio interview this morning with the ABC 720 (Perth).

Mr Flanagan says that the allegations relate to evidence of: misleading and deceiving the CCC (presumably by Professor Higgott, but Mr Flanagan would not say); significant conflicts of interest and a lack of proper process around key staff appointments; the destruction of documents under the State Records Act and the Freedom of Information Act; anomalies in relation to credit card use; evidence of excessive termination payments in relation to senior staff; and bullying of staff members.

He pointed out that this was not a full and comprehensive list, and at this stage, these allegations are based on the evidence gathered so far, and are not conclusively proven. He remarked that each allegation on its own passed the test of being “serious”, and that together they are “very serious”.

He noted that the University had to seek consent from the CCC on the grounds of public interest to speak publicly about these allegations.

Mr Flanagan revealed that the CCC had asked the previous Chancellor (Mr Terry Budge) on 12 December 2011 to look into a matter referred to it, which Mr Budge responded to. Then Mr Flanagan was himself approached on 29 January 2014 by the CCC in relation to certain matters and initiated an internal investigation. “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.”

Mr Flanagan said that investigation of those matters brought more serious issues to light. “But that ended up to being almost becoming a bit secondary, because while we were looking into those matters, we stumbled across a couple of others, which were new.”

The ‘internal’ investigation was carried out by Squire Patton Boggs, before being handed over to KPMG. By mid-September, Mr Flanagan submitted the findings from the investigations to the University Senate, which he chairs. The report was duly handed over to the CCC. The CCC decided to commence a formal investigation of the matters in collaboration with the University.

Mr Flanagan drew attention to the personal campaign against him, but emphasised that he had a legal responsibility to investigate the matters once he was requested by the CCC, and Senate had a legal responsibility to report the results of those investigations to the CCC. He also emphasised the importance of accountability in University matters, given that the institution is funded through tax-payers’ money and must uphold a reputation for its staff and students.

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Provost Capling under investigation as cracks widen at Murdoch University

Murdoch University has confirmed that Provost Ann Capling and other staff members are included in the probe being overseen by the Corruption and Crime Commission (CCC).

Provost Capling is the second most senior officer at Murdoch University, having been elevated to her position by previous Vice Chancellor (VC) Richard Higgott. Professor Higgott resigned in October after becoming the centre of a CCC probe requested by Chancellor David Flanagan.

The allegations against Provost Capling have not been revealed, but a university spokesperson said that she was consulting legal advice and had taken leave to respond to a list of written allegations that have been put to her.

The University’s group of ten Deans came out in strong support of Provost Capling over one week ago in response to what it labelled “a scurrilous attack on our Provost Ann Capling reported in the press”. They were responding to an article in The Australian on October 29 that described a letter sent by 35 academics dubbed the “Murdoch Meta Management Group” (MMMG) to Chancellor Flanagan. The anonymous group had accused VC Higgott and Provost Capling of, amongst other things, being “arrogant, poor listeners who had systematically destroyed the collegiate culture of the university”.

In response, the Deans stated: “We remain enthused about the program of reform and rejuvenation at Murdoch, and feel that the leadership of Ann Capling is pivotal to the success of this process.” In a glowing reference that Provost Capling might consider including on her CV for her next job (which might be sooner rather than later), the Deans added, “We remain impressed and inspired by her leadership and her vision, and look forward to continuing to work with her in leading this institution into the future.”

In separate comments, Dean of the Sir Walter Murdoch School of Public Policy and International Affairs Benjamin Reilly labelled the MMMG as “cowards”. His school had been criticised by the group as the “VC’s hobby” despite “continued poor performance.”

The “unqualified support” by the group of Deans might yet backfire if Provost Capling is found to have engaged in misconduct, as it will raise the question of why they offered unqualified support without waiting for the outcome of the investigation first. Acting Vice Chancellor Andrew Taggart, who was given the care-taker role over more senior colleagues Provost Capling and Deputy Vice Chancellor David Morrison (both appointees of Professor Higgott), did not add his name to the list of supporters for the beleaguered Provost.

The battle lines appear to be forming.

In an opinion piece in The Australian a week ago, Professor Toby Miller confessed to being given one of the “jobs for the boys” by former VC Higgott. He defended the former Vice Chancellor as “a colleague who cared”, and explained away the allegations made by the MMMG as “basically critiques of corporate university life.” He also attacked the “arbitrary, clandestine manner in which the case has been dealt with.”

One might wonder how Professor Miller felt when VC Taggart asked Chancellor Flanagan to cancel an open meeting with staff last week, where the Chancellor had intended to field questions about the spiralling crisis. VC Taggart cited “legal issues involving the ongoing investigation into matters referred to the Corruption and Crime Commission (CCC)” as the reason.

The cracks seem to be widening. We will keep you updated.

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New claims about former Murdoch VC

Apparently an anonymous group of Murdoch University staff members dubbed the “Murdoch Meta Management Group” raised concerns about Professor Richard Higgott’s credit card expenses, treatment of staff and poor management of the University. The claims were made in a letter sent by the Group to University Chancellor David Flanagan, a copy of which was obtained by The Australian.

The Group believed the University to be in “crisis”. Professor Higgott and Provost Ann Capling were described in the letter as “arrogant, poor listeners who had systematically destroyed the collegiate culture of the university” through using “bullying tactics”.

Professor Higgott’s big-spending ways were criticised by the group, with the former Vice Chancellor fond of “expensive flights, meals and hotels”. Professor Higgott was criticised for lack of transparency in appointments, particularly around “jobs for the boys”.

It is believed that these allegations are amongst those being investigated by the Corruption and Crime Commission (CCC). However, it has emerged that a complaint was also made directly to the CCC by a third party about misconduct among senior University staff that preceded the Group’s letter and the current investigation.

More information as it comes to hand.

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Murdoch VC resigns amid investigation of misconduct

Murdoch University’s Vice Chancellor, Richard Higgott, yesterday formally resigned. “It is the right time for me to retire,” Professor Higgott is quoted by the University as saying in a University media statement.  “At 65 I have other activities I wish to pursue, including a large writing programme.”

There was no mention of the controversy that pushed him to resign. However, in an email to University staff, University Chancellor David Flanagan remarked that the past few weeks “have been a difficult time for the University,” referring to “the unfortunate but necessary need to refer matters to the Western Australian Corruption and Crime Commission.” Commenting on Professor Higgott’s resignation, he  acknowledged “the valuable contribution Professor Higgott has made to Murdoch”, and noted the ongoing commitment of the University to move forward with Higgott’s vision to be “a globally recognised research lead institution.”

As to the allegations that were directed at Professor Higgott, these remain a mystery. The CCC today announced that it will be commencing a formal investigation into the allegations.

 

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